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Mystery Shopping Scams Are Soaring in 2018 — Here Are 5 Ways to Spot One

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It seems easy enough: You get a message through Facebook or LinkedIn. Or you receive a cashier’s check in the mail out of the blue from a mystery shopping company. It instructs you to shop at your local grocery store and email a representative with pictures and details about your experience.

Then you cash the check, keep some money for yourself and send the rest to the company.

The only problem: That cashier’s check is likely a fraud.

Mystery shopping can be a legitimate way to make some cash on the side. But scammers are using the brands associated with many of those opportunities to steal money from would-be shoppers.

The Penny Hoarder analyzed the 1,000 most recent complaints about mystery shopping scams filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). We obtained the data set through a Freedom of Information Act request that took five months to fulfill.

Unfortunately, according to our analysis, the problem appears to be getting worse — much worse.

The FTC logged 557 complaints about mystery shopping scams in its Consumer Sentinel Network database through the first three months of this year. That’s nearly 150 — or 37% — more than it received for the entirety of 2017.

Meanwhile, overall consumer complaints have fallen over the last two years, according to FTC spokesman Frank Dorman.

The increase in mystery shopping complaints could be due in part to state and local agencies reporting more complaints to the FTC or the public becoming more aware.

“There’s no way for us to know why complaints rise and fall,” Dorman said.

But with 2018 on track to log more than 2,200 complaints, it’s likely scammers are also casting a wider net.

In 2017, people reported losing $47,333 to mystery shopping scams, according to the FTC database. In the first quarter of 2018, the FTC received complaints about $468,897 paid to suspected con artists — a figure on track to easily break $1 million this year.

And these are probably low estimates, given that many cybercrimes go unreported.

How a Mystery Shopping Scam Works

One common mystery shopping scam involves “testing” a transfer service, such as Western Union, at a Walmart or other grocery store, according to the FTC. In this scenario, you’ll get a check in the mail and might even see money appear in your account.

Then, you send some of that money through one of those wire services. Or you might be asked to buy refillable gift cards and send the card to the scammer. Either way, the bank will eventually determine the check was fraudulent.

And the worst part is: You might be on the hook for the fraudulent check.

“Your bank may take several days to weeks to determine the check or money order you deposited into your account was counterfeit, even though the funds ‘arrive’ in your account after a day or two,” wrote U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Andrea Avery in an email to The Penny Hoarder. “You, as the account holder, are responsible for money deposited [into] and withdrawn from your account, so you may be liable when the check ultimately fails to clear.”

Most mystery shopping complaints revolve around cashing fake checks, but the FTC also reminds consumers that they should never pay a subscription fee just for the opportunity to become a mystery shopper.

5 Signs of a Mystery Shopping Scam

If you think a mystery shopping gig is too good to be true, you’re probably right. These tips can help you spot a potential scam.

  1. First of all, any time someone asks you to wire them money after depositing a check, it’s going to be a scam.
  2. Have you ever contacted this company or representative in the past? If this is an unsolicited opportunity, your scam antenna should be at attention.
  3. Does the email, letter or message look like it was written by a 6-year-old? If it’s littered with misspellings or grammatical errors, it’s probably fake, according to several narratives in the FTC data set. (Although one could say the same thing about the first draft of this article written by a data reporter.)
  4. Look at the company logo included in the letter, memo or check the supposed company has sent you. Match it with what you find on the company’s official website. One FTC complainant noted that materials sent from a firm called American Consumer Eyes bore grocery store ShopRite’s logo, but it was black and white, and out of focus.
  5. And it’s worth repeating: If you pay for a “subscription” to become a mystery shopper, you’ll likely lose whatever you pay.

There’s no telling where these scams are coming from, but the most common city that popped up was located far from the U.S. —  in the Greek isles. Larnaca, Cyprus, a city of about 144,000 with a tourism-based economy, was included 17 times.

Again, the FTC couldn’t explain the prominence of this city in the database. Nor could it explain the names of individuals supposedly representing the companies.

Brian Anthony and Alex Baker were the most frequently used names in these mystery shopping scams.

Con artists tend to use trusted brand names, according to the FTC database. Walmart and Kroger were frequently featured in fraudulent materials.

The Penny Hoarder even came up once in the 1,000 entries in this database. In fact, a complaint from a reader prompted this entire investigation. We responded to the incident in April.

The mystery shopping scams included in the database targeted victims as young as 13 and older than 80. Although millennials were actually targeted more, it was clear the elderly were the most vulnerable. People older than 59 were scammed out of a combined $317,645.50 since the beginning of 2017.

New Mexico had the most per-resident complaints — more than double the second-most targeted state, Texas. Again, FTC and USPS representatives couldn’t say why this is the case.

How to Report a Mystery Shopping Scam

If you were contacted through the mail, the USPS recommends reporting the fraud through its website or by calling 877-876-2455 and saying “fraud” when prompted. The FTC also urges you to file a complaint with its office, as well as your state attorney general’s office.

If you live in a city with a large population of retirees, like where I am from in Sarasota County, Florida, your local police office might have its own cybercrime unit that can make sure you file the correct paperwork with the corresponding agency.

Compile as much information as you can with the materials you believe to be a scam. What was the name of the potentially fictional representative or company that contacted you? What was the return address on the material you received?

This will help whatever agency you contact root out scams like these in the future. In turn, this will give us more data for future investigations. Win-win!

Both the FTC and USPS continue to publish information on their websites and through YouTube, and they’re even pounding the pavement across the country raising awareness about these scams.

The top piece of advice from both agencies: Always be skeptical at first for the best chance of staving off a scam. If you send money, it’s probably too late.

“If you try to get a refund from the promoters, you will be out of luck,” Dorman said. “Either the business won’t return your phone calls, or if it does, it’s to try another pitch.”

Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. His dream mystery shopping gig involves record stores and skate shops.

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