Scam Busters: The Mystery Shopping Trap


With more folks looking for work, more scammers are working them over with fake-check scams. One of the more popular scams involves the offer to become a mystery shopper.

While some mystery shopping offers are legit, many can make money disappear from your bank account. Recently the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) released guidelines to help protect consumers who are looking for at home work.

According to FINRA, scammers post mystery shopping advertisements on Craigslist and other job classified sites. One popular ruse is to convince consumers that they have been hired as mystery shoppers to evaluate money transfer services for companies such as MoneyGram (Stock Quote: MGI).

The mystery shoppers are then sent legit-looking checks and are instructed to deposit the funds in their personal bank accounts, with the understanding that they then wire some of the monies to a third party, and keep some of it as compensation. When the checks turn out to be fakes, the deposit is reversed by the bank and the mystery shopper must solve the problem of coming up with the money that they never actually received and just wired away to a stranger.

How to Protect Yourself

If you are interested in becoming a mystery shopper, here's what FINRA suggests you do.

  1. Avoid "Keep the Change" Payment Plans - Be suspicious of any scheme where you are sent a check or money order for more than the amount you would be owed for your work.
  2. Call Companies Directly to Verify their Checks - Use directory assistance to get a phone number independent of what number you've been sent by your new "employer." Call the company directly to verify the check.
  3. Don't Respond to Pressure to Act Now - Some banks take 10 days, or more, to determine if a check is legit. Even if your bank lets you make a withdrawal sooner, wait until your bank assures you that a check has cleared.
  4. Do a Name Check - The contact names from your new opportunity should match up. Mismatched names or other typos or unprofessional communications should be a red flag.
  5. If You Get Taken, Report the Scam - The Internet Crime Complaint Center and the U.S. Postal Inspections Service are two good places to start.

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