Crimes of Persuasion

Schemes, scams, frauds.

Mystery / Secret Shopper Scam

Do you love to shop? If so, you may be tempted by unsolicited emails or newspaper ads that claim you can earn a living as a secret or mystery shopper by dining at elegant restaurants, shopping at pricey stores, or checking into luxurious hotels. But, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, marketers who promise lucrative jobs as mystery shoppers often do not deliver bona fide opportunities.

What is Mystery Shopping?

Some retailers hire marketing research companies to evaluate the quality of service in their stores; these companies use mystery shoppers to get the information anonymously. They assign a mystery shopper to make a particular purchase in a store or restaurant, for example, and then report on the experience. Typically, the shopper is reimbursed, and can keep the product or service.

Many professionals in the field consider mystery shopping a part-time activity, at best. And, they add, opportunities generally are posted online by marketing research or merchandising companies. Nevertheless, fraudulent mystery shopping promoters are using newspaper ads and emails to create the impression that they’re a gateway to lucrative mystery shopper jobs with reputable companies. These solicitations usually promote a website where consumers can “register”to become mystery shoppers —after they pay a fee for information about a certification program, a directory of mystery shopping companies, or a guarantee of a mystery shopping job.

The truth is that it is unnecessary to pay money to anyone to get into the mystery shopper business. The shopping certification offered in advertising or unsolicited email is almost always worthless. A list of companies that hire mystery shoppers is available for free; and legitimate mystery shopper jobs are on the Internet for free. Consumers who try to get a refund from promoters of mystery shopping jobs usually are out of luck. Either the business doesn’t return the phone calls, or if it does, it’s to try another pitch.

The Facts of Mystery Shopping

Becoming a legitimate mystery shopper for a legitimate company doesn’t cost anything. Here’s how to do it:

blue bullet point Search the Internet for mystery shopping companies that are accepting applications. Legitimate companies don’t charge an application fee. Many accept applications online.
blue bullet point Do some homework about mystery shopping. Check libraries or bookstores for tips on how to find companies hiring mystery shoppers, as well as how to do the job effectively.
blue bullet point Visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website at 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.

In the meantime, the FTC says consumers should be skeptical of mystery shopping promoters who:

blue bullet point Advertise for mystery shoppers in a newspaper’s ‘help wanted’ section or by email. While it may appear as if these companies are hiring mystery shoppers, it’s much more likely that they’re pitching unnecessary —and possibly bogus —mystery shopping “services.”
blue bullet point Sell “certification.”Companies that use mystery shoppers generally do not require certification.
blue bullet point Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.
blue bullet point Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities.
blue bullet point Sell directories of companies that provide mystery shoppers.

Source: FTC

Secret Shopper Sets Sale for Jail

02/07 - There's a new scam that promises quick riches but could land unsuspecting victims in jail. Just ask Jack Brooks.

Brooks was arrested Monday by police for uttering forgery and possession of a counterfeit check.

Brooks has been released on bond.

Detective Capt. Mel Andrews, the city's chief of detectives, said the setup is "a new face on an old scam."

In December, Brooks received a letter from ACRA Inc., a company supposedly based in British Columbia, Canada. The letter contained a cashier's check, payable to Brooks for $4,770, from a Cleveland, Ohio-based bank.

The bank is legitimate, but it does not issue cashier's checks, Andrews said. Also, the bank's routing number, printed on the check, is incorrect.

The letter from ACRA, which described itself as a "secret customer employment firm," proposed employing Brooks as a mystery or "secret" shopper, the detective said.

"Basically, he was to pose as a potential customer. In the process, he was to evaluate customer service," Andrews said.

Andrews said Brooks took the check to a local furniture store to be cashed. When the store later called the 1-800 number on the check, it was a non-working number.

Brooks was instructed by the company to cash the check, take $680 out for his expenses and make small purchases at Wal-Mart and other stores in town totaling $290 as part of the "mystery" shopping program.

Brooks also was asked to return in cash to the company $2,600 via Western Union and another $1,200 via MoneyGram, which he claims he did, Andrews said.

The company provided forms to Brooks for his evaluation of the stores and their employees regarding their appearance and promptness of service, Andrews said.

Andrews said the letter sent to Brooks in December bears the return address of 888 Wellington Ave., British Columbia, Canada.

ACRA Inc., a Mantua, N.J.-based secret shop company, issued a statement on its Web site,, regarding the scam coming from Ontario or any other Canadian city.

"It appears that our company (a legitimate secret shop company), as well as yourselves, have been victims of a scam. The party that perpetrated the fraud used our company name and website address only, and all of the other information (names, address, banking info) was fictitious," said Clay Carlos, president of the company in the statement.

The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of Currency, Special Supervision Division of the U.S. Treasury Department, issued the following advice on the scam.

"With documentation in hand, notify the bank that is printed on the check," the notice said.

"Don't cash these checks," Det.Andrews said.

Greenwood Commonwealth

Secret Shopper Scam Uses Counterfeit Checks

12/06 - ( Indiana) - A Roachdale woman lost more than $6,000 in a secret shopper scam this month.

It's doubtful she'll recover any of it and she hopes her story is a warning to other would-be secret shoppers.

Loretta Stevens thought she was being hired through the Internet to shop at various businesses and report on the company's customer service.

In reality, scammers convinced her to cash fraudulent checks at her bank and wire them money. Stevens was to keep $300 for each of two transactions. But the checks for $3,200 and $2,850 were fraudulent. Two weeks later Stevens received notice that she owes the bank.

Stevens was uncomfortable with the idea when she cashed the checks. She asked bank employees if the checks were legitimate. Stevens said she took it as a good sign when the branch manager initialed the first check, indicating it could be cashed instead of held for a period until it cleared.

Stevens' new "employer" asked her to wire the money from two agencies assumed to have customer service problems. Her husband, Bill, said she was suspicious at first and asked the company numerous questions, which they answered in detail.

Scammers often research victims' lives in advance and have convincing stories ready when asked questions. Earlier this year, Montgomery County citizens lost an estimated $100,000 in a sophisticated scam that plays on emotions and exploits good will. One of them was a 65-year old widow seeking companionship.

Stevens answered an online classified ad at, a job search Internet site. There were 27 such ads, including the one she answered, on the site this week.

Happy to work from home, Stevens called the phone number in the ad. She was sent a package of materials from Canada to start a new career. There were customer service evaluation sheets, forms that told the company when she could work and instructions for her first assignment.

But the only legitimate reports she filed this week were with the Indiana State Police and Indiana Attorney General.

"They are telling me it's not very hopeful that I'll get my money back," she said. "I don't want this to happen to anyone else."

Perpetrators of many such scams are from several countries that do not recognize United States law, said Roger Goodes, U.S. Secret Service special agent. They are rarely prosecuted. Victims have little or no recourse.

Modern Internet fraud, identity theft and a number of operations began about 20 years ago with lottery scams, but are rampant now, ISP Trooper Charlie Boller said.

"These entities know the fine line of the law and they walk it," he said, adding, "And who knows where they're from.

"The rule of thumb is, if it's not something local and that you know, don't get involved."

The Journal Review

Here's the secret: Shopping job a scam

03/06 - (Alabama) - Shauntae Riddle was trying to make a few hundred bucks when she signed up to be a secret shopper. Now, she owes a bank a couple of grand.

Riddle is one of many Alabamians who have been tricked by a Canadian company into cashing counter- feit checks and wiring the money back to Canada.

The Montgomery woman heard about from her cousin, Krystal Gayle, who also fell victim to the scam. The two believed the Saskatchewan-based company was legitimate because it didn't ask for any cash up-front, and a Web search about the firm didn't raise any red flags.

About a week after contacting, they each received a $2,900 cashier's check and their assignments. One of their assignments was to send about $2,000 to a man in Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada, using Western Union. A couple weeks later, the checks turned up as counterfeit.

"I must admit they are pretty smart," said Riddle, who filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Bureau of Investigation without success. "I just realized that I needed to come to the public, because consumers, once they've been scammed, there's really nothing out there to back them up."

She now must repay the bank where she cashed the check.

Millions are lost to fraudulent check scams every year, said Barry Elliott, a detective with the Ontario Provincial Police. Many of the scams are run by organized crime syndicates abroad, Elliott said. Scammers change company names often and rely on mobile phones.

Representatives of could not be reached for comment. A voice message on the company's phone tells callers to leave a message, but the voicemail box was full. The company Web site displays a single message: " is now closed and will open shortly to inform users about scams on the Internet regarding secret shopping sites."

Montgomery Advertiser

Secret Shopper Wire Transfer Fraud

08/07 - (California) - The Bakersfield Police Department wants to inform the community of a recent scam that a citizen reported to us. The citizen received a cashier’s check and letter indicating that they had been selected to be a “secret shopper.”

The victim was instructed to cash the $3,320 check and then make two wire transfers via Moneygram or Western Union to Canada and New York. The citizen was told to keep $180 to complete the “secret shopper” job and then contact the company to report on their experience. The victim truly believed that they had been selected as a “secret shopper” after calling the company and speaking to a person on the phone.

When the victim attempted to negotiate the check an alert employee of a local check cashing business requested that they wait for the police. There appeared to be no attempt on the part of the victim to play a part in any fraud and they were released with a warning. The check was found to be counterfeit.

The public should take notice that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of these types of scams currently being perpetrated against citizens across the country.

There is one common thread; you are being asked to wire transfer money. The public should be aware that when money is wire transferred it can be picked up anywhere in the world, as long as the receiver has the correct transaction ID and password. Once money is sent, there is virtually no hope of recovering it, or tracking down the suspects.

Tehachapi News

Secret Shopper MoneyGram Scam Counterfeit Check Fraud

09/07 - FARMINGTON, NM — Marc Jones thought the nearly $5,000 check in the mail was too good to be true.

Unfortunately, he was right and Better Business Bureau officials warned others against the "secret shopper" scam letter this week.

Jones, a 45-year-old Farmington self-contractor, got the letter in the mail last Friday.

"Our company is a secret shopping' employment firm that specializes in conducting research to assist corporations to evaluate the quality of customer service provided to their clients," it reads. "We are pleased to inform you that your name has been selected by a consumer survey specialist ... to participate in a paid consumer research program in your area known as secret shopper.'"

It tells the "secret shopper" the assignment is to test the money wiring service Money Gram. Recipients are instructed to cash an enclosed $4,922 check at his or her bank and keep $920 for "probational training pay." It says to wire the rest to a Paul Baird in Winnipeg-Manitoba, Canada, to complete the test.

Despite a series of professional-looking brand icons, on the bottom, he said, the letter appeared "too good to be true," Jones said, and he called the Better Business Bureau.

"It's a con game," he said. "You get nothing but the bill. Don't fall for it."

Con game is right, said Joyce Donald, who heads the Better Business Bureau in Farmington.

When she made a copy of the check, the word "void," previously hidden on the original, showed on the copy.

"We try to warn people, the banks try and warn them, that the check is no good," she said.

The letter is based on a common scam principle: People think they are keeping part of a good check in exchange for sending part of it along. When the check turns out to be bad, they're stuck paying for the money they sent.

The scam takes many forms, from an e-mail purported to be from someone looking to claim an inheritance, to a letter telling someone he or she has won a contest.

"I've had people come in and they're so convinced ... there are people that want to believe we've won," Donald said.

This particular scam takes the form of a "secret shopper," a legitimate tool used by businesses to check their customer service.

"Secret shoppers are really very good. They go in and check on items, pricing, so forth," Donald said.

This letter, however, comes from Canada, which is a good sign it's a scam.

"Anything from out of the country is usually illegal," she said.

To spot scams, she said, people should look out for international stamps and anything asking them to send cash.

"If you have got to send money to get money, you might as well say right off the bat that there's something wrong," she said.

Farmington Daily Times

Get Paid to Get Scammed in Secret Shopping Job Fraud

08/07 - (Blythewood, SC) - If you've ever searched for a job you've probably seen the ads saying you can get paid to shop.

It sounded like the perfect opportunity for a stay-at-home mom in Blythewood, but Tessa Garcia said she ended up losing nearly $5,000.

"I was just trying to help out my husband. He's the only one working and he doesn't make a lot," Tessa Garcia said.

When Garcia found the website she thought she could make some easy money. She was sent a cashiers check for nearly $5,000 and told to make purchases at GAP, Wal-Mart, Western Union and Moneygram--all while surveying each company's service.

"How was they dressed? Was they nice? Or was they considerate? Did someone help you when you needed it?" Garcia said about the questions she was supposed to answer.

Garcia still has receipts showing she wired more than $4,200 to the Canadian address she was told to use. The only problem? Garcia said the company's check never posted to her account.

When we called Get Paid 2 a representative told us Garcia must be the one pulling a scam.

"Well I believe maybe she took the $5,000 and ran off with it for herself," he said.

The person who answered the phone was unwilling to answer any questions about the company and said a manager would have to call us.

News 19 is still waiting on the same phone call Garcia would like to receive.

"I feel bad that people out there are doing innocent people like me wrong. There's a lot of stay-at-home parents or parents that just wanna make a little bit of extra money," she said.

The Richland County Sheriffs Department is investigating the case and they say at this time it does appear Garcia was the victim of a scam.

There's No Mystery About This Cheque Scam Fake Job Offer

(UK) - 12/06 - BEWARE of mailshots offering paid work as mystery shoppers, warns the Office of Fair Trading.

An outfit called Paid Services, supposedly based in East London, offers £350 for your first assignment - testing a money transfer service. You're asked to send £1,500 by money transfer to an address in Canada - and promised a cheque in return for nearly £2,000 to cover the expense and your fee.

You send the money, they disappear with it and their counterfeit cheque bounces.

OFT spokeswoman Christine Wade says: "Consumers throughout the UK are being targeted by this nasty scam which exploits the promise of paid work to defraud victims.

"Scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated and everyone needs to be on their guard." Here's how you can avoid this con:

Never send money to a stranger using a money transfer service.

Don't use your own money in any "mystery shopping" exercise.

Never accept a cheque from a stranger. Insist on an electronic transfer and wait for written confirmation from the bank that the payment has definitely gone through.

Anyone receiving a similar mailing should call Consumer Direct at 08454 040506 or visit

If you have already been caught out, contact the OFT's Scam-busters team on 08457 224499.

Mystery Shopper Check Scam Warning

01/07 - Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell is warning Vermont consumers to avoid “mystery shopping scams.”

The scam begins when a consumer receives a letter or phone call offering employment as a “customer service evaluator” or similar position. The letter (or a letter following a call) is accompanied by a check—often in an odd amount, like $1,845—and instructs the consumer to deposit or cash the check, then evaluate the quality of service at a business like Wal-Mart or McDonalds. The consumer is also told to go to Western Union or MoneyGram and wire back most of the funds originally sent (for example, $1,595), keeping the rest as compensation. Sometimes a consumer will receive more than one of these letter and checks.

The checks are counterfeit, a fact that is not discovered—by the consumer’s bank—until long after the money has been transferred to the scammer. At that point, the consumer is legally responsible to his or her bank for the funds that have been withdrawn and wired away and normally must pay them back.

Other scams using counterfeit checks include:

# Selling goods. A consumer sells goods in the marketplace, for example, over the Internet. A “buyer” sends the consumer a (counterfeit) check for the agreed- upon price, and the consumer ships the goods to the buyer, only to find that the payment is no good.

# Excess of purchase price. Similar to the above scam, the “buyer” sends a check for more than the purchase price of the merchandise the consumer is offering and asks the consumer to wire the excess back to him. The buyer’s check is counterfeit.

# Unexpected windfall. The consumer receives a letter stating that she is entitled to receive a large amount of money—because, for example, the consumer has “won a foreign lottery” or is the “beneficiary” of someone’s estate. The catch is that the consumer has to wire back a tax or fee before receiving the money; a check is enclosed or sent to cover that fee, but the check is counterfeit.

# Money transfer agent. The consumer is asked to act as a money transfer agent by receiving checks to deposit into his bank account and then wiring amounts of money to various persons or accounts in other countries. The checks are counterfeit.

Attorney General Sorrell urges consumers to avoid being scammed by not responding to “mystery shopper” offers or other check-based scams. In fact, any offer that requires a consumer to wire money back is a fraud. Scammers like to have consumers wire them money because once the money is picked up, there is no way to recover it. Consumers who post their resume online may also want to ask if the host verifies the legitimacy of employers with access to the site, so that the consumer’s posting does not become a source of contact information for “mystery shopper” scams.

How to Lose Money in Mystery Shopping Scam

12/08 - A Web-based operation that promised customers they could make big money as mystery shoppers will pay US$850,000 to settle charges of deceptive advertising and contempt brought by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC in March 2007 filed complaints against three companies and five people, alleging they worked together on a campaign saying that was hiring mystery shoppers nationwide. Mystery shoppers get paid to shop at stores or dine out. ran advertisements online, in newspapers, on the radio and on television. People who responded to the ads were told by the company's telemarkers that Mystery Shop Link had large numbers of unfilled mystery shopping jobs available. In exchange for a $99 fee, consumers were promised enough work to earn a steady full-time or part-time income as mystery shoppers, the FTC said.

Instead, consumers received a worthless certification and access to postings for mystery shopping jobs controlled by other companies, the FTC said. Consumers had to apply for these mostly low-paying jobs and had no advantage over anyone else who found the postings free elsewhere on the Internet. Most consumers got no jobs and earned no money, the agency said.

The companies charged by the FTC in March were Mystery Shop Link and Tangent Group, both based in Portland, Maine, and telemarketer Harp Marketing Services, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The FTC also charged five of the eight defendants -- Mystery Shop Link, Tangent Group, Robin Larry Murphy, Andrew Holman and Kenneth Johnson -- with contempt. The contempt charge alleged that Murphy violated the terms of a consent judgment in a prior telemarketing fraud case involving false promises of government jobs. The 1997 consent judgment barred Murphy from making material misrepresentations of fact while telemarketing, and required him to post a $100,000 bond.

In addition to seeking contempt sanctions against Murphy, the FTC also alleged that the codefendants were in contempt of the previous order because they all participated in running despite knowing about the prior consent judgment against Murphy. Murphy, Holman and Johnson are all shareholders and current or former officers at Mystery Shop Link, according to court documents filed by the FTC.

The settlements announced Thursday were with two groups of defendants. The settlement with the first group, Mystery Shop Link, Tangent Group, Murphy, Holman and Johnson, resolves both the 2007 case and the contempt charges.

Under the settlement, the FTC will collect the proceeds of Murphy's $100,000 bond, and the settlement also includes a $17.8 million judgment, which is suspended based on the defendants' inability to pay. The full judgment will be imposed if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition, the FTC said. As a repeat offender, Murphy is permanently banned from telemarketing, except for nondeceptive sales to businesses of telecommunications equipment.

The second settlement includes defendants Harp Marketing Services and its principals, Aiden Reddin and Marc Gurney. Harp Marketing was the primary outside telemarketing firm that handled consumer calls and sales for Mystery Shop Link, the FTC said.

This settlement requires Harp and its owners to pay $750,000 in redress and prohibits them from making misrepresentations in the future. The Harp settlement also includes a suspended judgment of $6.8 million, the total amount of Mystery Shop Link sales made by Harp's telemarketers. The full amount of this judgment will be imposed if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

Both settlements prohibit the defendants from collecting payments from Mystery Shop Link customers, and from transferring or benefiting from information about those customers.


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