Psst, here’s a secret. Some of those great opportunities to be a mystery shopper are nothing but a way to con you out of your cash.
Willie Smith, a veteran who served in the U.S. Army from 1975-79, went online looking for a way to make some extra money. He saw a site offering a job opportunity as a secret shopper so he filled out some information.
But Smith, 63, became suspicious when a priority envelope was sent to his home in Saginaw, Michigan, back in March and included a check for $2,150. He was to deposit the check into his bank account, start buying gift cards and do some secret shopping at Walmart.
Before he cashed that check, he did some more digging online, and among other things, he discovered that Walmart doesn’t use mystery shoppers or hire anyone to perform such services for other retailers or companies.
His advice to others: “Don’t do it. Don’t put that check into your account. When that check doesn’t clear, you’ve got to pay all that money back.”
Why they send $2K before you start work
Other consumers haven’t been as fortunate and they’re losing hundreds or thousands of dollars to a similar sort of scam.
A consumer in Ohio reported receiving a package that included a $1,500 check, according to the Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker.
The consumer was told to buy $1,100 in iTunes gift cards and keep $400. “If an employee at Walmart asked if I was a mystery shopper, I was instructed to say no,” the consumer said.
The consumer then texted photos of the backside of gift cards, giving the scammers access to necessary numbers to use the money on the gift cards. The consumer discovered too late in the game that the initial $1,500 check was counterfeit.
Not surprisingly, fraudsters try to impersonate names that we trust. But instead of pretending to be from the Internal Revenue Service, mystery shopping scams might drop names of big name retailers, such as Walmart, Target or Best Buy.
A consumer in Southfield, Michigan, reported losing $2,780 in a mystery shopper scam last year involving a business called “Walmart All Star Retail Express.” Again, the consumer received what turned out to be a fake check. The instructions included depositing the check, keeping $400 for the work and using the other $2,200 to buy gift cards and money orders.
A Troy, Michigan, consumer replied to a mystery shopper ad on Indeed.com in February, according to local police. The consumer then received an overnight envelope containing a company check for $998 and instructions on how to be a mystery shopper.
The victim placed the check into his bank account and bought $650 in gift cards for Best Buy, Apple, CVS and Walgreens, according to the Troy police report.
The victim then photographed the serial numbers of the gift cards and sent them to the business in Florida. The consumer then questioned what just happened and called the business number provided only to find out it was disconnected.
Military spouses and others targeted
When it comes to scams, it can help to know if you’re a likely target. And spouses of military members, veterans and others looking for extra cash are well advised to watch out for too-good-to-be-true job interviews and emails.
Military consumers saw a median loss of $2,460 in connection with employment scams in 2018 — more than double the losses for all consumers, according to the latest alert from the Better Business Bureau.
About 8% of the scams reported by the military involved employment-related scams, according to the BBB report.
Maybe the job offers high pay. Or maybe the big attraction is the chance to work remotely and with flexible hours. Or maybe someone is just happy to see any kind of job. Military spouses may feel stressed out after a long job search in a new area and may let their guard down, too.
One military consumer in Virginia, for example, was happy to receive an email from a talent acquisition manager saying that she was selected for a shortlisted online interview. She did the interview and, no surprise, was hired right away.
But there was a catch: She’d receive a check soon to buy equipment to do that job.
Fortunately, the check didn’t arrive as expected, she became skeptical and talked with her bank, which warned her that the check was likely fake and she’d be held responsible for paying any money back.
Some scam networks have netted crooks millions of dollars in recent years, as the con artists try to sound like the real deal and build relationships on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, according to federal authorities.
Part of the “mystery shopper” scam and some other job-related scams involves sending victims fake money orders or checks. The consumer is then instructed to deposit the phony check or money order into their personal bank accounts.
At some point, the consumer will be told to withdraw hundreds or thousands of dollars from the bank and put that money on gift cards. Or they may be asked to send the money through Western Union or Money Gram. The victim then often would absorb the loss once the fake check eventually bounces.
While some mystery shopping jobs are legitimate, many scams aim to steal money under the guise of a secret shopper program, according to a July warning by the Federal Trade Commission.
Consumers are warned to “never wire money or buy gift cards for a mystery shopping assignment or any job opportunity. Those are sure signs of a scam,” according to the FTC.
The Mystery Shopping Providers Association North America has information on legitimate programs. See mysteryshop.org. The group also has a detailed list of scam alerts outlining specific secret shopper scams, including one reported in May that asked shoppers to buy CVS gift cards.
It doesn’t hurt to do an internet search for the name of the company with the words “review,” “complaint” or “scam.” But remember, fraud rings impersonate legitimate brand names, too.
Others job-related scams involved:
—Displaying a sign on a car or truck. A Detroit consumer reported searching for jobs where one could work from home and then finding an opportunity to get paid displaying a sign on his truck. The consumer was sent a check for $1,550.60 and then told to send back $600 to cover some costs associated with the deal. The check was a fake and the consumer lost the money.
—Buying materials to work from home. An Indiana consumer reportedly lost $4,999 in July after receiving an email saying the company spotted the job hunter’s resume on Indeed. After expressing interest in the position, the company sent another email saying it was sending a check for materials needed for working at a home office. The instructions included depositing the check into the consumer’s bank account. The next step — the one that cost the consumer big money — involved withdrawing $4,000 and depositing it to a different bank for a person named Harold Ward. “They also told me to buy $600 worth of Google cards,” the consumer reported. “A couple days later, I received a call from my bank saying the check for $4,999 was a fraud.”
No company, of course, is going to send you a check before you start working and then ask you to buy gift cards or send some money back for some reason. “Be careful if a company promises you great opportunities or big income as long as you pay for coaching, training, certifications or directories,” the BBB warns.
Other clues to job scams: Many victims report doing a phony interview through Google Hangouts or another video chat service. Or watch out for on-the-spot job offers that don’t even involve any interview.
Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at email@example.com.