Get Paid to
Shop. Don't Get Taken.
How to avoid
being a victim of secret shopper scams
By Claudia Buck
Who wouldn't want to get paid to go shopping? That's
partly the allure behind "mystery shopper"
scams. While they aren't new, these phony
"we'll-pay-you-to-shop"-type ads sprouted like
online weeds during the recession as job-hungry Americans
hunted for employment.
Law enforcement and some financial institutions say
they're spotting mystery shopping scam attempts, which
involve phony checks deposited into a victim's bank
account, several times a week.
"We've been seeing it pretty frequently since
2005," said Vanessa Oddo, finance loss prevention
manager for SAFE Federal Credit Union in North Highlands,
Calif. She said 200-300 suspect checks get brought in to
SAFE branches every year.
Similarly, the Northeast California Better Business
Bureau office said it gets two or three calls a day from
consumers asking about mystery shopper checks they've
received in the mail.
"Luckily, most people call us beforehand," said
BBB spokeswoman Cailin Peterson in an email. "We get
maybe 10 people a year who have actually cashed the
checks, though who knows how many people just put up with
the loss and move on."
The losses can be anywhere from a few hundred to several
thousand dollars, depending on how much was deposited
into the unsuspecting shopper's bank account.
Legitimate mystery shopping
There are plenty of legitimate mystery shopping
companies, which hire individuals to drop in unannounced
at retailers, hotels, fast food outlets, restaurants and
other businesses to secretly evaluate customer service.
But the fraudulent kind typically operate as fake check
scams. Making contact by mail, email or phone, a
fraudster posing as a mystery shopping company
"hires" an unsuspecting consumer, who is
promised payment after completing a "first
assignment." That assignment often involves sending
a phony check to the consumer's home, with instructions
to deposit it in a bank account, keep a small amount as
reimbursement, then wire the remainder to Western Union,
ostensibly to report on the wire company's "customer
Ultimately, the phony check bounces, leaving the victim's
bank account dinged for the total amount, as well as wire
transfer charges and possible bank fees.
"You see more of these during a recession, when
people are searching for jobs or ways to (make) more
money. Scammers plan on that," said Dan Denston,
executive director of the North America Mystery Shopping
Providers Association in Louisville, Ky.
Last spring, the organization, which represents 375
mystery shopping firms nationwide, warned consumers
against being duped by phony check-cashing schemes.
"Fake check scammers have a thousand stories,"
its website warns. "Don't fall for them ... We will
never send you a check and ask you to wire a portion back
to us. Anyone who claims to be (from) MSPA and asks you
to do that is a fraud."
Even legitimate companies that hire mystery shoppers are
not immune from scammers. National Shopping Service in
Rocklin, Calif., said it, too, has been victimized by
scammers who used the company's name in fake check scams.
"The majority of people getting these letters and
falling for the scams were not even our shoppers.
Unfortunately, they got scammed," said Katy Gravatt,
National's operations manager. For consumers who are
careful, there are plenty of genuine mystery shopper jobs
For some, she noted, "It's an opportunity to sustain
their income after being laid off. Some are using it as
income to keep going."
Mystery shoppers in major metropolitan areas,
particularly on the East Coast, can work for several
different providers and make decent money. Gravatt said
one prolific mystery shopper takes assignments in New
York and Florida and makes $3,000-$4,000 a month.
Interested in becoming a secret shopper?
MysteryShoppersAmerica.com can get you started today. We
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companies, youll have plenty of great shopping jobs
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To become a secret shopper, visit our registration page.
You'll learn about our secret shopping companies, what
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