Mystery shopping scams – an expensive way to shop


A chef by trade, the St. Paul man (who asked to remain anonymous) started cooking in an on-the-job training program when he was 13 years old. After nearly 31 years as a chef, the 45-year-old North End resident was unemployed last summer and spent hours on the computer every day looking for and applying for jobs.

One day a pop-up ad from a company called Retail Oversight Inc. appeared on the screen. The company, with an address in Emory, Alabama, promised applicants $300-$1000 a week as a secret shopper.

Eager for the needed income, he filled out the application. When he reached the end, he saw that there was a $49 fee to sign up. Not wanting to pay the fee, he clicked out of the program, or so he thought.

Not long after, a letter arrived at his house. It started with,” Congratulations, the $49 fee has been waived.” A cashier’s check for $4965 made out to him was enclosed. He was instructed to go to Western Union and send $2800, plus a $150 charge, to an address in Ontario, Canada. He was to send $1555 through MoneyGram, along with the cost of $50, to another address in Ontario.

For his efforts he would get $300, and he also could start work as a secret shopper, going to JC Penny to spend $40 and then to WalMart to spend $50.

When he deposited the cashier’s check at his bank, it cleared the bank in about two hours. The next day, he received a call from the bank telling him that he was out the $4965 because the check was counterfeit.

While the good news is that he has since found work, this whole experience has left him in debt to the tune of $5500. Now he wonders how this could have happened to him.

“A woman from the company called me and actually talked to me,” he said in a telephone interview. “I did everything they wanted me to do.”

He questions why the bank didn’t catch the counterfeit check right away. The only deposits made to his account in the past had been electronic fund transfers from his past employment. To add insult to injury, his bank repeatedly called him at his new job telling him he had to take out a loan to repay the nearly $4965. With an interest rate of more than nine percent, he now owes nearly $5500.

His story illustrates the Mystery Shopping Scams that St. Paul police recently warned about, citing both the bad check schemes and other schemes charging fees for information, a directory of mystery shopping companies, or a guarantee of a mystery shopping job. The police warning advises:

Do some homework about mystery shopping. There are many websites warning of these scams. Visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website for information on how to register to be a mystery shopper with a MSPA-member company, a database of available jobs, and additional information on the industry in general.

Do not give account numbers over telephone or email to persons/companies you are not familiar with.

Do not provide personal information over telephone or email unless you initiated the contact and know who you are dealing with.

If you think you have encountered a mystery shopping scam, file a complaint with your local consumer protection agency, the Better Business Bureau, your State Attorney General, or the FTC.

What is the Mystery Shopping Providers Association?

According to the MSPA website: The MSPA is the largest professional trade association dedicated to improving service quality using anonymous resources. With over 150 member companies worldwide, our diverse membership includes marketing research and merchandising companies, private investigation firms, training organizations and companies that specialize in providing mystery shopping services. Our member companies work with their clients to establish mechanisms to measure and improve levels of service.

The MSPA warns:

Mystery shopping companies rarely conduct mystery shops involving check cashing or money transfers. Legitimate companies have no reason to ask shoppers to send them money. If you get an offer that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Mystery shopping is a legitimate business, but only if you are dealing with legitimate businesses. Don’t get scammed. If you receive a cashiers check in the mail, with a request to wire money to someone, don’t do it! Contact your local authorities and the FBI…and fax a copy of the materials you receive to MSPA at 972-755-2561.