Spot the real job, don't get lured into a costly scam

FTC offers advice if you're looking for a legitimate mystery shopper offer


It's a scam that could easily lure you in, especially because there are legitimate jobs out there for mystery shoppers. There are a lot of schemes out there, but investigators say one in particular, was a multi-million dollar con.

"She said, 'Oh my God, I'm part of a scheme.' And I said, 'Yes you are,'" explained U.S. Postal Inspector David Oakley.

Inspectors say a mother of two trying to make extra money found herself caught directly in the middle of a mystery shopper scam.

"Online she saw a job for a mystery shopper, she filled out the online application," explained Oakley.

She was then hired. Her job was to stamp and mail out envelopes.

"If you're a mystery shopper, but you never actually shop that should be a red flag for that person," Oakley said.

Investigators found a check for almost $2,800 and a letter with instructions.

"Deposit the check, convert it into cash, keep some for themselves, then wire the remainder of the money to an overseas location or another person," explained Oakley.

But recipients who followed these instructions quickly learned they had been duped. The check bounced and they were on the hook for the money.

"Wire the remainder of the money to another person, this is a tell tale sign this isn't a legitimate job," Oakley warned.

Inspectors caught up with the victim and informed her she was being used as a pawn in an illegal scheme. She quickly quit.

Be very careful if you are looking online for jobs. Research the company online," Oakley advised. "Do your homework before you say 'yes' to any job."

The Federal Trade Commission says yes, there are legitimate mystery shopper opportunities out there. You just need to know what to look for in a legitimate job and how to spot the scams.

So what is mystery shopping? The FTC says some retailers hire companies to evaluate the quality of service in their stores; they often use mystery shoppers to get the information. They instruct a mystery shopper to make a particular purchase in a store or restaurant, and then report on the experience. Typically, the shopper is reimbursed and can keep the product or service. Sometimes the shopper receives a small payment, as well.

According to the FTC, 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.

The FTC says dishonest promoters use newspaper ads and emails to create the impression that mystery shopping jobs are a gateway to a high-paying job with reputable companies. They often create websites where you can "register" to become a mystery shopper, but first you have to pay a fee — for information about a certification program, a directory of mystery shopping companies, or a guarantee of a mystery shopping job.

It's unnecessary to pay anyone to get into the mystery shopper business. The certification offered is almost always worthless. A list of companies that hire mystery shoppers is available for free, and legitimate mystery shopper jobs are listed on the internet for free. If you try to get a refund from the promoters, you will be out of luck. Either the business won't return your phone calls, or if it does, it's to try another pitch.

The FTC says you should not do business with mystery shopping promoters who:

  • Advertise for mystery shoppers in a newspaper's ‘help wanted' section or by email.
  • Require that you pay for "certification."
  • Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.
  • Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities.
  • Sell directories of companies that hire mystery shoppers.
  • Ask you to deposit a check and wire some or all of the money to someone.

If you think you've spotted a mystery shopping scam, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or with your state Attorney General.

Tips from the FTC in finding legitimate mystery shopping jobs:

  • Research mystery shopping. Check libraries, bookstores, or online sites for tips on how to find legitimate companies hiring mystery shoppers, as well as how to do the job effectively.
  • Search the internet for reviews and comments about mystery shopping companies that are accepting applications online. Dig deeper. Shills may be paid to post positive reviews.
  • Remember that legitimate companies don't charge people to work for them – they pay people to work for them.
  • Never wire money as part of a mystery shopping assignment.

The FTC adds that you can visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website at mysteryshop.org to search a database of mystery shopper assignments and learn how to apply for them. The MSPA offers certification programs for a fee, but adds you don't need "certification" to look – or apply – for assignments in its database.