Mystery Shoppers Scams: 7 Ways Crooks Try To Fool You

Find out exactly how to avoid the surge in bogus mystery shoppers schemes: Internet Scambusters #379

Would-be mystery shoppers, anxious to earn some extra part- time cash, face a fresh onslaught from scammers who know how to fool them.

Websites, emails and letters convince victims to pay a fee to get a job or claim that they’re already selected before conning them out of thousands.

In this issue, we explain the techniques scammers use to try to look genuine.

Let’s get started…

Mystery Shoppers Scams: 7 Ways Crooks Try To Fool You

A new alert about mystery shopper scams has been issued by IC3, the multi-agency US group that includes the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The organization — IC3 stands for Internet Crime Complaints Center — fears that the economic downturn is luring thousands of unsuspecting victims into believing they’ve been chosen to become a mystery shopper.

Mystery shoppers, or secret shoppers as they’re sometimes known, are used by retailers and restaurants to secretly test customer service standards by pretending to be real shoppers.

It’s actually a genuine research sector that really does recruit and pay people, as we explained some time ago in a special Scambusters report, The Truth About Becoming a Mystery Shopper.

And because mystery shoppers are usually able to decide when they work, it’s a popular part-time job for which there’s usually a long waiting list of would-be “employees” — actually, they’re self-employed independent contractors.

But you wouldn’t think it was hard to get a mystery shopper job when you see the number of websites and classified ads promoting opportunities in North America and the UK, and claiming research companies are seeking help in your area.

Most of these ads are come-ons for mystery shopper training kits or lists of research companies. Most of these kits are useless and the lists are often freely available on the Internet, but that doesn’t stop these organizations charging up to $100 at a time.

Since so many subscribers have asked us to help them find more info on how to become a mystery shopper, we’ve reviewed a lot of the stuff out there. The only real, useful guide on how to be successful as a mystery shopper that we’ve found is by Cathy Stucker. (There may be others but we certainly haven’t found them.)

(Note: This is an affiliate link. That means we do earn a few dollars if you choose to order it. As long-time subscribers know, we only make recommendations when we’ve personally reviewed products and believe they are excellent. Affiliate commissions help support, which is a public service.)

An avalanche of unsolicited letters, telling recipients they have already been selected to become mystery shoppers, adds fuel to the fire.

These are usually advance payment scams, where the victim gets a bogus check or money order that they’re told to deposit immediately, using part for their mystery shopping expedition and wiring the rest supposedly to test the effectiveness of one of the electronic money transfer companies.

To heighten their chances of success, the crooks insist you act with confidentiality — that you don’t tell anyone that you’ve been “selected” — and that you act with speed (which ensures they get their wire money before the bank discovers their check was a fake; you then owe this money to the bank).

We covered this ruse in more detail in another Scambusters issue, Secret Shoppers, Astroturfing and Successful Phish.

IC3 is concerned because 2010 has seen a huge surge in mystery shopper scams, some of them quite cleverly put together to be more convincing. The result: a flood of victims.

We’ve drawn up a list of 7 things the crooks will do to try to convince you their mystery shopper scam is genuine:

  1. They plaster their letters and messages with genuine logos of well-known companies, the Better Business Bureau and even the mystery shopper industry’s own trade organization, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA).
  2. They use phony testimonials from people, some claiming they’re making thousands of dollars a month. It’s highly unlikely, or most probably impossible, to make that kind of money.
  3. They ask applicants to send a resume, as though they’re genuinely interested in credentials. This may actually be a cover for identity theft, and sometimes the scammers even say their victims must undergo vetting that involves them handing over details like Social Security numbers.
  4. They include some fine-sounding words in a privacy or ethics statement. Others, especially online, provide a disclaimer (which they assume no one will read), a fine print document that actually admits their claims about how much you can earn are just that — claims.
  5. Many advance payment mystery shopper scams include a package of guidelines on how to do that job and a set of forms that are supposed to be completed after the mission and returned to the company. Makes it look like the real thing.
  6. Online sites claim their service is free, when really they are just gateways to other sites that charge for the kits and lists mentioned above.
  7. They advertise on respectable websites, TV and radio stations and in reputable publications, hoping this will give them credibility, when in reality these media are unable to check them out or vouch for them.

The scale of the mystery shopper scams is phenomenal, using netbots to send out a gazillion spam messages every day, and mailing out thousands of phony checks — sometimes using innocent recruits to do their dirty work.

But following a few simple rules will ensure you never get caught in a mystery shoppers scam:

  • Genuine mystery shopper companies do not recruit on spec either by email or letter. You register on their websites, provide a profile and they will contact you if and when work is available.
  • The MSPA website lists its 260 members — use this to contact and register with potential employers. And the MSPA itself doesn’t employ mystery shoppers. It also provides useful, free tips on becoming a mystery shopper.
  • Genuine firms don’t charge you to join or register, and they never send out checks with a request that you then wire a portion of it.Mostly, they reimburse you after you’ve completed your mission, but if they do pay upfront they don’t ask you to wire part of the money to a third party. Never bank a check and wire money this way.
  • Look out for bloopers that give away the scammer — using poor grammar and spelling, using a public email service address, like Gmail or Livemail, claiming there are jobs in your area when they don’t even know where you are.Check out what a typical secret shopper scam letter looks like.

Most of us enjoy a little bit of retail therapy now and then. Getting paid for it might be fun (though you’ll never earn a fortune) but paying a mystery shopper scam artist for the experience definitely isn’t!

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!