This is how a mystery shopper scam cost her thousands

A mystery shopper scam cost her $1,100.

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.

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.

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.

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?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

This site is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

This site is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

This site is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

This site is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

This site is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

This site is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

This site is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

This site is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

This site is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

This site is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

This site is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

This site is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

This site is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

This site is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

This site is underwritten by Sungard Availability Services

Leveraging more than 35 years of experience, Sungard AS designs, builds and runs critical IT services that help businesses manage complex IT, adapt quickly and build resiliency and availability. A leading provider of critical production and recovery services, Sungard AS partners with customers across the globe, delivering resilient IT systems, infrastructure and recovery services tailored to achieving desired business outcomes.

This site is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

This site is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

This site is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.