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Secret Shopper Scams: Separating the Real from the Fake

written by: William Busse•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 8/9/2010

With a soft economy, secret shopper programs have allowed job seekers to earn extra cash while engaging in something they enjoy. Learn how to recognize legitimate secret shopper opportunities while avoiding the many secret shopper scams.

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    The Mystery Shopper

    The prospect of getting paid to shop is appealing to many people on a variety of levels. As a legitimate work at home opportunity, secret shopper programs can provide extra income and discounts on services, meals and merchandise. Unfortunately, illegitimate con artists have recognized an opportunity to exploit the industry through a number of creative secret shopper scams. When scrutinizing mystery shopper programs, it is important to avoid deceptions that can prove costly and sometimes involve the unwitting victim in criminal activity.

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    What Is a Secret Shopper?

    Companies use secret shoppers to evaluate the quality of service provided to their customers. Primarily utilized for retail and service businesses, secret shoppers are trained to make detailed observations regarding their shopping experience. These assessments areshoppin mall  documented and subsequently presented to the client. Feedback from an anonymous encounter with their business provides management with unbiased information they can use to modify or develop new policies.

    Mystery shopping assignments include detailed instructions on the particular areas the client is most interested in exploring. This can range from simple observations such as the time it takes to receive service, to more complex evaluations of product quality, store cleanliness, and customer service. Most importantly, veteran secret shoppers recognize that clients want objective reporting of events rather than opinions.

    Training is always provided by the mystery shopping company and often consists of a series of online lessons followed by a test. Compensation varies by the job, the complexity of the assignment, and the traveling distance involved. The secret shopper often receives a product or service as part of their compensation. Restaurant evaluations usually include a free meal, and the shopper is often allowed to keep merchandise that was purchased as part of a retail evaluation.

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    Secret Shopper Scams

    The popularity of secret shopper programs has predictably resulted in numerous deceptive schemes designed to defraud the job seeker. In its most innocuous form, the secret shopper scam involves advertisements placed in newspapers or over the Internet. These ads claim that the agent has compiled a proprietary database of companies that hire secret shoppers for lucrative assignments. When the list is provided, it usually contains the names of mystery shopping companies that are defunct, fictitious or readily available in the public domain.

    The more sinister scheme involves answering a secret shopper ad that offers an assignment evaluating different wire transfer services. There are numerous variations on the theme, with more sophisticated scams including an employment contract, training materials, and evaluation forms. In every instance, a check for several thousand dollars is also included. The unsuspecting victim is instructed to deposit the check in their own bank account and then wire the funds to an international address. The victim is also instructed to keep part of the money as compensation for their efforts.

    Ultimately the check bounces and the victim becomes responsible for reimbursing the bank for the missing funds. The unsuspecting job seeker has also become an accessory to a felony in the process.

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    Identifying Legitimate Mystery Shopper Opportunities

    There are numerous authentic secret shopper programs that are easy to identify. Companies that belong to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) are required to adhere to a set of ethical standards that ensure that the company and its assignments are genuine.

    There are common signs that identify a secret shopper opportunity as a scam. These include:

    • Soliciting for secret shoppers through pop ups and junk emails. Legitimate secret shopper companies never use these methods. Although they usually don’t advertise, they can be found easily through a basic Internet search.
    • Companies that require a fee. Authentic mystery shopper companies pay for completed assignments. They should never charge a fee for finding employment.
    • Unrealistic compensation claims. Secret shopper companies that promise assignments of $100 or more should be approached with caution. Although these jobs do exist, they are usually reserved for experienced shoppers. Those just beginning should expect simple assignments in the $8-10 range while they are being evaluated.
    • Any company asking a perspective shopper to cash a check on their behalf. This can lead to catastrophic consequences.

    With a small degree of due diligence, a job seeker can find a secret shopper program that will provide additional income while avoiding all the secret shopper scams.