I recently received an email, which, like a lot of emails of this variety, contained misspelled words and grammatical errors. I've fixed those mistakes, which were just 1 of several red flags in this communication:
"We have a customer service survey assignment in your location for you. We would pay $320 per assignment, which would come in the form of a cashier's check along with comprehensive details in regard to your assignment. You would also receive an instructional note. The job entails an evaluation, such as visiting Wal-Mart, Rite Aid, Walgreens, etc."
So this "offer" seems legit, right? All I would have to do is go to a store, shop and report on the experience. In return, I would get to keep the items purchased and get paid. Of course, this is a scam (and a fairly obvious one), but many people still get caught up in it.
Secret shopper or mystery shopper scams have been with us for years. It works like this: A would-be employer sends you a certified check or a cashier’s check written out for as much as $5,000. The person then asks you to deposit the money into your checking account and use it to make purchases from a store and evaluate your shopping experience.
You get paid by deducting your fee and the cost of your purchases from the funds provided to you. Anything that's left over, you're asked to wire back to the mystery shopper company.
The problem: The check the fraudster sent you is, in fact, counterfeit. So when you wire money from your checking account to the mystery shopper company, you are wiring your own funds, which are lost forever.
That check didn't really clear
Some victims of this scam, believing they are being exceedingly careful, wait a few days for the check they are sent to clear. They then wire the funds, as requested, back to the company, only to learn a few days later the check was counterfeit and that their bank had only given them provisional credit for the deposit. Once the bank learned the check was fake, it rescinds the provisional credit, and the victim has lost the money he or she sent to the scammer.
Mystery shopping jobs are real
One reason this scam works so well is that there really are mystery shopping jobs, although there are just a few available and the companies that offer them don't go looking for you. If you want to find out if a mystery shopping company is legitimate, you can contact the MSPA-NA (formerly known as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America), which is a trade organization representing legitimate mystery shopping companies. Its website is www.mspa-na.org.
Scammers commonly send a check for more than what you are owed along with a request to wire the difference back. This should immediately raise red flags. It is also important to never rely on provisional credit, which you will get within a day or 2. It can take as long as 10 days for a check to fully clear. Never consider the money deposited by check into your account as actually being there until your bank confirms the check has cleared.
Steve Weisman is a lawyer, a professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, author of "Identity Theft Alert" and editor of the blog scamicide.com.