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NCL’s Fraud Center tracking spike in mystery shopper scam

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mystery shopping scams on the rise

With a still sluggish economy and steady unemployment figures, many Americans are looking for new work opportunities only to be unwittingly scammed in the process. Mystery shopping scams have become an increasingly popular swindle, with complaints to NCL's Fraud Center regarding fake check scams involving fraudulent mystery shopper and work-at-home schemes up nearly 9 percent in the last six months.

Last week, NCL’s Fraud Center was contacted by a woman we’ll call “Gloria.” Gloria has two young children who just returned to school, and with some extra time on her hands, Gloria began cruising online job boards for part time work. Gloria soon came across a mystery shopping position that looked promising—the assignment was to visit a local wire transferring service and send money back to the mystery shopping company, using funds from a check the shopping company would provide. After that, all she had to do was write a brief report about her experience at the wiring service location. She immediately contacted the company and was told she was the “perfect candidate” for the job. Within a few days, she was sent a realistic looking check for $5,700 and was instructed to deposit the money in her personal bank account, keep $200 as payment for her work, and wire the remaining balance back to the mystery shopping company. Gloria gladly did as she was told, only to learn that—instead of a quick payday—the fake check bounced, and she is now on the hook for $5,700 she doesn’t have. To add insult to injury, Gloria even wrote a report about the money wiring service she used—robbing Gloria of not only her money, but her time as well.

Mystery shopping scams work by first luring the consumer with the promise of easy money; in Gloria’s case it was 200 bucks for only a couple hours of work. Victims are then instructed to deposit a fake check, keep the amount that has been designated as their “payment,” and wire the money back to the scammer. Many consumers are unaware that, by law, banks must make the funds from deposited checks available within days, although uncovering a fake check can take weeks. Consumers are responsible for the checks they deposit, so if a check turns out to be a fake, they are responsible for paying the bank back.

The experts at NCL's Fraud Center are tracking scams like Gloria's and are reminding consumers of the most common red flags and tips for spotting these fraudulent mystery shopper opportunities, such as:

  • A legitimate company will never ask you to use a money transfer to send cash to them or anywhere else, for any purpose.
  • Remember that it’s never a good idea never to deposit a check from someone you don’t know—especially if the stranger is asking you to wire money.
  • Never pay a fee to become a mystery shopper. Legitimate companies don’t charge people to work for them—they pay people to work for them.
  • Be suspicious of any company that hires you on the basis of an email or phone call, without any interview or background checks.
  • If you are considering becoming a mystery shopper, do your research first. Spend some time online searching for reviews and comments about mystery shopping companies that are accepting applications.
  • Any company that promises you that can make a lot of money as a mystery shopper is almost certainly a scam.
  • If mystery shoppers are asked to make purchases, it’s usually for very small amounts for which they will be reimbursed.
  • Mystery shoppers are paid after completing their assignments and returning the questionnaires to the companies that hired them. Shoppers never receive checks upfront.
  • Businesses often arrange for mystery shoppers through independent companies, many of which are members of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA). For more information go to www.mysteryshop.org.

If you think you have encountered a mystery shopping scam, please visit NCL’s Fraud Center and file a complaint.

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