Mystery Shopping Scams

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Open up any Pennysaver or classified ad section and you’ll see them: the advertisements claiming “You can make BIG BUCKS in your spare time as a Mystery Shopper!” Often, these ads use the tagline to grab your attention and only contain a phone number, with no details or company name.

Mystery or secret shopper scams are nothing new. For years, fraudsters have been playing on our “little-work-lotta-pay” fantasies, getting us to give out personal information (which they then use for identity theft) or getting us to cash a counterfeit check and wire the money back, giving them a chunk of free cash and us a huge headache or even criminal charges.

Remember the golden rule of money and opportunity: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Not all of these ads are scams, to be fair, but a healthy dose of skepticism can go a long way toward protecting yourself and your money. Here are some more tips:

• Don’t respond to an email “offer” to become a secret shopper. This goes for just about any employment “offer” you get via email. Legitimate companies will not contact you unless you’ve contacted them first.

• Research the company. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau to see if the company has a good track record or has nothing but complaints from others who were taken in by the scam. Do a web search for the company as well, looking for hits other than the company website. Too little information could be a red flag that it’s a fake.

• If the company has a website, check the URL with http://whois.domaintools.com or a similar “whois” service to see how long the website has been in operation. If the company claims to have been in operation for 15 years, but the website has only been in existence for a month, that's a red flag. No contact information in the domain registration, or the registrant used a proxy service? Red flag.

• Check out any contact information you find with a reverse lookup service, such as http://www.whitepages.com. If the phone number provided comes back with no company name, a company name or address different from what was provided to you in the ad or website (or by the company itself), or it’s a cell phone, it’s likely a scam.

• Check the website for seals from the BBB and the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. If the website has them, verify that the company has legitimately been certified by independently checking with the BBB or the MSPA. If the BBB or MSPA says they didn’t certify a company displaying their seal, it’s a fraud.

• Even when the offer seems to come from a well-known, established company, check it out by looking up the company’s phone number yourself and contacting them directly. Many legitimate secret shopping companies have had their identities hijacked by scammers.

• If you’re being offered more than $10 or $20 per service, or if you’re being asked to cash a check and wire it back to “test the service,” watch out. Anything more than $10 or $20 is way out of line with the average compensation for this type of work, and mystery shoppers don’t “test” wire services such as MoneyGram or Western Union. Also be wary of offers or instructions to buy expensive merchandise and keep it in exchange for your services.

• NEVER pay to become a mystery shopper. The old adage “you have to spend money to make money” applies to business growth, not individual employment. You should never have to give cash up front to secure a legitimate job offer.

For more information, visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association and the Better Business Bureau, or contact the Public Safety Office at (661) 723-6063.