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Secret Shopper Scams

If you enjoy shopping, dining out and trying out new products or services, the idea that someone would pay you to indulge in these pleasures and report on the experience could seem mighty alluring. But when it comes to “secret shopper” or “mystery shopper” job opportunities, let the buyer beware: Many are scams aimed at collecting your cash, not your feedback.

Some retail and market research companies do hire people to visit stores, restaurants, hotels, golf courses and tourist attractions and report back on things like customer service, cleanliness and product mix. You can find legitimate secret shopper opportunities through the Mystery Shoppers Professional Association (MSPA), a trade organization for companies that collect such customer-experience data.

In a real secret shopping job, you’ll be reimbursed for what you spend at the businesses you’re evaluating and often receive a small fee. It’s typically part-time or occasional work, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) notes, not a replacement for a full-time job. 

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Con artists advertise mystery shopping gigs on job boards or social media sites or reach out to targets directly by phone, text, email or paper mailers. They may use a fake company name, or impersonate legitimate research firms, well-known retailers or even MSPA itself. They’ll make the job sound much more lucrative than it actually is and, crucially, seek money up front for training, certification or lists of shop-for-pay opportunities.  

In another common ploy, the scammer will send a check or money order for several thousand dollars to cover your wages and whatever you’re supposed to buy. You’ll be instructed to deposit the payment in your bank account then return a portion of the funds, via wire transfer or gift cards, to cover taxes or paperwork costs. The shopping gig will turn out to be fake, and so will the check — but by the time you find out, the scammers are long gone, and so is your money. 

Warning Signs

  • A job listing or unsolicited call, text or email guarantees you’ll make lots of money as a secret shopper.
  • A mystery shopper job requires you to pay up front to get started.
  • Your “employer” sends you a check or money order with instructions to deposit it in your account and return a portion to the sender.

Do's

  • Do research a company that offers you a secret shopper gig. Search online for the outfit's name along with words such as “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”
  • Do check the job against the online list of reported scams maintained by MSPA Americas.
  • Do contact the issuing bank listed on any check you receive for secret shopper services, before depositing, to make sure it’s authentic. If you’re “paid” with a U.S. Postal Service money order, call the agency’s verification system at 866-459-7822 or check its verification tips.
  • Do be careful about what data you provide in an application to be a secret shopper. Scammers solicit personal information they can use to steal your identity.

Don'ts

  • Don’t pay a fee to be a mystery shopper, even if you’re told it’s for training or necessary certifications. Legitimate research firms don’t charge you for a chance to work for them.
  • Don’t pay for a list of mystery shopper opportunities.
  • Don’t assume a secret shopper job is legitimate because it involves a familiar store or restaurant chain. Scammers often try to convince you that they’re affiliated with big companies.
  • Don’t wire money or buy gift cards as part of a secret shopper assignment. Instructions to do so are clear signs that you’re dealing with a scammer.

More Resources

Published October 13, 2021

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Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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