A classic mail scam that started in Ontario is showing up around Calgary.

Victims receive a cheque in the mail and a letter saying that they qualify to be a secret shopper. They are told to spend the cheque, valuing into the thousands of dollars, and send back their report of the store along with $185 of their own money.

"You know, it's incredible that this company that you've never had dealings with is going to trust you with almost $4,000 because should you choose to just keep the money, what recourse do they have if the cheque is real?" said Daniel Williams with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

Gangs steal banking information from real companies and then issue cheques that look authentic. By the time the victim's bank finds out that the cheque is no good, the fraudsters and the victim's $185 are gone.

"I thought I might as well phone the company themselves and find out if it is legitimate," said Sharon Howe, who received a $4,000 cheque from an Ontario company she had never heard of.

It turned out the company hadn't issued the cheque and Howe was able to avoid being scammed for $185.

Victim could be on the hook for thousands

Last year in Canada, more than $16-million was reported lost through large-scale scams like this one, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

The centre received more than 8,000 complaints from Canadians and reported that at least 2,500 people were victims of this kind of fraud.

The scam tends to target people who have been online looking for work, says Williams.

That's consistent with numbers from the centre that suggest job-related mass marketing fraud represents the largest portion of schemes targeting Canadians.

Alberta saw roughly a third of what Ontario did for these types of fraud-related losses last year.

Despite that, it's still important for people to be critical of any offer that seems too good to be true, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says.

Being aware of some of the hallmarks of scams like this can help people identify suspicious situations, Williams said.

Anyone who receives a letter in the mail telling them that they have qualified as a secret shopper and offering a cheque should hand the cheque over to their bank and tell local police.

Spending the fake cheque could result in the victim being held accountable for repaying the money to their bank.