The mystery shopping scam that could cost you a fortune.
For many years now, thousands of folks have been earning a little extra cash by doing Mystery Shopping (aka Secret Shopping). You probably already know what’s involved, but here’s a quick rundown from the FTC:
Some retailers hire marketing research companies to evaluate the quality of service in their stores; these companies use mystery shoppers to get the information anonymously. They assign a mystery shopper to make a particular purchase in a store or restaurant, for example, and then report on the experience. Typically, the shopper is reimbursed, and can keep the product or service.
Sounds good. And it is, when it’s genuine. Mystery shoppers get to eat for free, try new products (and keep them) at another company’s expense, and basically get paid for doing do what they were going to do anyway. Sweet deal.
However, once again the con artists have found another avenue to practice their trade, and it’s costing people a small fortune.
It’s a combination of employment fraud and a wire-transfer scam. Unfortunately, it preys on people who actually need money the most. Mystery shoppers tend to be folks who need a little extra income to make ends meet, and the promise of good money for little effort is way too tempting. What’s more, as I pointed out earlier, this is a legitimate way to make money. So spotting the real shopping assignments from the fake ones can be tough (more on that later).
You may answer an ad in the newspaper, or get a piece of mail, but the premise is the same. It involves a cashier’s check (warning sign #1) and a simple assignment. You’ll probably receive the check in a very official-looking employment packet, along with instructions on what to do with it. Usually, you’ll cash the check, say for $3000, and then wire the sum of $2600 to an address provided. You will keep the remaining $400 and submit a report on the whole process. Was it good? Did it go smoothly? How was the customer service?
Other versions of the scam ask you to cash the check, use the Western Union service at a local store, such as a WalMart, and then send some of that money to a given address. Again, you keep the difference for yourself.
The “shopper” is also put under extreme pressure to do the whole assignment in 2 days or less, for obvious reasons. And you can guess what happens. The cashier’s check bounces and the mystery shopper is left out of pocket. Sometimes, it can be five-figure damage. You may think "Ha, I'd never fall for that!" Good for you. But hundreds of other people have said the same thing and have also been scammed. These guys look and sound like the real deal, complete with corporate stationery and professional websites.
So, how do you tell the real assignments from the fake?
The FTC has some good advice, listed below, on spotting the real firms from the scam artists. Read it carefully.
First, how to spot real companies:
Search the Internet for mystery shopping companies that are accepting applications. Legitimate companies don’t charge an application fee. Many accept applications online.
Do some homework about mystery shopping. Check libraries or bookstores for tips on how to find companies hiring mystery shoppers, as well as how to do the job effectively.
Visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website at www.mysteryshop.org for information on how to register to be a mystery shopper with a MSPA-member company, a database of available jobs, and additional information on the industry in general.
And be skeptical of mystery shopping promoters who:
Advertise for mystery shoppers in a newspaper’s ‘help wanted’ section or by email. While it may appear as if these companies are hiring mystery shoppers, it’s much more likely that they’re pitching unnecessary — and possibly bogus — mystery shopping “services.”
Sell “certification.” Companies that use mystery shoppers generally do not require certification.
Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.
Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities.
Sell directories of companies that provide mystery shoppers.
I think the best advice I can offer is NEVER accept a cashier’s check from someone you don’t know and trust, and never wire money to strangers. Legitimate mystery shopping companies will never ask you to disburse money from your own checking account, so that should be a warning sign for you.
And of course, the golden rule always applies. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Keep your wits about you folks.
Some helpful links:
Photo by The Stock Exchange