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Viral mystery shopping scams
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Security & privacy

Clever shopping ‘research project’ scam is back – Don’t fall for it

Everybody loves a good bargain, and what can be better than getting paid to go shopping?

Not so fast. Scammers use a variety of tricks to steal your information or load malware onto your device. Well, they’re at it once again.

An old scam is making the rounds again, promising a lucrative reward for completing shopping tasks. Read on to see how this scam works and what you can do to avoid falling victim.

Here’s the backstory

Many stores employ secret shoppers to test their customer service, products or competitors’ prices. These shoppers pretend to be regular customers and note specific details or experiences. Typically, you need to apply to be a secret shopper to get paid for your time.

But thieves are reviving old mystery shopping scams to try and rip you off. The elaborate scheme begins with a text message or email. A listener of Kim’s radio show recently received one of these texts and reached out for clarity.

The text message claims to be from Whole Foods, and the company will pay you $550 for each in-store task you complete. “This project happens each week, so we have to select shoppers to function as a store evaluator,” reads the text. Here’s what it looks like:

Shopping scam

A link in the message goes to an unaltered Wix domain or is run through an URL shortener, which should also be your first clue that it’s bogus. Plenty of legitimate websites use Wix for their backend hosting but will immediately change the domain name to reflect the business professionally.

What you can do about it

The Whole Foods store evaluator scam goes as far back as 2018 and seemingly reemerges every year. Even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warned about it in 2020.

While the schemes might vary, the end goal is usually the same. To rip you off.

In some examples, before you start shopping, the recruiter will send you a check for a substantial amount. Then, you’ll need to buy gift cards or deposit the money immediately. In most cases, the checks are fake, and you just sent your own money to the scammers.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to pay a fee before being accepted as a mystery shopper. This is a major red flag.

But it’s not always about the money. Criminals can harvest your data and steal your information through suspicious links claiming to be sign-up forms. The website in this scam disappeared, but new ones will always pop up.

Here are some tips from the FTC on avoiding falling victim to these types of scams:

  • Don’t pay to work. Honest companies pay you, not charge you, to work for them. Don’t do it even if they say the money is for certification, training, or a guaranteed job. No real job, including mystery shopping, involves paying to get the job. You’ll find out the certificate is worthless, and there’s probably no job.
  • Don’t pay for a list of mystery shopping jobs. You can get that information free. 
  • Never wire money as part of a mystery shopping assignment. A scammer might send you a check, say, for buying products, tell you to deposit it and wire money back for “taxes,” “fees,” or other reasons. This is a classic scammer move. Wiring money is like sending cash, and once you send it, you probably can’t get it back.
  • Never deposit checks into your bank account and send money back. It doesn’t matter who it’s from or what they say it’s for. This is a fake check scam. Any money withdrawn from your account is your money since the check is worthless.
  • Don’t apply for mystery shopping jobs that guarantee you can make a lot of money. Only scammers make these guarantees. And only scammers say that you’ll be able to quit your job and do this full-time. Mystery shopping jobs are typically part-time and don’t usually pay enough to replace a full-time job.
  • Don’t respond to a job notice saying it’s with MSPA. The Mystery Shoppers Professionals Association (MSPA) is a trade association for the customer experience industry. MSPA doesn’t hire or advertise for mystery shoppers. But they do have a list of service provider companies that you can register with to find possible mystery shopping jobs.

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