For those who love to shop, unsolicited emails or letters in the mail inviting them to make extra money as a secret or mystery shopper are enticing. The promise of earning a living by shopping and dining out seems too good to be true—and often is.
There are legitimate mystery shopping programs that are used to gather information about companies’ products and services or compliance with regulations. However, there also are plenty scammers who claim to offer secret shopping opportunities but really just want to steal your personal information or money. That’s why it’s important to be able to distinguish a real opportunity from a fake one.
How secret shopper scams work
There are a few variations of mystery shopper scams. The most common version of the scam involves people claiming to work with retailers that are interested in hiring people to be secret shoppers. Once they’ve gained your interest, they ask victims to pay for certain training or products. Then they disappear when they get your money. Sometimes in these cases scammers will also steal personally identifiable information (PII) such as Social Security numbers, date of birth and addresses through their application process to steal the victim’s identity.
Another version of the secret shopper scam involves fake checks. Victims sign up to be secret shoppers through an online application and are sent a check that they’re told to use for their secret shopping. The scammers create a sense of urgency by telling victims to start shopping as soon as possible, often for items such as reloadable gift cards. Victims are then told to send pictures of the card and details. Once the check is flagged as fake, which can take up to 30 days, the victim is then responsible for any money spent as well as any additional bank fees.
[ Read: How to Spot a Fake Check ]
Warning signs of secret shopper scams
There are a few things that can tip you off to a secret shopper scam. Some of the red flags to keep an eye out for include the following:
- A job listing or unsolicited text or email guaranteeing you’ll make a lot of money as a secret shopper.
- You are sent a check or money order and instructed to deposit it and send a portion back to the “employer.”
- The secret shopper program requires you to buy its training or pay for materials upfront to get started.
How to avoid secret shopper scams
Before jumping at any secret shopper opportunities, take the following steps:
Research any secret shopper job before you complete the application. Make sure that the company exists, and see if there are any reviews on it. Search the name of the company along with terms such as “scam” or “complaints” to find other information.
Use the Mystery Shopper Professionals Association database to search for real secret shopper opportunities. MSPA Americas and its member companies do not solicit mystery shoppers (unsolicited invitations to be a mystery shopper are scams). The association has online FAQs about what it takes to become a secret shopper, and you can join for free to see job postings on its Opportunity Board.
Do not give out personal information on a job application. Scammers will solicit your personal information and use it to steal your identity.
Be wary of any job that requires you to receive and return money. Legitimate employers won’t send money to you before the work has been completed and will not ask you to return money that you’ve been paid.
Do not wire money or buy gift cards or prepaid debit cards for people you don’t know. Once you send the money to scammers or give them the information to redeem the gift card, there isn’t a way to get your money back.
Be cautious of companies that hire you on the spot or without an interview. A “guaranteed job opportunity” is probably a scam.
[ Read: How to Avoid Gift Card Scams ]
What to do if you become a victim
If you’ve been a victim of a secret shopper scam, report it to the following agencies:
If you gave scammers your personal information, place a credit freeze on your credit reports with each of the three credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.This will prevent thieves from using your identity to open new accounts in your name.
Also, sign up for a credit and identity monitoring service such as Carefull that will watch your credit reports 24/7 for any changes and scour the Internet and dark web for misuse of your personal information. You’ll get alerts if Carefull spots anything unusual. Plus, Carefull provides up to $1 million in identity theft insurance coverage to help you recover your identity if it is stolen.
[ Keep Reading: What to Do if Your Identity Is Stolen ]