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Five "Don'ts" to Prevent Mystery Shopping Scams

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by Sid Kirchheimer

As unsolicited emails, phone calls and mailed letters (often with fake checks) continue to recruit victims in mystery shopping scams, fraudsters have widened their net to the popular networking website LinkedIn.

The MSPA-NA (formerly known as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America) recently issued a warning that at least one member, IntelliShop, has been spoofed in this new ploy. The truth: MSPA-NA members do not send out unsolicited messages about mystery shopping opportunities on LinkedIn or elsewhere.

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If you receive a mystery shopping offer via your LinkedIn account, don’t click on the link, as it may contain malware. Simply forward the message to

Other don’ts to prevent getting duped in this longtime, popular scam:

Don’t trust advance-payment checks. Although you can earn extra cash working as a mystery shopper (aka a secret shopper), no legitimate company pays in advance. That’s the MO of scammers, who mail counterfeit checks with unexpected “you have been selected” invites, and instructions to deposit the money and then forward back some amount, typically by wire transfer or prepaid debit card. What happens: Inevitably, the deposited check proves to be counterfeit, and you’re on the hook to reimburse your bank for the forwarded amount and other funds drawn from its deposit.

Don’t expect to get rich. Legitimate mystery shopping jobs typically pay $12 to $25 per assignment, reports Secret Shopper, a company to which consumers can apply for assignments. The cost of meals may be covered when reviewing restaurants or products purchased in stores. But actual payment is nowhere near amounts promised in bogus jobs — which could be several thousand dollars.

Don’t pay to take part. Only con artists, not legitimate companies, demand upfront payment to register to become a mystery shopper. Some, including the MSPA-NA, do offer certification courses to educate shoppers on what is expected of them, but certification is not required nor does it result in higher payment. You can search for assignments at MSPA-NA, at Secret Shopper or at member companies on their websites.

Don’t trust email. Unless you have already applied for jobs and provided your email address, assume any assignments that arrive in your in-box are from scammers. They often recruit victims by sending bulk emails, typically with “Dear Shopper” greetings, instead of your name.

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Don’t fall for common bait. Walmart is frequently spoofed in mystery shopping scams, via emails, text messages, mailed letters and even bogus online advertisements. The truth: Walmart does not hire or use mystery shopping services. So any check that comes from this megastore for this purpose is counterfeit. Other leading retailers may be spoofed (including by sending a bogus check allegedly from them), but if and when these companies use mystery shoppers, the assignments and payments are handled by a third-party vendor.

Another popular ruse: In mystery shopping scams, the first assignment is often made under the pretense of evaluating a wire transfer service, such as Western Union or MoneyGram, or a prepaid debit card, such as Green Dot MoneyPak. This is done so the criminals can more convincingly get payment (via money forwarded from a fake advance-payment check) using those hard-to-track services.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network . You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up-to-date on the latest scams in your area.

Photos: baona/iStock

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