Mystery shopping gigs are real, but they’re also a common job title you’ll see when a scammer is looking for a victim.
And now, fraudsters are giving this job scam a new twist. One that could land you in jail.
But first, the real thing.
Retailers will hire “mystery shoppers” to visit their businesses — unbeknownst to the employees — for an objective look at the shopping experience. The mystery shopper will be instructed to look at specific things about a business, and then go back to the company to report his or her experiences.
Mystery shoppers are typically paid a fee for their time, and they’re also reimbursed for items that are purchased during a store visit. These amounts are often pre-approved by the company that hires the shopper.
The fakes work differently.
Instead of reimbursing a shopper, the fake company will send a bogus check that includes the employee’s pay and funds that are supposed to be used to make purchases — usually gift cards. After the gift card purchases, the shopper is instructed to give the card numbers and PINs to the company.
The scammer swipes the cash from the card, and in time, when the bogus check bounces, the shopper is on the hook for the money.
Sometimes victims learn about the “job” from a friend who gives a testimonial on social media or in an email detailing how much money was made. But of course, those messages are really from scammers who have hacked into the friend’s account.
Beware of at-home employment offers that ask you to re-package and re-ship goods.
Now that twist: Schemers are targeting high school and college students who are looking for part-time summer work with a new kind of mystery shopper job. The position is as a “personal shoplifter.”
A personal shoplifter?
Yes. And it’s a scam.
We haven’t seen the scam here in the U.S. — yet — but it was uncovered when a woman in the U.K. answered a Facebook ad promoting a job website.
Attempts to contact the police district where it happened — Greater Manchester — were unsuccessful, but here’s what happened based on published reports.
When the woman clicked on the job website, she was given a list of jobs, including one for a “mystery shopper.” She was then directed to a web site called “Mystery Shopping UK,” and after she applied for the job, she reportedly received a call from a company rep.
The rep explained the job.
The employee would visit stores from a list the firm would provide, and she’d take specific items from the stores.
Along the way, she was to take notes about the cleanliness of the store, the appearance of staff, the number of security guards and what they were doing.
If she was able to walk out of the store with the items, she was to put them in clearly labeled plastic bags and ship them to the company.
If she was caught, she was instructed not to reveal that she was working for the company. Instead, she should go through the arrest process.
When she was in police custody, she was told, police would call the company, and the company would verify her job.
She accepted the job, reports said, and she received an “official-looking letter” that listed the stores and the items she was to take.
And yes, she was arrested for shoplifting.
Police were unable to reach the company by phone, email or its web site.
The police department’s Facebook page explained further: “At first glance the letter appeared legitimate but on closer inspection there were spelling errors and random wording at the foot of each page. The website exists and at first looks legitimate but it is not possible to get through to anyone or leave any messages when calling the advised number.”
Officials were able to confirm that the store from which the items were stolen doesn’t use any mystery shopper or shoplifter services.
MYSTERY SHOPPING IS REAL
Back in the U.S., Michael Mershimer, president of MSPA-NA — the group formerly known as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America — said the scam hasn’t hit our shores yet.
No legitimate company would have you steal from their stores, Mershimer said.
“Even to test security, this would be huge risk and liability for a company,” he said. “An interaction between store security and a shoplifter can go bad quickly — regardless of whether you are screaming that you are just a mystery shopper. You are going to jail.”
Businesses will use many tactics to see what’s happening in their stores, said Robert Bugai, who has worked as a mystery shopper for 37 years and is currently the director of public relations for the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. He’s never seen anything this extreme, he said.
Bugai said it’s common for companies to hire people to “infiltrate” their business.
“The findings can assist them in being able to use technology to detect and prevent fraud and theft while protecting their profits,” Bugai said. “Just as hackers are hired to find the holes in a company’s computer system, others are hired solely to do the same in other environments such as retail stores.”
Scammers strike again, this time with offers of “mystery shopper” jobs.
If you have interest in a real mystery shopping job, do your research and look for red flags.
Mershimer said you should never respond to an email or social media solicitation if you have not previously registered to be a shopper or auditor for that company. Rather, you should ignore unsolicited communications.
To make sure you’re looking at the real thing, he recommends you always search online using a different browser for contact information for any company that sends you a message so you can verify a job.
Mershimer warns that scammers are expert at replicating a legitimate company’s website, and they’ll use questionable email addresses, too.
“A legitimate company will use their company name in their email address. Don’t respond to Gmail, yahoo, etc email addresses,” he said.
You can learn more about legitimate mystery shopper jobs by searching the member directory on the MSPA-NA website.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller atBamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. FindBamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.