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How Mystery Shopper Scams Work And What To Look Out For

By Last update March 26, 2024
Man mystery shopping at a mall

Mystery shopper jobs and side hustles sound like a dream gig, right? You get paid to shop and provide feedback on your experience. However, this dream can quickly sour if you stumble upon a scam disguised as a legitimate opportunity.

Scammers have found ways to exploit the allure of secret shopping, hooking victims with promises of easy money and free shopping sprees. These scams often begin with an unexpected offer via email, social media, or online ads, presenting an irresistible chance to work as a mystery shopper.

If you are in a position where you’re desperate to make money because you’re struggling to find work you need to be especially cautious. Scammers love to prey on people like you!

They can be persuasive, sometimes even impersonating reputable companies, making you think you’ve landed a cushy side job. The pitch is simple: you’ll receive a check to purchase items or services, and all you need to do is evaluate the experience and send a report—or so it seems.

What’s the catch?

These scams use counterfeit checks or money orders, asking you to deposit them and then wire a portion of the money back. The scamming twist hits when the bank flags the check as fake, and you’re left on the hook for the total amount, including what you’ve already sent back to the scammers.

That’s why it’s vital to know the red flags and protect yourself from getting caught in the scam net.

How Mystery Shopper Scams Work

At its core, it involves a fraudulent offer to become a mystery shopper – a legitimate activity where people are hired to shop and provide feedback on their experience. Unfortunately, in the scam version, you end up paying with no return.

What you usually see

  • Upfront Fees: Legitimate jobs pay you. If you’re asked to pay for certification, training, or for a list of opportunities, that’s a red flag.
  • Overpayment & Wire Transfers: If you receive a check that’s more than your fee and you’re asked to wire back the difference, it’s a no-go. The check will likely bounce, leaving you liable.
  • Instant Employment: Real companies vet their shoppers. An immediate hire without an interview process is suspicious.
  • Unsolicited Offers: A sudden email or message from an unknown company could signal a scam. Always research the company.

The Recruitment Process

Be on the lookout, because mystery shopper scams often start with how they reach out to you. They’re slick, using various methods to pull you in.

Fake Job Listings

Often, scam artists post job listings online for mystery shopper positions. These may appear on reputable job search websites or classified ad services. The listings might seem legitimate, complete with detailed job descriptions and contact information. Check for:

  • Overly generous pay: Offers that are too good to be true, like high pay for simple tasks.
  • Vague details: A lack of specifics about the job tasks or a shady company background.

Unsolicited Offers

You might receive an email or text out of the blue, offering you a mystery shopper job. It’s appealing, yes, but here’s what you should be aware of:

  • Unexpected: Offers that come without you ever applying for them.
  • Urgency: A push for you to act quickly without giving you time to research the offer.

Impersonation Tactics

Scammers can pretend to be from real companies—sometimes even those you know and trust. They might send you a check in advance for your shopping tasks. But here’s the hook:

  • Fake checks: They send you a check and then ask you to send a portion of it back.
  • Name-dropping: They may use the names of legitimate mystery shopping companies to gain your trust.

Execution of the Scam

When it comes to mystery shopper scams, you’ll usually find there’s a pattern to how they play out. Stay alert for these common tactics scammers use to lure you in.

Fake Checks

Scammers might send you a check or money order as payment for your ‘mystery shopping’ tasks. You’ll be instructed to deposit it into your bank account and then perform certain actions with the funds.

However, the catch is that after a few days, your bank will determine the check is counterfeit, and you’ll be responsible for the full amount.

Purchasing Gift Cards

You might be asked to purchase gift cards as part of the scam. The instructions will be specific: buy the gift cards, and then send the scammer the card numbers and PINs. This allows the scammer to quickly siphon the funds from the cards, leaving you with no way to get your money back once the scam is revealed.

Wire Transfer Requests

Another common request is to wire a portion of the funds you’ve received. Scammers adore wire transfers because they’re fast and the money is difficult to trace. Once you send a wire transfer at their direction, recovering your funds can be next to impossible.

Other Red Flags and Warnings

When looking into mystery shopper opportunities, stay sharp. Some offers are scams in disguise, aiming to take advantage of your excitement and willingness to participate.

High-Pressure Tactics

  • Urgency: You might be pressed to act quickly without time to think or do research.
  • Limited Time: Scammers might claim the offer is available for a limited period to rush your decision.

Requests for Personal Information

  • Sensitive Data: Be cautious if asked for personal details beyond typical employment information, especially financial information or answers to security questions like “what was your first pet’s name”
  • Payment Information: Legitimate jobs will never ask for your credit card or bank details up front.

How To Verify A Mystery Shopper Opportunity

In the realm of mystery shopping, staying safe isn’t just a good idea—it’s essential. Let’s dig into how you can protect yourself from scams.

Verifying Legitimacy

Before diving into any mystery shopping gig, make sure it’s the real deal. Legitimate companies never ask you to pay for the privilege of working for them. This means no upfront fees for ‘certification’ or ‘training’. A solid way to check a company’s credibility is to look it up on the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website. They have a database where you can confirm whether a company is a known entity.

  • Do:
    • Use the MSPA website to check for legitimate providers.
    • Look for online reviews and reports of scams related to the company.
  • Don’t:
    • Pay money to get a job as a mystery shopper.
    • Trust a company without doing your homework on them.

Securing Personal Information

Your personal information is as valuable as cash. Treat it that way by not giving out sensitive details unless you’re 100% sure who you’re dealing with. This includes information like your Social Security number, credit card details, or bank account info. Also, be wary of any job that asks you to cash checks or use wire transfer services as part of your ‘shopping’ tasks—this is a common tactic used by scammers.

  • Remember to:
    • Share personal information only with verified, trustworthy companies.
    • Be cautious about how and where you share your personal details.

Reporting Suspicious Activity

If a mystery shopping opportunity raises red flags, report it immediately. By doing so, you’re not just protecting yourself but also helping to prevent others from falling for the same trick. Get in touch with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or your local consumer protection agency. Keep any records or correspondence related to the suspicious activity, as they could be useful in an investigation.

  • Take Action:
    • Report scams to the FTC or your local consumer protection agency.
    • Keep records of any suspect interactions for future reference.

Real Mystery Shopping

Before diving into the specifics, it’s important to recognize that legitimate mystery shopping opportunities do exist. You can find real companies offering genuine jobs, where you’ll complete assigned tasks and receive actual compensation.

Legitimate Companies

To identify legitimate mystery shopping companies, consider these tips:

  • Check with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA): They have a database of reputable companies.
  • Research: Look up potential employers along with terms like “review” or “complaint.”

Expected Tasks

When working with a real mystery shopping company, your tasks may include:

  • Visiting a store and making a purchase.
  • Observing cleanliness, customer service quality, and product placement.
  • Submitting detailed reports about your shopping experience.

Payment and Compensation

Legitimate companies will handle payment like this:

  • No fees: You should never pay to work as a mystery shopper.
  • Reimbursement: You may be reimbursed for required purchases.
  • Regular payment: Expect a standard form of payment, like a check or direct deposit, after completing a task.

Adam Sanders has worked as a reentry advisor, program leader, and teacher at San Quentin State prison in San Quentin California for several years. He co-founded San Quentin's financial literacy program and is passionate about helping former offenders successfully re-enter society and find personal and financial success. Adam also has nearly a decade of experience working in Marketing and Finance for large software companies and an MBA from Northwestern University.