Mystery Shopper Scam

March 22, 2017

Dear Consumer Ed:

After taking an online survey, I received an offer for a mystery shopper job.  I completed a brief online training and I was sent a check for $1,300 to start work.  The first job was to evaluate a wire transfer service by sending a $1,000 money transfer and then answering some questions about the experience. They said I could keep the remaining $300 as my fee.  They even said I should wait a week before making the transfer to allow the check to clear first, but it still sounds fishy to me.  What do you think?

Consumer Ed says: 

The scenario you describe has all the markings of a scam. Fraudsters often use a variety of ruses to convince consumers to part with their money. In the mystery shopper scheme, as you describe, consumers are given a check to deposit in their personal bank account and are then instructed to wire a certain amount to the scam artists and keep the remainder as payment. In most cases, there is no job, the check is fake, and consumers are out whatever money they wired. Perpetrators of fake check scams trick a lot of people into believing they can be trusted by instructing their victims to wait until the check “clears” before wiring the money. Most people assume that if a check clears their bank it is legitimate. That is not the case. Banks are required by federal law to make funds deposited available to their customers quickly – usually within one to five business days.  However, it can take weeks before a counterfeit check is detected. If the check turns out to be fake, you are responsible for replacing the money. Your bank may be able to take it from your account or sue you to recover it. 

Always be wary if someone asks you to wire money. While money transfers can be useful for sending funds to someone you know and trust, using these services to send money to a stranger is both risky and potentially expensive. Because these transfers are virtually the same as sending cash, there are few, if any protections for you as the sender. For instance, there is generally no way to reverse or refund a transaction once initiated. Identifying or tracking the person receiving the funds is also difficult, if not impossible, since wire transfer services, such as Western Union and MoneyGram, often have multiple locations from which funds may be collected. What’s more, scammers commonly have victims wire the money to a location in another country, which makes enforcing these crimes even more difficult.

As a rule of thumb, if someone wants to pay you more than the amount owed and have you send money back, it’s almost certainly a scam. Insist that people send you the exact amount owed, and if they refuse, don’t do business with them. And if you are accepting payment by check, ask that it come from a bank with a branch near you so that the bank can verify whether it’s legitimate before you send a product or provide a service.