January 20, 2012

Want to be a ‘mystery shopper’? How to avoid a scam

If you are one of the millions of Americans who love to shop, there is a scam tailor-made for you.

If you are one of the millions of Americans who love to shop, there is a scam tailor-made for you.

It’s called “mystery shopping,” sometimes known as “secret shopping.” There are actually legitimate secret shopping opportunities to be had. The Better Business Bureau encourages you to get familiar with the methods used by the mystery shopper scammers so that you don’t find yourself left holding the bag.

Legitimate mystery shopping has been around for years. To evaluate the quality of service in their stores, some retailers hire marketing research companies who in turn employ mystery shoppers to anonymously make purchases of their products. The store gets a report on the shopper’s experience, which can be valuable information for those seeking to improve their services and merchandise. A website for information on legitimate mystery shopping is run by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association at http://mysteryshop.org.

But the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, warns that marketers who promise lucrative jobs as mystery shoppers often do not deliver bona fide opportunities. There are at least two types of scams which these fraudulent outfits use.

In an attempt to promote themselves as a gateway to high-paying mystery shopper jobs with big-name companies, scammers will promote a website where you can “register” to become one of their shoppers. A fee is required in order to get information on their “certification” program, get a directory of mystery shopping companies or to guarantee a mystery shopping job.

Here’s what the FTC says about that: “The truth is that it is unnecessary to pay money to anyone to get into the mystery shopper business. The shopping certification offered in advertising or unsolicited e-mail is almost always worthless. A list of companies that hire mystery shoppers is available for free; and legitimate mystery shopper jobs are on the Internet for free. Consumers who try to get a refund for mystery shopper jobs usually are out of luck. Either the business doesn’t return phone calls, or if it does, it’s to try another pitch.”

If you are asked to pay money for the privilege of working, you are probably being conned.

The second and potentially more harmful of the mystery shopper scams involves being “hired” to evaluate a money transfer service such as Western Union or MoneyGram. The shopper is sent a check for a substantial amount. It is sometimes between $2,000 and $4,000. They are instructed to deposit it in a personal bank account, withdraw the cash, keep a couple of hundred for themselves and wire most of it to a third party. The idea is that the shopper will be “reporting” on the experience with the money transfer service.

Later when the fraudulence of the deposited check is found out, the person who deposited it is subject to prosecution or, at the very least, they must reimburse the bank out of their own pocket. As transparent as this whole scheme may appear, people who are suffering from economic pressures have found it irresistible, especially when presented with what appears to be a legitimate check for thousands of dollars.

Avoid becoming a victim to mystery shopper scams by taking these steps:

•  Use resources like the Internet to check out the company you are considering doing mystery shopping with.
•  Remember: It costs nothing to become a mystery shopper. Never pay to work as a mystery shopper. Legitimate companies pay you to work for them.
•  Never wire money as part of a mystery shopper assignment.

Take the mystery out of mystery shopping by contacting your Better Business Bureau with any questions or concerns about a company.

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