Mystery Shopping Scams: What They Look Like, and How to Avoid Them

By on Apr 19, 2016

Mystery shopping can be exhilarating. It’s almost like the life of a spy, as you send secret details back to an elusive source, while they pay for every luxury. But it’s not all glamorous. While many mystery shopping gigs are indeed legitimate, participants can sometimes become victims of double-crossing, targeted by criminals seeking to rob them of valuable information, or even money.

So, what would a mystery shopping scam look like? The most common scenario starts like this: someone receives a hefty, seemingly legitimate check in the mail. Attached to the bogus check are instructions, telling the recipient to simply register as a mystery shopper on a website, and perform an assignment for which they’ll be rewarded with a percentage of the check amount. That certainly sounds like a small price to pay! But the truth is, the personal information entered onto the phony site is going straight into the hands of criminals.

We’re talking about a person’s name, address, phone number, Social Security number, and possibly driver’s license information. That’s certainly more than enough data for criminals to commit identity theft or financial fraud.

Now, mystery shopping scams can come in many forms. For example, while some victims receive a letter or package to their residence, fake offers can also spread through email, text message, and online ads. Some criminals have even posted on online job offer boards, advertising phony mystery shopping gigs. And in one instance, a scam was disguised as coming from a legitimate mystery shopping company.

The consequences of mystery shopping scams can be severe, as some criminals aren’t content with simply obtaining personal information. In many cases, they will also find clever ways to steal a victim’s money. For example, instructions may ask individuals to deposit the fake check, and use the funds to purchase pre-paid credit cards. Supposedly, sending photos of the cards to the source of the scam will authorize their use. The scammers assure the victim they are allowed to keep the remainder of the money from the check following the purchase, as a reward.

But that’s not what happens at all. In the blink of an eye, the fake check will bounce, with the pre-paid cards having been withdrawn completely—leaving the victim robbed.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent falling victim to a fake secret shopping program. Here’s how to spot out the authentic ones:

  • Call the store where you’ve been asked to shop. Most of these cons will use a major retailer’s name to make the shopping assignment sound legitimate. Contact the store’s corporate offices to make sure nothing fishy is going on. When doing so, be sure to not use any phone number attached to the shopping offer, as it too may be phony.
  • Check for the integrity of the registration process. Offers impersonating real secret shopping programs will never go through the legitimate company’s website. The scammers might instead direct you to a fake site that looks eerily similar. To tell if a site is the real deal, look for subtle differences in the URL, misspellings, etc. You could also contact the legitimate company and see if you’ve actually been selected.
  • Deposit the check and wait for it to clear. This is a fairly reliable test. Most scams will involve the delivery of fake checks, so if your bank approves the transfer, then the money’s source is likely legitimate. But don’t rely on this method alone. You should use all of these tips, with this step being a final test. 

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About the Author

Gary Davis

Gary Davis was previously McAfee's Consumer Security Evangelist providing security education and advice to businesses and consumers. He is a sought-after speaker on trends in digital security, appearing at conferences and events, as well as security and consumer lifestyle broadcast outlets and publications such as ABC, NBC, FOX, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Money ...

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