SELLERSBURG, IN (WAVE) - Some see it as an easy way to make a little extra money on their own time. But the popularity of mystery shopping has led to an explosion of scams. And some are costing local families thousands of dollars. So WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Eric Flack did some digging to find out how to cash in without getting burned.
Mystery shopper checks going around these days look so real they actually fool banks. But you can make money by mystery shopping if you know what you're doing and what to watch out for. Unfortunately Chandra Lewis didn't.
After Lewis lost her job at a fast food restaurant she still had hungry mouths to feed at home; three children, including a 3 year old daughter named Sam.
"When it came in the mail, it was like the answer to my prayers," Lewis said.
It was an offer, from a group that called itself the Seagate Company, to make money as a mystery shopper. All Chandra had to do was go to Seagate's website and enter a code to activate a check for $1,998. The letter that came with it told her to keep $350 for herself and wire the rest to an account in Spain using Western Union, which was the company Chandra was supposedly mystery shopping.
"I pulled that money out and did what the assignment said to do," Lewis said.
She deposited the official looking check into her ATM. The bank accepted it and the money showed up the next day. But 24 hours later, Lewis got bad news.
"They said it was an altered fictitious check," she said.
With no check fraud protection on her account the bank took the money right out of her account.
"I had to pawn some of my stuff just to be able to pay the rent," Chandra said.
Measure Consumer Perspectives is a Louisville company that hires real mystery shoppers to rate customer service and store appearance at businesses nationwide. COO Trevor Howie said mystery shopper scams are a growing problem
"They're big," Howie said.
Howie said mystery shopping scams are so common these days someone used Measure's name and logo to send out a bogus job offer. It was one of many mystery shopping scams uncovered by the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter department in the course of our investigation.
Dan Denston, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, now head quartered in Louisville, said scams are an ongoing issue.
"The misperception about what mystery shopping is makes it a little more susceptible," Denston said.
Mystery shopping has gotten so big some companies now use hidden cameras placed inside of everyday items to see what's really going on inside stores.
Kimberly Nasief, President of Measure Consumer Perspectives, said those undercover jobs pay between $40 to $80 each. That's big money in the mystery shopping world, but a far cry from the thousands promised by some scammers. Mystery shops without hidden camera work pay just $10 to $15 and take about an hour a piece when you factor in travel and time spent filling out surveys. Be suspicious of any mystery shopping job that doesn't fall somewhere in that range.
"There is very real work involved," Nasief said. "People's livelihoods depend on these shops. Bonuses, raises, promotions, incentives, the ability to hold your franchise license."
To find legitimate mystery shopping jobs, go to the MSPA's website by clicking here. Then click "become a shopper." The website allows you to search for local companies that are hiring and is also a good resource to learn more about what a mystery shopper is and isn't.
You can also pay $15 to become an MSPA certified mystery shopper. Being MSPA certified isn't a requirement to get hired but can keep you from falling for mystery shopper scams, and paying the price Chandra Lewis did.
"Companies like this give the real companies for mystery shoppers and secret shoppers a bad name," Lewis said.
We contacted Chase Bank and asked if there was anything they could do to help Lewis. But a spokesman said the banks hands were tied.
"It's unfortunate that this happened to our customer," the spokesman said. "But we didn't know the check was counterfeit until we sent it to the issuing bank."
That's going to be true of anyone who deposits a counterfeit check from a fake mystery shopping offer which always involve wiring money according to the BBB.
Ziggy Zubric, owner of Marketing Endeavors, another Louisville company that hires and uses mystery shoppers, said scams are always a problem.
"Because they make it harder for legitimate companies to do business," Zubric said.
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