Mystery shopping is a very real thing that people actually get paid money to do. In fact, I’ve reviewed quite a few legitimate mystery shopping companies here on this blog. But you have to be careful because there are a lot of mystery shopping scams out there. And someone who doesn’t understand how mystery shopping generally works could easily become a victim of one of these scams.
The point of this post today is to show you what a typical mystery shopping scam looks like and to give you a few pointers that should help you differentiate between real mystery shopping companies and scam ones.
A Typical Mystery Shopping Scam
The following scenario is very common. You may receive a check in the mail from a so-called secret shopper or mystery shopping company. It will look like a real check and may be for a pretty nice-sized amount of money — possibly $500 or more. Along with the check will be a professional looking letter stating that you’ve been selected to be a part of their exclusive secret shopper company and that your first assignment is to evaluate a money transfer service. To do this, you’ll be asked to deposit the enclosed check into your bank account, withdraw the money in cash and wire a portion of it to a third party.
A few weeks later, the bank will figure out the check is fake and it will be on you to pay back the bank. You could also end up in legal trouble for depositing and cashing a fraudulent check.
One scary thing about these scams (apart from the fact it could land you in jail) is that some of the scammers use the names of legitimate mystery shopping companies. They do this in case you decide to research them online. You may come across the actual company, recognize them as legitimate, and follow through with depositing the check. Don’t be fooled by this! It doesn’t matter who this company says they are, no real mystery shopping company is going to randomly mail you a check and ask you to deposit it and then wire them the money.
If you receive one of these checks in the mail and the letter appears to be coming from a mystery shopping company that seems to be legit, contact that company and let them know that a scam artist is using their name. Trust me, they will want to know.
Never Pay a Fee to Become a Mystery Shopper
A real mystery shopping company is not going to charge you a fee to sign up. When you’re doing research online, attempting to find real mystery shopping companies to sign up with, that should be your first warning that you’ve stumbled across a scam. A legit mystery shopping company should always be free to join.
Note that there is such a thing as becoming a certified mystery shopper. This certification program is offered by the MSPA — Mystery Shopping Provider’s Association — which is a very reputable and respected organization with over 250 legitimate mystery shopping companies listed as members. These certification programs do cost a little bit of money and allow you to become a silver- or gold-certified mystery shopper. However, it is not necessary to go through this certification in order to sign up as a mystery shopper with any company or land mystery shopping jobs. This page on their website explains the various benefits of certification and they also explain here why the certification program is not the same thing as paying to shop or become a mystery shopper. Their programs are more about learning to become a better and more efficient mystery shopper.
Never Pay for a List of Mystery Shopping Companies
I’ve also seen people online trying to sell lists of legitimate mystery shopping companies you can register with, wanting to make you believe that the names of these companies are private and under lock and key so that you’ll really think you got access to some special, super-secret information. Do not fall for this! There are free lists of legitimate mystery shopping companies everywhere. In fact, I have a list here which is incomplete but should get you started. You can also go here and dig through the massive list at Volition — one of the most reputable places online to search for and find feedback on real mystery shopping companies.
For More Information
The FTC has an excellent article on mystery shopping scams which contains much of the info I shared above and also expands on it. I would suggest reading through that. If you are a victim of a mystery shopping scam, the FTC recommends filing complaints with your state’s attorney general and also with them on their complaints page.