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Mystery Shopper Scams Grow Bigger and More Sophisticated: Don’t Get Sucked in by Con Artists

Idriys P. Abdullah, Special to The Informer | 10/4/2013, 4:05 p.m.
Black Friday shoppers flooded the malls on Nov. 26, 2010, despite the poor economy.

The articles in places like Forbes magazine and the website Gizmodo describe it as one of "Seven Fun Ways for Retirees to Make Money" and an easy way to "Make Money on Your Lunch Break."

Mystery shopping can be fun and reasonably profitable. It can also be a scam designed to separate you from your money before you realize it's even gone.

Real mystery-shopping companies pay people to shop at the companies' clients and report their experiences. Big retailers, for instance, will contract with mystery-shopping companies to find out how their sales people treat customers.

Started in the 1940s, mystery shopping has since grown into a $1.5 billion business, says the trade association Mystery Shopper Providers Association, which estimates 1.5 million Americans are at least occasionally mystery shoppers.

"Mystery shopping is the only reliable way to quantify and benchmark the customer experience," says the trade association in its pitch to clients. "Mystery shopping provides data that lets the business owner make quick adjustments so that the customer's expectations are met and the customer is satisfied.  That brings the customer back, builds loyalty and allegiance and protects the bottom line."

But as the industry has grown so have the once penny ante scams involving the industry now nay involve several thousand dollars.

Here's how it works, according to the National Association of Mystery Shoppers, which represents the shopper side of the industry: Someone, often a woman, will call offering to pay you to mystery shop. Or you may get the cashier's check or money order unsolicited in the mail, typically from $1,000 to $4,500, for you to deposit in your bank, deducting a couple of hundred for your fee.

You're then supposed to wire the balance to them, usually to an address in another country, often Canada, supposedly in order to evaluate a money transmitter like Western Union. By the time your bank discovers the check is a fake, you're out the entire amount, plus you're potentially liable for multiple bank charges, and there's no way to recover your money. What's more, the scam artist may also steal personal information to tap into your credit cards or accounts.

"Scams involving counterfeit checks have become one of the most prevalent type of frauds in North America," said Andrea Rosen, Canada's deputy commissioner of competition. "These scams are a particular concern since they target unemployed people anxious to earn money in the current economic climate."

The Toronto Strategic Partnership, formed in 2000 to fight cross-border fraud, focuses on fighting scams like this (Toronto is the Canadian capital of white-collar crime.) The partnership consists of Canadian consumer protection and law enforcement officials and representatives from British law enforcement and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Postal Inspection Service. Just two con artists arrested by Canadian police scammed people for $150,000.

These new scams are a big step up from the old penny ante com where scam artists would buy classified ads and get potential shoppers to send $100 to start getting assignments.

There are two major warning signs of the new scam: Legitimate mystery shopping companies don't directly contact potential shoppers, says the Mystery Shopper Provider Association. And they rarely send a check before you've even completed your assignment.