This is how a mystery shopper scam cost her thousands

Michele Turner recently received an unsolicited invitation to become a mystery shopper for Walmart. This new job sounded unbelievably easy and lucrative. So she quickly accepted the offer. But what happened next cost her $1,100 as she joined the ranks of victims of this mystery shopper scam.

This story is an unfortunate tale of the importance of taking heed of the basic premise: “If it sounds too good to be true — it probably is.”

The mystery shopper scam setup

“I received an email from my fiancé about secret shopper opportunities at Walmart,” Turner recalled. “After careful consideration, we both decided to pursue becoming mystery shoppers.”

Turner and her fiancé applied for the position and soon received texts of their acceptance as “customer support conducting agents.”

Any unsolicited job opportunity that arrives via email or text should always be considered suspect. And although the title sounded official to Turner, what followed can only be described as complicated shenanigans designed to steal as much money from Turner and her fiancé as possible.

In her request for help from our advocacy team, Turner enclosed a four-page letter describing how this mystery shopper scam operated.

A wire transfer scam

First, a person known only as “Salvador” sent Turner a check for $2,450. His instructions said that she should deposit the money into her own bank account. As soon as she could withdraw the funds, Salvador told her that her mystery shopper assignment involved making two wire transfers at the local Walmart through Ria (a wire transfer company).

Surprisingly, Turner’s fiancé received the same initial mystery shopper “assignment.” The day after Turner deposited her check she saw the funds available. So she withdrew the money and headed to Walmart to make the wire transfers. Her fiancé’s bank placed a 5-day hold on his check from Salvador. So he couldn’t immediately begin his strange mystery shopper duties.

Scammers love wire transfers. And they especially love wire transfers done through services like Western Union and Ria — where both the sender and receiver can be almost anonymous. Once you send the money through such a service, it’s typically gone forever with no way to track it. It’s like handing an anonymous stranger cash.

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Turner went down to the local Walmart and sent $1,800 to two strangers as Salvador had instructed.

The next step of this mystery shopper scam

After Turner completed her two wire transfers, Salvador had more mystery shopper tasks for her. He told her that she should buy $200 in iTunes cards. And she did.

“Salvador, then said he would send me the address of the charity that I should mail the cards to,” Turner recalled. “But first I needed to scratch off the silver panels and take pictures of both numbers and send them to him.”

Of course, if you are a regular reader of this site, you know what happened next. You may have read about the man who tried to sell his Target gift cards on Craigslist. He also sent a photo of the numbers off the back of his card. That ended poorly for him when he discovered the scammer had quickly stolen the entire value of his card.

But Turner says that she didn’t see the red flags in any of this. She didn’t know what exactly she was doing in her new job as a mystery shopper, but she pressed forward.

“I was unsure as to what I was truly doing,” she explained. “I was not familiar with these cards and had no idea you could use them even when not in your possession.”

The very bad news

The bad news for Turner came early in the morning the very next day. She received an alert from her bank that her account was overdrawn. The bank had discovered that the check from Salvador was worthless.

In a panic, Turner contacted her bank and asked what they could do to retrieve her money. That’s when she learned that she would be responsible for covering the phony check and all overdraft fees.

She turned her anger not on the anonymous Salvador and his mystery shopper scam, but on her bank. She demanded to know why the bank had detected that there might have been something wrong with her fiancé’s check, but she received no such warning.

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If you are a good customer, your bank assumes that any check you deposit is valid. As a courtesy, the bank will typically release the funds as soon as possible. Turner’s bank, PNC, explains how these funds become available:

…deposits of checks or money orders will be available on the first business day after the business day of your deposit for all purposes.

However, that doesn’t mean that the check has actually cleared. And if it doesn’t clear, the customer will still be on the hook for the value of the check. These terms also describe a variety of reasons why PNC would put a more extended hold on a check that a customer deposits. Most of these reasons have to do with the trust and track record the customer has developed with the bank.

Mitigating her loss

Turner immediately tried to mitigate her loss. She took a look at the two wire transfer receipts and noticed that she could check the status of the transfers. One had already gone through, but the other one had not. Luckily she was able to reverse one of the transfers, for $900.

Unfortunately, she soon discovered the current value of the two iTunes gift cards: zero. Nothing could be done to retrieve that $200.

The website for Ria, the wire transfer company, has a page dedicated to avoiding scams that involve wire transfers.

And there is no shortage of known scams that involve wire transfers. But there, on that page, was all the information Turner needed to understand the mystery shopper scam in which she was involved. It’s too bad that she didn’t read over this page before making any wire transfers:

The Mystery Shopper Scam
Lucky you! You just landed a new gig as a mystery shopper and have been assigned your first task. All you need to do evaluate the customer service of a local retail store. Sounds easy enough, right? There is just one catch. You were sent a check or money order with instructions to deposit it, yet you find out the amount is more than it should be. So, now you need to send money back to the sender. Sounds a little fishy, but you don’t think too much of it. Yet, as soon as you send your transaction, you learn that the original check was counterfeit and now you can’t get back the money you just sent. So now you’re out for both amounts.

The Federal Trade Commission has also dedicated space on its site to educating consumers about the mystery shopper scam. It points out that you should never make wire transfers as part of any mystery shopper job.

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Are there real mystery shopper jobs to be had?

The reason that the mystery shopper scam can be so successful is that legitimate mystery shopper jobs do exist. Some companies hire secret or mystery shoppers to test customer’s retail experiences.

The difference between a real mystery shopper gig and a mystery shopper scam? A real mystery shopper job will pay little to nothing, but you may get to keep a product or have a free meal.

If this type of job sounds intriguing to you, the place to start your legitimate mystery shopper job search is The Mystery Shoppers Professional Association. You won’t find any promises of high paying assignments there, but you just might find some fun opportunities to make a few bucks and try out some free products.

The final word

Unfortunately, we can’t help Turner recoup her money. This case is a matter for her bank, the police department and possibly the FBI to investigate. But we hope by telling her story, none of our other readers will ever get snagged by this mystery shopper scam.

Should Turner's bank have been able to identify this check as fake sooner than it did?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is the executive director of Elliott.org. She is a consumer advocate, SEO-lady, writer and licensed clinical social worker who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Friedman Read more of Michelle's articles here.

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