The ‘mystery shopper scam’ is making a comeback

Photo (c) simon2579 - Getty Images

Here’s how to avoid becoming a victim

If you like to shop, the idea of becoming a “secret shopper” for a retail chain may sound enticing, especially if you can earn big bucks for doing so. 

But be careful – these jobs rarely pay very much. If you are offered hundreds of dollars or a lot of free merchandise, then it's likely that your secret shopper offer is coming from a scammer.

This scam was widespread a decade or so ago, and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) recently reported that it appears to be making a comeback and targeting a new generation of potential victims.

To be clear – being a secret shopper is a legitimate job. However, there are very real differences between those types of jobs and the “too good to be true” offers that come from scam operators.

Red flags to watch for

According to the BBB, the new version of the secret shopper scam has a few different wrinkles. The offer usually comes in the form of an email, text, or social media message to become a secret shopper. Amazingly, the “company” offering you the position, which picked you at random, doesn’t even require an interview. That’s red flag number one.

If you agree, the scammer sends you a rather large check, asks you to buy a few things, then requests for you to send them the change. That’s red flag number two.

It’s a common scammer’s trick because the check is fake and will bounce a few days after you deposit it in your account. In the meantime, the victim has spent their own money on buying the requested items and sent their own money in the form of the change to the scammer.

“I saw a job posting on LinkedIn for a secret shopper position,” one victim told the BBB’s Scam Tracker. “I applied and shortly afterward received a check in the mail. The check was for $2,470 and the business wanted me to go to local stores, purchase gift cards with $2,000, and keep the rest as pay. I was supposed to scratch off the security covers and send pictures.” 

That’s red flag number three. Whenever an alleged business wants you to send them money in the form of gift cards, it’s a scam. The reason is simple. Gift cards can’t be traced and the money can't be retrieved once it has been spent. According to the BBB, no legitimate business will ask to be paid that way.

How to do it safely

If you would like to be a secret shopper, there are safe ways to go about it. The Mystery Shopper Professionals Association (MSPA) maintains a database of legitimate companies seeking mystery shoppers. Its role is to secretly monitor the customer service and performance of franchise locations.

Mystery shoppers should also research the secret shopper companies before applying. Before applying to a secret shopper job, make sure the company exists, has working contact information, and has good reviews and feedback from previous employees. 

One simple way to check out a potential mystery shopper employer is to search the company online, followed by the word “scam.”

Finally, be wary of jobs that offer hundreds of dollars or free expensive merchandise. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Take an Identity Theft Quiz. Get matched with an Authorized Partner.