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12 Signs of a Fraudulent Mystery Shopping Company

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“Many professionals in the field consider mystery
shopping a part-time activity, at best.”
                           – FTC.gov


Take that quote, from an Federal Trade Commission article on the Secrets of Mystery Shopping, to heart and you’ll be able to sniff out a lot of mystery shopping scams without the help of the red flags I’ve listed below. The bottom line is that mystery shopping is a side pursuit at best and anytime you hear any promises or comments hinting that they can offer you more will be a good sign that you’re dealing with a bad company. If you’re one for lists, the following might be helpful but nothing beats your “gut feeling.”

  1. An application fee is a sure sign that your mystery shopping company is a fraud. What job would ask you to pay an application fee? The answer is none.
  2. Requiring that you be certified, likely by them, is another sign that you’re being taken for a ride. Essentially anything that makes you pay out of pocket to join is a sign that you’re being scammed.
  3. Selling access to a job list or company list also falls into the “pay out of pocket” category.
  4. Asking for lots of personal information. If someone asks for your social security number, it’s likely a scam. The most they’ll ask is for your name and your address so they can mail you a check. Some will ask for a bank account to direct deposit funds but that will always be optional if they are legitimate. If they require that you give them a social security number or your bank account, it’s likely a scam.
  5. They contact you because of a resume you posted on a job website. Legitimate mystery shoppers won’t contact you like this, only scammers will scour employment websites for marks.
  6. Guaranteeing that you will get jobs is another red flag. There’s no way a company can guarantee that they’ll get enough shopping jobs and to make that promise is a sign that they’re not above board.
  7. You get to keep thousands of dollars in merchandise. Imagine if you ran a company and wanted to see how your staff was performing, would you give away thousands in dollars of merchandise, in addition to the fees, to do so? No, and actual companies don’t either.
  8. Promises of how it’ll take only a few minutes a day. The reality of it is that the actual shopping may take 10-15 minutes but the reporting often takes much longer.
  9. Promises of how you’ll earn thousands in your spare time (or even a more modest $30/hr). While the potential to make thousands is there, the fact of the matter is you’ll need a tremendous amount of spare time to earn that much money. The pay from a mystery shop simply isn’t that great compared to the time it takes to complete it.
  10. They are internationally based. You have far less protection when dealing with an international company and they have more latitude in screwing you if they want to, there are plenty of companies in your home country that you don’t need to deal international.
  11. You will never handle lots of money. One popular scam, after you’ve signed up, is to deposit a huge check (over $1 is huge) into your account and then have you wire that money out to another account. This is a twist on a popular fake international check scam that’s all the rage (this is why Dr. Smith in [insert international company here] emailed you the other day and wants your help and will give you $1,000 for you to cash his $20,000 check). You will never handle lots of money because what company would pay you $20 to deposit a $10,000 check? Let’s say you walk away with it (or the hundreds of other shoppers they hired for this job), they don’t want to deal with that hassle. Here’s a Consumer Reports article about this type of scam.
  12. They’re not in the Mystery Shopper Providers Association. The MSPA represents 180 companies, while being a member doesn’t guarantee they’re legitimate, there are enough companies in there that you can find one there and at least get the comfort of knowing the MSPA has seen their name.

Finally, always check with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission to see if the company you’re thinking about working with is legit. It never hurts to do that with any company you plan on dealing with, whether you’re paying them or they’re paying you.

{ 16 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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16 Responses to “12 Signs of a Fraudulent Mystery Shopping Company”

  1. Posco says:

    Interesting! I didn’t even know there could be such a thing as the MSPA. I briefly looked at their site, and the first thing I noticed is that there is such a thing as certification for mystery shoppers. Amazing! I know your post says that a company may be illegit if it requires certification — it’s a slight twist on the fact that certification is an option.

  2. jim says:

    Yeah, the difference is the MSPA is separate from any of the shopping companies. If a company requires you get certified from themselves, then it’s shady. If they say, we want you to be certified from MSPA, then that’s a little better.

  3. Anonymous Shopper says:

    Great list; I wish everyone could understand that mystery shopping isn’t a career, but is a lucrative second income! I’ve been doing it for about three years, and it really can be a great venture if you have an eye for detail, good organizational skills, and enjoy interacting with people.

    As a sidenote, there are some reputable companies that require the social security number for registration in their databases. This is because if you make more than $600.00 from one employer (or contract) in one year, they are required to report that income to the IRS. Some companies prefer to get the information up-front rather than deal with tracking down individuals at tax time and running the risk of violating a tax law. This is where the guideline of only going with MPSA-certified companies is absolutely necessary. They are very thorough and you can work with their companies with confidence!

  4. Anonymous Shopper says:

    *MSPA* =)

  5. Wow this is all great advice. Who knew being a mystery shopper could be so complicated. It seems like a great way to get some free meals and a little extra cash. Maybe around Xmas this is a good idea.

  6. Karen says:

    The companies that pay people to be mystery shoppers need to have social security numbers because they have to report to the IRS what they pay each person.

    Also, it is helpful for someone who wants to start mystery shopping but doesn’t know how or where to start to either do an online search for companies that provide shopper jobs or to purchase a guide that gives them links to and information about various companies. That can save them a lot of time. When doing their own searches they may get confused and waste a lot of time.

    Most mystery shopping companies have you register before they reveal the types of shopping jobs they have. So the beginner could spend days doing searches and goint to sites and registering. Purchasing a guide can give them info about different companies and they types of mystery shops they provide. So I don’t agree that paying for a list is the sign of a scam.

  7. Generally good advice, especially about avoiding the fraudulent check scam. I have mystery shopped since 1995 and I have trained thousands of mystery shoppers. Here are a few things I would add:

    The MSPA offers Silver and Gold Certification, and those certifications can help you to get assignments with MSPA member companies. However, no company requires MSPA certification.

    Some companies have their own certification that you must complete before getting assignments from them. This usually covers specific information about their clients and the shop requirements, and there is no charge to complete these certifications.

    Mystery shopper applications ask for gobs of personal information. This may include your Social Security Number. They ask for a legitimate reason (they must report to the IRS) but I would exercise caution here. Often, you can enter a dummy number and let them know that you will provide it if needed (e.g., they must file a 1099 reporting your earnings).

    Other personal information requested may include your age, marital status, race, if you have children and their ages, the model of car you drive, your household income, and more. They ask these questions because they have a client who requires shoppers with certain characteristics. For example, non-discrimination testing may require that they send shoppers of various races to the same location to make sure they are not discriminating.

    The MSPA is a great resource for shoppers. There are legitimate companies that do not belong, but the companies that do belong have met stringent requirements and agreed to uphold ethical standards.

    You can get free mystery shopping jobs with the nearly 200 companies listed at http://www.MysteryShoppersManual.com/mystery-shopping-companies

  8. Concerned Shopper says:

    The MSPA is a scam, they took my money for a shopper certification and that was it. Worthless Scammers! just like the article mentioned.
    You don’t need a certificate to shop… and the MSPA has scammed over 50,000 people making them believe this. Many of the shopping companies I work for don’t belong to MSPA and said they are a joke offer little to no value. I also joined the National Association of Mystery Shoppers and they aren’t much better.

  9. char says:

    i just recently got 2 separate mails containing 2 checks worth 2980.00 and 3980.00 along with evaluation sheets. It both stated that their companies were registered with the Better Business Bureau. i would like to know if they are ligit. I didn’t have to register or give any of my personal information nor did i have to pay any kind of fee. I have yet to follow the instructions and would like to know if they’re ligit companies to become a mystery shopper.

    • Anonymous says:

      I received 2 large checks in the mail too,in February of this year. I didnt cash them. Something just didnt seem right. I didnt recognize the companies, and whoever typed the letter didnt put it on company letter and two sentences were typed in the letter giving instructions to send an email once received. I didnt email and I didnt cash them. I saw a news segment about a woman who received large checks, cashed them and the senders managed to get access to your bank account.

  10. Meredith Kibbee says:

    I hope this is getting to Jim Wang and I hope I’ll get a reply to my email address. As far as giving your social security number, if they are paying you as a 1099, don’t they need that?

  11. caustinmiller says:

    I always find it amazing that there are some people that take the time to create all these scams. And many of the are highly convincing and getting more so everyday. Why not put those skills to better use instead of trying to steal money from people and take advantage of them?

  12. TerryS says:

    I have heard about the companies that send large checks, that is exactly the scams that are out there dressed as work. DO NOT CASH THOSE CHECKS you will be giving the persons who sent the checks access to your account. Check with the Mystery Shopper web sight, or take them to your bank and get someone to look at them for you.

  13. SDB says:

    Thanks Jim That helped Tons. I’d pretty much guessed that the “cashiers check” that I received for 2,850.00 is FAKE. The letter stated that it’s a Mystery Shop for Western Union, and to keep 200.00 for my commission and to wire the rest to the Philippines. NO WAY! I feel bad for those desperate enough to deposit it into their account.

  14. leticia dynes says:

    I almost got taken i am glad i read the blog on this topic., however i need to know how i can become a real mystery shopper.

  15. Sisy says:

    This is all great info, Thanks Jim!

    I really wonder how to sign up as a mystery shopper? What are the BEST, LEGIT web sites to sign up for?

    I hope someone could answer my question.

    Thanks!


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