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Secret Shopper Scams

Scam:   Scammers defraud aspiring 'secret' or 'mystery' shoppers.

Origins:   Employment frauds typically prey upon the gullible or the desperate whose burning desire to secure lucrative work blinds them to the scams about to be run on them. Generally, the promise of easy-to-perform labor that pays very well is held out to those disadvantaged in their search for employment by their lack of relevant job experience or education and so appears to be the answer to their prayers. Because the need to believe in such fairytale careers runs so strong, ordinary skepticism is temporarily set aside by those bedazzled by such false promises, and that little nagging "You know better than to be taken in by this" voice is silenced, thereby leaving job seekers vulnerable to being fleeced.

A common form of the employment swindle is that of the fraudulent secret shopper job posting. Such ads tout the ease of the work, the short hours, and the money to be made from merely visiting stores each day to make purchases, even as they stress that no special training or educational background is required of prospective hires. According to such come-ons, successful applicants will be working on behalf of a variety of retailers and manufacturers of consumer products who are interested in knowing more about how products are displayed and marketed in stores and how customers are treated in such establishments. Those hired by such agencies will spend their days effecting specific purchases at specific retailers, afterwards turning in reports about their experiences and collecting fat paychecks for their troubles.

There are bona fide "secret shopper" jobs to be had, which makes telling sheep from goats regarding which of such job postings are real and which are but the opening gambits of frauds not always a straightforward and simple matter. The real and the fraudulent can be well mixed together at times, with both sorts advertised on the Internet and in newspapers. There is therefore no protection to be had from the presumption that an ad which actually appeared on the pages of a newspaper leads to a real job rather than to a vacuuming of one's pockets, nor is there certainty in the assumption that that which is advertised in cyberspace is necessarily a con.

The Federal Trade Commission offers valuable advice about becoming a "mystery shopper," including ways to tell the genuine from the attempts to defraud. In a nutshell:
The truth is that it is unnecessary to pay money to anyone to get into the mystery shopper business. The shopping certification offered in advertising or unsolicited email is almost always worthless. A list of companies that hire mystery shoppers is available for free; and legitimate mystery shopper jobs are on the Internet for free. Consumers who try to get a refund from promoters of mystery shopping jobs usually are out of luck. Either the business doesn’t return the phone calls, or if it does, it’s to try another pitch.
Sometimes such come-ons extend the offer of a money-back guarantee; that is, the promise that those unsatisfied with whatever they paid to work for their "employers" would get their money returned upon demand. Disregard such promises: they are worth nothing and offer no protection. They are included only for the
purpose of stilling that "Too good to be true" voice whispering in the background, that skeptical sixth sense of something's not being quite right about the deal.

Were protecting oneself from falling victim to "mystery shopper" scams merely a matter of keeping in mind the axiom that if you are asked to pay for the privilege of working (which is sometimes presented as your needing to purchase training materials or obtain certification or register with a database of available mystery shoppers), you are probably being conned, avoiding being victimized in this fashion would be a relatively simple matter: all one would need to remember is, "If they want me to pay them, it's a scam." And that would be that.

However, swindlers have adapted the "mystery shopper" pitch so as to meld it with two other scams and thus have created a new creature one needs be wary of. Both 2004's "reshipper" and 2002's "cashier's check" cons have been reworked into "secret shopper" pitches.

Here's how the updated swindle works:
My sister received a letter in the mail from a company called The Shopping Group. The letter stated that she had been selected as a secret shopper and received a check for $2,900.00. The letter stated she was supposed to go her bank and cash the check and then she would Western Union $2,371.00 to a fake releative of hers in Canada.
Someone who answers a mystery shopper ad is sent an employment packet typically containing a variety of items, including a training assignment and a cashier's check made out for a largish amount, typically a few thousand dollars. The assignment explains that the "shopper" is to pose as an ordinary bank customer (either at a particular named bank or his own), cash the check there, then wire the funds he receives from the teller to an address that has been supplied in the information package. The "shopper" will also typically be told it is imperative he complete the task within two days, or else he will not be paid for his work or hired again.

The pressure put upon him to get the check cashed and the monies from it shipped off within two days works to keep him from discovering that the check he was given was counterfeit. Once this information comes to light (as it eventually does), our hapless "mystery shopper" is left on the hook with the bank for the value of the rubber check. As to how a cashier's check can bounce, as we explain in our article about "cashier's check" frauds, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) requires banks to make money from cashier's, certified, or teller's checks available in one to five days. Consequently, funds from checks that might not be good are often released into payees' accounts or handed to them in cash long before the checks have been honored by their issuing banks. High quality forgeries can be bounced back and forth between banks for weeks before anyone catches on to their being worthless, by which time victims have long since turned over the monies the bank gave them to the con artists who have just taken them for a ride.

In a common version of this scam, the unsuspecting dupe is supplied with a money order bearing a face value of between $2,800 and $3,300 and told to use it at a Wal-Mart to purchase a MoneyGram for the amount of the check less the cost of the wire transfer and the $100 or $200 the mystery shopper is to keep as payment for his services. The wired amount is to be sent to a person in Canada that the sender is to claim is his relative.

This more potent form of the con game is an updated version of the "reshipper" scam. As in the original, the pigeon receives a worthless check from the scam artist, cashes it with a financial institution (in this instance, a money transfer company akin to Western Union), keeps a small portion for himself, and sends the remainder to the crossroader running the con. And as in the original, once the certified or cashier's check bounces, the person cashing it becomes liable for the amount the bank or check-cashing agency is out. The differences lies in the backstory presented to the victim: In the original he is led to believe he has been hired by an overseas firm to facilitate the processing of payments from its U.S. customers, but in the "secret shopper" version he is told he has been hired as a "mystery shopper" and that his first assignment is to test the MoneyGram system to determine how well it performs and how courteously its customers are treated. Although the set-up is different, the underlying scam is the same.

Whereas in the traditional "secret shopper" con, those defrauded by it are out only the value of their payments for goods (training materials) or services (certifications or listings in databases of available secret shoppers) they naively sent off to the scammers who smooth talked them into trying this profession and so limit their losses to only a few hundred dollars, this newer version involving the cashing of checks can leave those who fall for it poorer by thousands of dollars.

Barbara "and once again it's pigeon pie all around" Mikkelson

How to Avoid Falling Victim to 'Secret Shopper' Scams:
  • Remember that anyone can place a newspaper or online ad. Do not confuse the appearance of such solicitations in reputable forums with proof of the offers having been vetted by those publications or job search services.
  • Do not be lulled into a false sense of security by official-sounding corporate names. Some scam artists operate under business names that can be confused with those of long-standing, reputable firms. Others choose impressive-sounding evocative names that roll satisfyingly off the tongue. In both instances, they count on their pigeons being mollified by the sound of the name rather than inspired to research the company on their own.
  • Don't pay a company to hire you, not even if such payment is presented as your buying necessary training materials, obtaining required certification, or registering with databases of available mystery shoppers. Remember, if the process involves your sending your "employers" money, it's probably a scam.
  • Be wary of companies that ask you to disburse money from your own pocket for the goods you buy as their secret shopper. While some legitimate mystery shopper companies do operate in this fashion (with their employees submitting receipts for what they bought along with their reports, then being reimbursed in full), the more prudent aspiring secret shoppers will tread carefully in this regard at least for the first few transactions, rather than plunge in wildly and make large purchases with their own cash.
  • Do not wire money to strangers or to firms that have supposedly hired you. Use entities such as Western Union and MoneyGram only when you know the person who will be receiving your cash very, very well. Remember, that while a charge made against a credit card can be disputed and a check can have a stop-payment order issued against it, once cash is out the door, it is gone forever. Since wiring money is sending cash, treat it that way.
  • If you have questions about the legitimacy of a job listing, contact your Better Business Bureau, your state or local consumer agency, or the Federal Trade Commission.
Last updated:   24 January 2010

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  Sources Sources:
    Harris, Sheryl.   "In Job Hunting There's One Rule: Employers Pay You."
    [Cleveland] Plain Dealer.   14 May 2006   (p. G1).

    Walsh, Lawrence.   "Different Twists on the Ol' Scam."
    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.   21 July 2006   (p. B2).

    Associated Press.   "Fargo Woman Out More Than $6,000 in Scam."
    14 July 2006.

    The Seattle Times.   "How to Spot a Wire Transfer Scam."
    9 April 2006   (p. L6).