How NOT to be a “mystery shopper”

July 17, 2009

I’d like to think that I’m at least as smart as the average bear, if not perhaps a teensy bit sharper, when it comes to spotting scams and frauds. After all, I am the self-anointed king of urban legend debunking (thanks to my friends at Snopes.com).

But recently I found a “Mystery Shopper” opportunity which offered up to $200 for simply doing what I like best — whining about retail service — and I decided to see what it was about.

A friend of mine had told me about how she signed up to be a secret shopper, aka “mystery shopper,” and while it didn’t pay the mortgage, it was decent money and fun to do, she reported.

So when I found something in my e-mail about this, I inquired. I probably should have been suspicious when I was accepted into the program with no regard for qualifications, but I marked that up to them simply wanting ordinary consumers.

In the next e-mail, I was advised that I would start my Mystery Shopping career by evaluating two operations:  Walmart and Western Union.  I was instructed to look up the closest outlets for both. Easy to do.

I was being especially wary about fronting any money since I really didn’t want to have to hassle with reimbursements. But subsequent e-mails indicated that the company would be sending me the funds to cover both the cost of purchasing the goods or services as well as my travel expenses.

At this point I had not committed to anything and had, in fact, created an alias that would allow me to spot any spams that might result…if that’s what the scheme was really about.

About 7 days after the initial correspondence, I received this e-mail from the company. It’s sort of long, but worth reading because it really shows the excellent sleight of hand going on. Remember, the key to most magic tricks is distracting the audience, whether it’s with showy girls prancing about in skimpy costumes or some other mundane device that cloaks the actual stuff going on.

Here’s the letter, verbatim, including quirky capitalization. I’ll be back in a minute.

Dear Survey Agent,

You will be evaluating the Wal-mart store and a Western union outlet in your City. The Payment sent to you ($3,300.00) covers all expenditures including evaluation, shopping, transport and your compensation which is $200.00 for this survey.

You are to purchase Goods of your Choice for your own Use at the Wal-mart store in your City which you are evaluating, spending not more than an $50.00 and deduct an extra $25.00 for transportation cost.

Also as regards Western Union, we will be using our company feed-back mechanism, therefore you will be sending funds through Western union outlet in your City to our receiving agent.

You will take a total of $3025.00 to the western union outlet you are evaluating, you will have to pay the western union transfer charges from the $3025.00 you are sending out.

Please send all western union transactions to the details below:

 NAME : ALLEN JOHNSON
ADDRESS : 1649 S COLUMBIA ST
CITY : BOGALUSA
STATE : LA
ZIP CODE : 70427

Below are details you need to send once funds has been transfered to the Agent’s Name and Address Which is above :

 – Sender’s Full Name and Address.
– Secret question and answer ( if any )
– Western Union transfer charges
– Actual Amount sent
– Money Transfer Control number ( MTCN )

After Evaluation, ensure that you send back (via Email) the western union transfer code [10 digits ] and Wal-mart reports as it is required for Company feedback purposes on service delivery.  

EXPENDITURE BREAKDOWN:- 

Compensation ………………………..$200.00
Wal-mart…………………………….. . $50.00
Transportation ………………………  $25.00
Please remember what we are really after are the lines of question stated below, those are guidelines that you will lookout for during your visits to Wal-Mart and Western Union.

 GUIDELINES:-

-How long it took you to get services.
-Ambiance/Outlook of the Shop/Outlet
-Smartness of the attendant
-Customer service professionalism
-Reactions when under pressure
-Information that you think would be helpful
-Your comments and impressions.
-Your personal opinion

We are Counting on you and we expect a detailed report. Please get back to us if you have somethings to know about your Evaluation.

Thank you.
Hiring Manager
Frank James.

Ok, we’re back.

Did you spot the trick yet?

On Thursday, July 16, the doorbell rang and I found a UPS package. Inside the UPS package, which was complete Mystery check-150dpi-blurwith the sender’s name, address, UPS account number and tracking number, was this cashier’s check for $3,300, made out to my code name (but fully cashable) issued by PNC  Bank.

This adds considerably to the illusion because it appears someone actually paid UPS to send this package. In fact, possibly paid them $30.80, UPS’s published rate for Next Day Air from Philly to Phoenix. (The actual shipper of record, Urban Outfitters, may have a discounted rate…which is not to say that Urban Outfitters was the perpetrator.) The cool part of the deal, for the scammer, is:  they didn’t even have to pay for the shipping!  Very sweet.

What they do is either hack some company’s account or, more elegantly, simply walk into a UPS store, copy down the account number from a package lying on the counter, and then write it on the shipping label. The UPS office shipUPS label-CRs out the package and bills the hacked company, which either pays or tells UPS the account number is no good, in which case UPS eats the cost.

When I talked to Urban Outfitters, they said the shipping account number is theirs but the account number was closed “some time ago.”

OK, let’s pull back the curtain and see how the scam actually works.

First off, the use of Walmart is simply a distraction (though it would have been shrewder to use three stores, the better to disguise the object of interest).  The target all along is Western Union because they’re the ones you’re going to be wiring money through to supposedly test their customer service.

See, the cashier’s check is bogus. That’s the long and short of it.  When you present this check to your local bank branch, the bank will pay on it because they have no way of verifying (or won’t verify) until the check comes bouncing back from the issuing bank. In the meantime, you’ve gone off and bought $50 worth of goods from Walmart, paid yourself $200 in fees and $25 in travel expenses…and wired the rest to the scam artist in (in this case) Louisiana. But it’s really your money you’ve wired because you’re liable for the money you received from your bank…plus a bad check fee.

The whole scheme hinges on the fact that your bank will pay on a check without verifying that there are funds to back it up.

Part of the scammers’ scheme is that they need you to do your evaluation in a short period of time, usually two days. Otherwise you’d take the money and when the bank notifies you that the check bounced you’d just return it. You’d be out the bad-check fee but the scammers wouldn’t get their three grand.

I asked my local Wells Fargo why they can’t just verify the check on the spot — assuming you asked them to — and they said they could try, but the issuing bank often won’t divulge that information for a variety of sorta-good reasons. Just for fun, I’ve asked them to call PNC about my check. We’ll have to see what results. (Update: A representative of Wells Fargo made a call to PNC in my presence to check out the check. It took about three different transfers to get to the proper authority at PNC but she did get through. We found that the account number on the check is valid, but the business is not. In addition, there were “notes on the account” at PNC flagging the amount and the company name. Apparently, there have been quite a few counterfeit checks put through for that exact amount, $3,300, and for that business name, Skyline Marketing.)

One reader asked whether the recipient of the money transfer has to pick it up in person at the Western Union office. If so, why not station an FBI guy at the WU? According to Carlos, Operator 938, of the Western Union Fraud Department, the person does indeed have to pick it up in person. However it would be highly impractical to nab him since money can be paid out anywhere in the state. In fact, it can be paid out in any of three neighboring states as well, if there are any (except in California and Arizona).  WU is not authorized to do the nabbing anyway, so that would mean stationing a fed at every WU for three states around, 24 hours a day.

In the meantime, on 7/16 I e-mailed back to my contact, “Frank James” at “Skyline Marketing Group” that I never received the package, just to see if I could drag this out a bit longer.

He replied on 7/17: “It was delivered somewhere around your house. Look for it and get back to us.”

That will have to remain a mystery, Frank.
——————————————————

This just in, Sunday 7/19:

Dear Survey Agent,

How are you ?

Payment has been delivered to you by UPS to carry out your evaluation on Wal Mart and Western Union store.

Let us hear from you.

Thank You
Frank James

Now I have a dilemma. Do I…

a) write back saying “Yes, I got the check. Thanks! I’m just waiting for it to clear and then I’ll get on the project right away!”

b) write back saying “Gosh, I was just at the neighborhood UPS office on my way to the bank and they mentioned that the UPS package you sent came from Urban Outfitters. Is your company affiliated with them? Just curious.”

I suspect that, either way, that will be the end of the correspondence. Any suggestions?

Update 7/20
I sent out item #2 above and received the following note today

“Yes, they take care of our payments sometimes, we will be waiting for your mail with both evaluation report.”

Update: May 2010

It’s been nearly a year since I first posted this cautionary tale. I subsequently received a separate Mystery Shopper offer from a different scammer. And then, amazingly, the same offer from the scammers at Skyline Marketing. Of course it could be a completely different con artist simply using that nom de plume.

The reason I’m updating today is that I’ve been noticing a rather sharp up-blip in hits to this particular posting, even though it’s 11 months old. This makes me think that the Mystery Shopper con artists are still out there, causing people to want to check out any information they can find.

Sad to say, a bad economy typically brings out the con artists, scammers, network marketers and pyramid schemers who prey on people desperate for work… and worse (in my view), the cancer/diabetes/autism-cure magicians who prey on people desperate for answers to things that may not have answers.

Not that I’m an expert on such things but I believe there’s an old saying that still has value: “It’s hard to cheat an honest person.”

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31 comments on “How NOT to be a “mystery shopper”

  1. Don Allcock says:

    Dear Mystery mystery shopper,

    Rather gossamer thin curtain, wouldn’t you say?

    Alas, if nothing else, the Internet has taught me to be suspicious of damn near everybody. ‘Cept of course, those near and dear to my heart. To wit, even some of those are pending. My coach has recently signed up with Mona Vie. He tried to get me to join, but I politely declined, all the while screaming inside, “Don’t do this!”. We experienced a similar fate, and with experience being the best teacher, I can only hope they don’t invest too much and suffer the inevitable downside. Particularly in this economy. C’mon people – there’s no quick and easy road to riches!

  2. jveeds says:

    Mona vie…sounds juicy!

  3. Sounds as if you could give Joe Ducey on Ch 15 a run for his money!

  4. Your second reply shows them you’re suspicious. The first one leads them on, making me think about people who do this with Nigerian money scams, thus keeping them busy and sometimes unmasking them.

    So it depends whether you want to continue the interaction or let them know you’re not falling for it.

    • jveeds says:

      I ended up using the second reply (the one that questioned why they were using Urban Outfitters as their shipper)

  5. Tina says:

    Hmmm, that was interesting. Looks like some things will always remain mystery.

    I myself have been trying to solve the mystery of this legend for a while now. Could not understand much though.

    Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the Old Hound and the Legend

    By the way, good writing style. I’d love to read more on similar topics

    • jveeds says:

      The real mystery of the Mystery Shopper scheme seems to be: (1) Why does UPS allow what is essentially free delivery of packages? and (2) Why can’t banks make direct inquiries to other banks about checks to see if funds are available?

  6. I enjoyed your story quite a bit. It reminded me of a scam which my friend MM almost became a victim of. I think it is kind of fun to be able to sit back and analyze a scam artist’s tricks while he is trying to pull one over you.

  7. Mr. Wayne says:

    Hey J,
    Found you through a mutual friend, JB. I was almost scammed similarily and in this economy, and out of steady work, boy it sure was tempting and I almost fell. I made a lot of phone calls, and like you, a big snopes.com fan. I actually called the bank (Chase) that the Cashier’s Check was drawn on and I was informed of the bogusy of it. I’m taking my papers and the CC to the Sherif and local newspaper on Monday. Nice writing!

  8. Gucci Shoes says:

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  9. […] other, he sent me a link to his own blog in which he wrote his own “Jennifer” story. Check it out. He’s good (and the scammers are very very […]

  10. Kimmy says:

    My daughter also got a check for $3000 for a Personal Assistant ad she answered on Yahoo. The check came overnight Fed Ex from New York.

    I called the bank on the check. I was nice, and told the Customer Service Rep that I think I just got a fraud Cashiers Check. She had me read the numbers at the bottom, and 10 seconds later, advised me that is is a fake.

    I next called my friend, who works at Harris Bank. I asked her how many of those checks come in a week? She said it’s unbelievable how many people fall for this. Her branch begs these people to rip it up because they know it’s fake. But people can’t be told what to do. They want to believe.

    Great post. You took your time, and was very informative.

  11. james adkins says:

    Well, Thank You all. I too recieved this secret shopper letter and a FedEx with a check! Now, I had recieved a reply from this Frank about a year ago and never reponded, so that when I again sent to the same e address and got a reply, it seemed that if they had been around this long they must be legitimate! The check was for a lessor amount, and wanted to use the moneygram at walmart. The wife and I knew that we should google the names involved first and that is how I came accross this. I want to thank you all for the time you’ve taken to help prevent this SCAM from happening to me, and I hope many others. Peace and Love, James A

    • jveeds says:

      Just remember, these are scams. This is not to say that every mystery shopper program is a scam, but anything that fits this model is definitely a scam. That is, anything that calls for you to send money of any kind to anyone means that fraud’s afoot.

  12. Ellen says:

    Well, guess what!!! This scam is STILL active. I just received an email today for exactly the same “opportunity”, with a link to sign up. I immediately checked it out on scopes and of course, found this article.

    Consumer beware!!!

  13. jonna says:

    just got a letter/check from k & t mart company sure looks real to me but im leary!! listening to all the advice ive read & will be cautious!!

    • jveeds says:

      Here’s the scam: the check looks real but is actually bogus. You can deposit it at your bank and they’ll accept it, but that really means nothing. The funds are not yours until your back clears the check with the issuing bank. Worse yet, your bank will not advise you that the check is no good until they attempt to clear it. It would be nice if your bank could call up the issuing bank, sort of banker-to-banker, but they generally won’t do that unless you really escalate the issue into a “problem.” So the dilemma for you is that you think you’ve deposited funds but when you go to use those funds you’ll find the money never got transferred to your bank…and you may be faced with a penalty fee of some kind.

      In my view, the thing to do would be to check with your local bank branch and plead with them to check with the issuing bank and at the same time, get assurance that there will be no processing or penalty if the check bounces.

  14. jonna says:

    deposited the check … didnt use any of the funds!! bank called this morning, yep ITS BOGUS lol i knew it would be because who in their right mind sends complete strangers $ for no reason!! i clicked on the assignments to do & both were to send $ via western union or money gram & make sure in the observation part it said “pay without ID” so someone was going to be getting cash .. GLAD i stumbled onto this site!! thanks 🙂

  15. jonna says:

    http://www.ktmartco.com/ this is the site that sent the $ to me

    • jveeds says:

      Thanks for the update. The scam keeps going on but, from the looks of the statistics on this particular posting I made a few years ago, many people are heeding the advice and avoiding getting burnt.

      • jonna says:

        i posted this page on facebook & am making it known what happened to us & happens to others 🙂

  16. Alice McDaniel says:

    Thank you for the info. I’m glad I read this before registering. Keep up the good work.

  17. Lotus Blossom says:

    “K&T MART COMPANY” & FRAUDULENT AFFILIATE, “CONSUMER SURVEY SPECIALIST”… COUNTERFEIT CHECK SCAM… CONSUMERS BEWARE!!! INTERNET & NATIONWIDE!!!

    Remember when people use to buy bank account numbers, deposit bad checks into them, and make large withdrawals within 72hrs of the transaction? Same soup, different bowl…

    I am writing this report with the purpose of advising others about a “new” scam that, I have just learned, has been going on for quite some time now. I’ve read stories that are similar to mine on the “BBB”, “Rip-off Report”, and many other, online scam sites. To my knowledge, this particular scam dates as far back as 2008.

    This is my story…

    On April 17th 2013, I checked my mailbox. I noticed that I had received an “Acceptance Letter” from a company called “K&T MART CO.”. Enclosed with this letter was a check, made out to me, in the amount of “$1,991.20”.

    A few months back, I had begun an online search for employment, and I came across an opportunity to become a mystery shopper. Now, in my defense, it’s merely every woman’s dream to get paid for shopping, so naturally, I jumped at the chance. Next thing I know, I’m skimming through a letter, which states…

    “This is to inform you that based on the previous survey by our affiliate Consumer Survey Specialists you indicated your interests in an additional income on a part time basses, you are here by selected to participate in a paid Mystery Shoppers program as one of the research personnel selected under this program.”

    The letter provided a “USER ID#, PASSWORD and WEB ADDRESS”, which I was, instructed by the letter, to use as an aid to “activate” the enclosed check.

    The letter proceeded with its instructions…

    · “After activation, deposit check into your regular bank account”…
    · “When funds cleared and available, deduct your stipulated participation salary indicated”… which was “$350.00 (Pay for first week)”…
    · “Withdraw balance and get started immediately with assigned task”…

    The letter continued to explain that “Survey Assignment #1” needed to be completed within 24hrs of the check clearing, and “Survey Assignment #2” needed to be completed by shopping at one of the listed stores (Wal-Mart, Sears, Costco, Best Buy or Home Depot).

    Using the web address that was provided in the letter, I was instructed to go online and generate the assignments only once the withdrawn cash was “ready in hand”. After which, I would report my “Evaluations” to the company, and as a result, I would be allowed to keep the purchased items, “as a bonus”, along with the $350.00 (Pay for first week).

    According to the acceptance letter, all “Job Assignments and Evaluation/Reports were available to me online”, and none of my personal information was needed for me to become a Mystery Shopper. This appealed to me, as I was presently in search of Part-Time employment; however, when I looked up the indicated web address, my browser produced an error message, which stated, “WEB PAGE NOT FOUND”.

    This elicited RED FLAG #1…

    Now, you might be thinking… “This elicited RED FLAG #1???!!!”

    I know… I’m kicking myself and shaking my head as I write this report… If I were reading this story, I would be thinking the same thing, but when you’re actually living within the moment, as it is happening, the reality of things tend to be a little bit foggy.

    I needed to activate my check, so I was eager to locate this seemingly un-locatable web page. I ran a GOOGLE search and found “K&T MART COMPANY”, but it was listed under a different web address. Needless to say, this elicited RED FLAG #2; however, like most red-blooded Americans, I ignored my better judgment, activated the check, ran to CHASE BANK, and I deposited the check into my account, as I was instructed.

    To be honest, I was blinded by my excitement. On April 17th, the first things I noticed were the amount of the check, and my acceptance into, “The Mystery Shoppers Program”. My enthusiasm led me to believe that this was really happening. Things didn’t begin to register, logically, until the 18th of April 2013. By then, the check had already been deposited.

    On the 18th of April 2013, as logic began to matriculate, I meticulously reread my “Acceptance Letter”; consequently, 37 RED FLAGS arose after I discovered 37 grammatical and spelling errors. I then noticed that the address window, of the letter’s envelope, had no return address on the corresponding side. At this point, I researched the nonexistent web address. I also tried to contact K&T MART’S “ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE”, which listed a disconnected phone number.

    After each failed attempt, I knew that I had become the victim of counterfeit check fraud.

    Imagine my dismay, as I went into a state of panic, … Never, in my life, have I felt so uniformed, invaded, and unprotected… I didn’t know what to do, but I did know that I would have to compose myself, think logically, and do the right thing. I was afraid that my bank would assume that I was intentionally depositing fraudulent checks, so I immediately went to my closest CHASE BANK branch, spoke with a personal banker, and I informed him that the previously deposited check was suspicious of being counterfeit.

    I told CHASE BANK my story, and they assisted me in correcting my mistake before it was too late.

    Because I never withdrew the deposited funds, the bank was able to return the fraudulent check. As a result, they insured my account with security and peace of mind; however, not everyone is so lucky. Some people end up in thousands of dollars worth of debt. They also face accusations of money laundering, which leads to time served, in prison, for withdrawing the deposited funds of counterfeit checks, and electronically transferring the money to different countries, as instructed.

    If you, or a loved one, should find yourself in this, or similar situations, please discuss this matter with your bank, and then contact your local Law Enforcement (Fraud Department) Agency…

    REMEMBER…

    Better judgments are only a reflection away from better results.

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  19. After I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is
    added I get 4 emails with the same comment.
    Perhaps there is a means you can remove me from that service?
    Many thanks!

    • jveeds says:

      Sorry about that Becky (?). I love getting comments but I don’t know enough about the workings of Word Press to remove you from the service. I imagine it’s something you have to administrate yourself (through some mechanism I don’t know about).

      Jim

  20. Anonymous says:

    This is a good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very accurate information… Thank you
    for sharing this one. A must read article!

  21. Howdy, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you
    get a lot of spam remarks? If so how do you stop it, any plugin or anything you can suggest?
    I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy so any help is very much appreciated.

    • jveeds says:

      I don’t get a lot of comments generally and it’s a bit hard to positively identify comments as spam. However, I have noticed quite a few comments that have no specific reference to the content whatsoever, and thus I deduce that they are spammers…though it may not be spam per se, but rather an attempt to do some sort of social media folderol. I suspect the commenters are using the blog to generate hits back to their own, though I don’t really understand how that works. What do you think?

  22. J says:

    What was the email address of the scammer

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