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Security & privacy

Looking for extra cash? Don’t get taken in by secret shopper scams

It’s always a good idea to have some extra cash in the bank. Whether you’re saving up for a family vacation or just want to have a little tucked away in case of an emergency, a part-time gig can help.

If you’re lucky, you might be able to find a work-from-home job and not even have to leave the house. Tap or click here to see the 20 best ways to make money online.

Another fun way to earn extra money is with a secret shopper job. The good news is it’s a pretty simple occupation. The bad news is scammers are ripping people off with fake secret shopping offers.

The check isn’t in the mail

If you receive an offer to be a secret shopper, be careful. It might be a scam.

The Federal Trade Commission is warning that scammers are sending fake secret shopper offers for well-known companies. You might get the offer via text, email or even an old-school snail mail letter that invites you to work on a “research project starting soon in your area.”

People all across the U.S. have been getting messages like this recently, and some were wise enough to sniff out the scam. They reported the job offer to the FTC and it turns out they were right. It is a scam.

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Here’s how it works: You receive a message with an offer to be a secret shopper for popular stores like Whole Foods. But there is a twist that should make your Spidey-sense tingle.

Before you actually do any work as a secret shopper, the recruiter sends you a check which you’re supposed to cash immediately. Then, you’re supposed to send them money back while keeping a portion for your troubles.

In this particular scam, the FTC said the recruiter would send shoppers a check for more than $2,000 and shoppers would be asked to:

  • Cash or deposit the check immediately.
  • Buy gift cards with most of the money.
  • Keep about $450 as their pay.
  • Scratch the coating off the gift cards to show the PIN codes.
  • Send pictures of the cards’ front and back (with the codes) to the recruiter.

This is basically a tricky version of a classic check scam. The FTC receives tens of thousands of reports each year about fake checks.

How to avoid a check scam

FTC

If anyone asks you to deposit a check, withdraw money then send it to someone, it’s most likely a scam. When the check later turns out to be fake, the bank will want the money back and could take it from your account.

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Another thing to watch for is if someone tells you to buy gift cards and share the PIN; that’s also a scam. Once the scammer has the PIN, they also have the money from the cards.

The FTC offers the following tips to avoid falling for fake check scams:

  • Never use money from a check to send gift cards, money orders or wire money to strangers or someone you just met. Many scammers demand you send money through money transfer services like Western Union or MoneyGram, or buy gift cards and send them the PIN code. Once you wire money or give them the gift card PIN, it is like handing over cash. It’s almost impossible to get back.
  • Toss offers that ask you to pay for a prize. If it’s free, you shouldn’t have to pay to get it.
  • Don’t accept a check for more than the selling price. If you’re selling something through an online marketplace and the buyer sends you a check for more than the item sold for, don’t cash the check. They claim they paid extra by mistake and will ask you to return the extra portion. You can bet it’s a scam.

If you receive a message offering a secret shopping job that sounds too good to be true, report it. Tell the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. You might be able to help stop scams like these from spreading further.

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