Mystery Shopper Scam Alert

Last Updated Jun 8, 2009 1:28 PM EDT

I recently wrote a column on fake check scams and have since been innundated with questions from people who are attempting to earn part-time income as mystery shoppers.

If you're wondering whether the check they sent you--that's conveniently for considerably more than the job is worth--is any good, it's not. Do not deposit it. Do not send them a "refund" of their overpayment.

Don't be fooled by their assurances that you can wait until "the check clears" to refund the overpayment. If you do, you'll end up losing whatever money you sent and you could end up on the hook for insufficient funds fees, overdraft fees and all of the other miserable consequences of running afoul of your bank. This is a derivation of the charity check scam that I wrote about earlier this year. But it's a particularly vile one because it targets people who are already down on their luck and looking for work.

A recent survey by Consumer Federation of America found that one in every three Americans has been approached by someone peddling a fake check. About 2% of those people bite and end up losing between $3,000 and $4,000 on the con.

But here's the deal. Con artists are opportunists. With more than 6 million Americans looking for work, today's hot check scam targets unemployed people desperate to earn money through part-time work, such as mystery shopping. Susan Grant, the CFA's director of consumer protection, tells me that they've been inundated with reports of mystery shoppers getting taken.

It's an insidious con because it gets your guard down by including some measure of truth. Specifically, mystery shopping is a real job. The Mystery Shopping Providers Assn. says the industry employs more than 1 million people. But mystery shopping is not a big money-maker. Most jobs pay between $8 and $20, said spokeswoman Kelly Hancock.

This scam starts out sounding legitimate. You answer an email or advertisement looking for part-time work. The scammer tells you that they need mystery shoppers. You can shop in your own time and collect a fee.

If you've never been a mystery shopper, the next part won't strike you as strange: The company is going to send you a check to use to buy the small items you need to purchase to appropriately rate a retailer. Real mystery shopping companies don't do that. They pay only after you shop and file an evaluation form--and then, as I already mentioned, they pay a very modest amount.

The second red flag is that the check is going to be for a lot of money--likely $3,000 to $5,000--which is vastly more than you need. The con artist's excuse for sending so much money is that they want you to take your fee out of the check, plus the cost of whatever you're buying. And then, they want you to wire the rest of the money, supposedly to evaluate a bank or wire service. They suggest you wait until the check clears to send them the money.

What's wrong with that? U.S. banking laws demand that the bank give you access to your funds within 5 days. That gives most consumers the mistaken impression that the check has cleared. It hasn't. If it's a forgery, it can take weeks--even months--to determine that it's a fake. WHENEVER the bank determines the check is fake, they'll debit your account for the bogus check. If you've since relied on those funds to pay bills--or "refund" the scammer, you are out the cash. There is no recourse to get your money back. They sent you a bogus check, but you sent them a real one. And you are on the hook for it.

Your only protection is you. Don't get taken. If you're approached and wondering what to do, check out the new site fakechecks.org

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