Mystery Shopper Beware: Here’s How to Avoid Falling for a Scam

A woman looks unhappy sitting on the ledge of a clothing store while holding her phone.
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Whether you’re a college student, stay-at-home parent or retiree, mystery shopping is a fun and legitimate way to make some extra cash — sometimes a lot of extra cash.

But secret shoppers beware: Mystery shopper scams are a thing. So, if you’re considering one of these gigs, you need to stay alert for shady secret shopping jobs.

The Most Common Mystery Shopper Scams

Like most cons, mystery shopper scams come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Here are some of the most common ones you might encounter when looking for a secret shopper job.

The “Oops We Overpaid You” Scam

One of the most common mystery shopping scams involves getting a victim to give up their name and mailing address, ostensibly so the fake company can advance the shopper some money for a gig.

When the victim receives a check in an amount larger than they were expecting, Fake Company tells them to deposit it in their personal bank account and wire back the overage amount. (Hint: if a company asks you to wire money, it’s probably a scam!)

You guessed it. The check bounces and the victim is out whatever money they wired to Fake Company, never to be seen again.

The U.S. Postal Service warns against a similar scam involving unsolicited mailings from scammers inviting people to become mystery shoppers.

Be sure to check out the copy of an actual fake check and letter to see how convincing these con artists can be.

The “Buy Us a Gift Card” Scam

A not-so-fun twist on the fake check scam is the gift card scam. Scammers impersonate real companies and get mystery shoppers to send prepaid gift cards — only to steal them without ever reimbursing the victims.

Here’s an example of how it works. Fake Company sends you a check for $500. They instruct you to buy a $500 value Target gift card with the money they sent. Then, they ask you to send pictures of the gift card redemption codes. The unhappy ending: The check bounces and they use the gift card. You’re out $500.

Bottom line? If you get a fat check before you’ve ever started working, it’s probably a scam.

The “Pay Us to Find You the Best Shops” Scam

This con plays upon our natural desire to want guidance navigating through the hundreds, if not thousands, of mystery shopping jobs available across the internet.

These fake companies promise to find you best, highest-paying, most fun jobs in your area — for a fee.

They may claim to have special search capabilities, access to mystery shops that aren’t advertised online or recruit for well-known mystery shopping companies.

Don’t you believe it.

Legitimate companies don’t hide their jobs from applicants or require special search tools to find.

Drop these fraudsters like radioactive waste. You can find a long list of real opportunities for free right here, on the Mystery Shopping Providers Association website.

The “Oddly Specific Invitation” Scam

The AARP, which tracks all kinds of scammers through the Fraud Watch Network, reports that fake mystery shopping gigs have been around for a while.

“One way the scammers found many of their victims during the recession was through job boards where people could post their resumes,” said Amy Nofziger, regional director for the AARP Foundation.

“Scammers would use these to personalize their pitch to specific job seekers, homing in on the job seeker’s previous experience,” she said “They still use these methods today.”

So if you get invited to apply for a secret shopper position that sounds a little too perfect for you, watch out. That’s one of the warning signs that you’re being scammed.

The “Make $9,000 a Month!” Scam

You know we love mystery shopping here at The Penny Hoarder HQ, even when we kind of accidentally fail at it.

Several of us are secret shoppers as a side hustle, but we know it’s not going to be a full time job.

True, some shops can net you some serious money. But those mystery shopper opportunities are rare.

Most legitimate opportunities to secretly shop net you more like $5 – $10 per gig, or just some free booze (hey, that’s good enough for me).

Armed with that knowledge, be highly skeptical of any company that promises you’ll make enough money to drive around in a Lexus while nibbling caviar at stoplights just by shopping undercover.

Protecting Yourself from Secret Shopper Scams

New mystery shopping scams pop up all the time, so your best defense is a good offense.

When deciding whether to apply for a mystery shopper job or run away like your hair’s on fire, keep these tips in mind.

1. Research, Then Research Some More

You probably already knew I was going to tell you to do your homework, but it really is the No. 1 way to protect yourself from scams.

Don’t be afraid to go all Sherlock on the company you’re thinking of signing up for.

Check out them out on Better Business Bureau; run them through the BBB Scam Tracker, and type their name in your browser’s search tool to see what pops up. (“[Company Name] scam” is a particularly useful search string.)

Another great resource is the Mystery Shopping Professional Association’s Scam Alerts page. It’s a regularly updated list of scams, complete with the actual links and texts these fake companies are sending out. If you are vetting an opportunity and find it on the MSPA’s Scam Alerts page, run!

2. Don’t Respond to Mystery Shopping Companies That Find You

Don’t answer unsolicited emails about mystery shopping jobs, no matter how enticing they seem. Toss mystery shopper snail mail you didn’t send for and hang up on companies that call you out of the blue.

Reputable mystery shopping companies don’t spend money and time recruiting shoppers through cold calls and emails to random people around the country.

3. Keep Your Hard-Earned Cash

You want to make money as a mystery shopper, not spend it.

Any mystery shopping company that asks you for money in exchange for plum assignments, application fees, or background checks does not have your best interests at heart.

The Federal Trade Commission says it best: “Honest companies pay you, not charge you, to work for them…”

What to Do If You Spot a Secret Shopper Scam

If you spot a job posting that looks like a mystery shopper scam, don’t bother trying to call them out.

Instead, report ‘em!

They’re the experts in handling this kind of thing. So file a quick complaint and get back to the business of finding a legitimate mystery shopper job.

Nofziger noted mystery shopper scams can happen any time but occur more frequently during economic downturns and at certain times of the year.

“We often see an uptick during the holidays, when people are looking to make some extra income for the holiday shopping,” she said. “The scammers will often use this same season as a way to sound more legitimate by touting ‘the extra people needed for these secret shopper positions during the holiday shopping season, as companies want to ensure good customer service.’”

Nofziger advised that vigilance and consumer education are the best weapons against falling for fake mystery shopper gigs.

“These scammers are very clever at what they do and in the ways that they trick people.”

Remember, there are many mystery shopper opportunities out there that are one hundred percent legitimate. Just watch out for red flags so you can enjoy your side hustle without getting scammed.

Ciara McLaren contributed to this report. McLaren is a freelance writer with work in HuffPost, MoneyGeek, and The Penny Hoarder. You can find her on Substack (@camclaren). Lisa McGreevy is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.