Decades-old mystery shopping scam getting better at looking more authentic

Posted at 6:25 PM, May 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-05 18:25:33-04

You get a check in the mail and it comes with a mission. They offer to pay you for reporting your customer service experience at certain stores and in exchange you make a small commission.

It's based off a decades-old scam but the hoax is getting more elaborate.

“You'll deposit [the check], it'll bounce, and you will be held accountable for the money you spent,” said Angie Barnett, president & CEO with the Better Business Bureau serving Greater Maryland.

It's called the mystery shopper scam or secret shopper scam.

“An individual receives mail, a phone call, or email notice that they have an opportunity to take a large sum of money, usually in the thousands, and they are asked to go out and conduct mystery or secret shopping. The purpose of that is to determine customer service,” Barnett said.

ABC2 obtained a letter and check sent by a scammer. According to the detailed instructions, the customer is to use the $2,810 check to purchase $2,500 worth of iTunes gift cards in the denominations of $50 and $100.

The person must carefully scratch the cards and text pictures of the pin numbers to the phone number on the sheet then email a survey with observations from their buying experience.

“Check-off, how long did you wait in line? Was the customer service friendly?,” said Barnett.

For their efforts they get to keep the leftover $310, but really they'll be in the hole a lot more than that.

“If the money turns out to be coming from this fraudulent source, you are still held accountable,” Barnett said.

It's a scam that's been around for a while but the con artists are getting better at making it look more authentic.

“Your first warning sign: unsolicited. Meaning you didn't reach out, you weren't looking for mystery shopping jobs,” said Barnett.

The second red flag is to closely look at the information on the check.

“The business name that is listed on the check - what correlation does that name up on the top left hand corner have to do with the person who signed it; have to do with the mystery shopping letter attached? Usually there's no correlation,” said Barnett.

Mystery shopping jobs do exist, but if you’re sent a check without any prior communication it’s most likely the run of the mill rip-off.

And people who have been duped before have reason to be on higher alert.

“If I fall for a scam, it increases the value of my contact information on the black market,” said Barnett.

To make sure you or a loved one doesn’t get caught up in one of these schemes there are a few things to be aware of. First, don't deposit that check. It could bounce, leaving you on the hook for bank fees.

Second, don't wire money to strangers. It seems obvious, but crooks have gotten incredibly good at deceiving people.

Third, do your research. Check the internet and look for resources on reputable companies.

Finally, don't give out your personal information.