SACRAMENTO, Calif. — 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, based in North Highlands, Calif. She said about 200 to 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.
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 service.”
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, or MSPA, based in Louisville, Ky.
Last spring, the MSPA, which represents about 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.”
Mystery shopper scams are part of a broad category of work-from-home scams that target those looking for job opportunities online. The FBI office in Sacramento said it gets consumer complaints about work-from-home scams weekly but believes the problem is vastly underreported.
“Many of the mystery shopper scams are not reported because, like many other fraud victims, the victim feels embarrassed that they fell for the scam,” said FBI agent Kevin Baker.
To thwart mystery shopper fraud before it happens, financial institutions like SAFE Credit Union look for telltale signs that a check might be phony: It’s drawn on an out-of-state business; it’s for less than $5,000; it’s from a company unrelated to mystery shopping, such as an industrial, real estate or auto parts company. Often, the checks are counterfeit, using a legitimate firm’s name and address.
By asking questions and alerting customers that the check they’re trying to deposit is possibly fraudulent, SAFE’s Oddo said her fraud division last year prevented about $3 million in mystery shopper checks from being deposited. Those checks were confiscated and reported to the FBI, she said.
Even legitimate companies that hire mystery shoppers are not immune from scammers. National Shopping Service in Rocklin, Calif., one of at least 16 mystery shopper firms in California, 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 available.
Gravatt, whose company has a nationwide registry of 400,000 mystery shoppers, said the recession definitely bumped up the number of applicants.
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 to $4,000 a month.
If interested in mystery shopping, a good starting point is the MSPA website, http://www.mysteryshop.org, where you can search by ZIP code for mystery shopping jobs in your area. A check of 95816, for example, turned up 91 jobs in a 30-mile radius, ranging from banks and coffee shops to hardware, pet and shoe stores. The assignments have varying requirements, starting dates and payment rates, typically $10 and up.
For those who grabbed what sounded like a solid job opportunity, getting the word they’ve been scammed can be doubly difficult to swallow. “I’ve had people scream at me,” said Oddo. “Many have lost a job, may not have had money, and now they’ve got a loss in their account.”
Those who believe they’ve been scammed should contact their bank or credit union, or file a complaint with the FBI, FTC or online at http://www.ic3.gov. For more on mystery shopping scams, go to FBI.gov (search under “Scams and Safety”) or FTC.gov (under “Consumer Protection”).