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Beware of mystery shopper scams

By Jason Alderman

Getting paid to go shopping may sound like a dream job, but buyer beware: For each legitimate mystery or secret shopper opportunity, probably hundreds more are scams. In fact, the National Consumers League (NCL) says complaints regarding fraudulent mystery shopper and work-at-home schemes were up nearly 9 percent during the past six months.

Why the increase? It's due in part to our nation's high unemployment rates and how desperate people are to earn money while seeking full-time employment. Plus, many people are lured by offers that sound too good to be true (and are).

Here are tips for spotting bogus mystery shopper programs:

Many retailers hire marketing research companies to gauge their employees' quality of customer service. Those companies in turn hire mystery shoppers to make purchases anonymously and fill out questionnaires documenting their experience. Many research firms belong to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (, a trade organization that links businesses with mystery shopping providers. (MSPA also provides a search engine where people can register for mystery shopping assignments.)

Unfortunately, scammers increasingly are using newspaper and Internet job ads, emails and phone calls to snare unsuspecting consumers with promises of quick, easy money for minimal effort. Here's how a typical mystery shopping scam might work:

You answer an ad and are "hired" as a mystery shopper to evaluate its clients' businesses. The company sends an official-looking employment packet containing the business evaluation forms you'll supposedly use. But first, you'll be required to complete a so-called training assignment to make sure you're a suitable employee. That's where the fraud comes in:

  • The company claims it's evaluating a money transfer service like Western Union.
  • They send you a large check with instructions to deposit it in your personal checking account.
  • You are told to keep a certain amount as your fee and then to pose as a customer by wiring the balance to a third party – usually within 48 hours.
  • You then submit a report about your customer experience.

What you may not realize is that the original check was fake. Scammers know that by law, banks generally must make deposited funds under $5,000 available within a few days. They count on your completing the transaction before the check has been cleared by the issuing bank, which may take several weeks. Once your bank discovers the fraud, it will bounce the check and you are on the hook for the whole amount you wired – plus your wasted time.

Common red flags include:

  • Legitimate companies will never ask you to send a money transfer for any purpose.
  • Legitimate companies don't charge shoppers a fee to work for them.
  • Be suspicious if you're hired on the basis of an email or phone call without any interview or background checks.
  • Companies that promise you can make a lot of money as a mystery shopper are almost certainly scams.
  • If mystery shoppers are asked to make purchases, it's usually for very small amounts for which they will be reimbursed.
  • Mystery shoppers are paid after completing their assignments and returning the questionnaires. Shoppers never receive checks upfront.

Good resources to learn more about bogus mystery shopper and other fake check scams, include the FBI (, the Federal Trade Commission (, the Consumer Federation of America (, and the National Consumers League (

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.

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