It’s the holiday season, and many people would like to pick up a little extra cash. Sadly, online scammers are well aware of this and are using this need to their own advantage. Among the many scams that routinely appear during the holiday season, the secret shopper or mystery shopper scam is one of the most dangerous. Though the scam has been around for many years, it continues to be updated and tweaked to appear to be a legitimate job offer.
There are many variations on the scam. Some use job sites to post ads. Others will contact the victim by email using a legitimate email address to breach spam filters. However, some victims admit that they saw the scam email in their spam folder but opened it anyway. It is a well-designed email, unlike previous ones with poor grammar, and may, in fact, be a copy of a legitimate job offer. Here is one example from Malware-Traffic-Analysis,net.
Notice that the email comes from a spoofed address that appears to be legitimate. Other addresses used are, “Target.com <firstname.lastname@example.org>”,”Target.com <email@example.com>”, and there are probably many more.
If you click the ‘Sign Up’ button, you will land on a site controlled by the scammers. Landing there will produce a fake sign up page that looks like this. Notice that the URL address looks nothing like a site connected to Target. The scammers hope victims won’t notice this.
The purpose of this is to get the victim’s contact details so the criminals can go to the next stage of the scam.
Soon the victim will be sent a confirmation email or text message stating that they have been chosen to be a mystery shopper. Their duties and payment will be explained. They will also be told that they will be receiving a cashier’s check in an amount of money larger than they would be paid for their work. They are told that the check will be arriving by UPS, FedEx, or some other legitimate delivery service.
When the check arrives, it will look valid, like the one shown below.
Even banks have trouble telling if a check is legitimate or not and they may accept it without question. Funds for the check are usually freed up within 24 hours. However, days later, when the bank learns the check is fake, they will simply take the money from the victim’s account. In short, the bank has little to lose by accepting the check.
But why would the sender send a check for more than the amount necessary to pay for the mystery shopper job? Surely that should ring some alarms. Yes, but there you are in need of some Christmas cash and you have what looks like a real check in your hands for thousands of dollars. According to the instructions given, you are to deposit the check, keep some extra money for your shopping duties, and send the remainder to a third party. What could be easier?
Sometimes, the victim is told they should use the money from the cashier’s check to test some money order service or buy some pre-paid debit cards and send the numbers on them to some third party. Sometimes they are told to buy gift cards, scratch the silver covering the numbers on the back of the card and send them the numbers. This, they say, will prove to them that the victim performed their task. They claim that doing any of these tasks will enable them to evaluate the services the store offers. They also want to see how good a mystery shopper the victim is. In fact, they are just getting you to pay for the money orders or cards out of your own money. You will, in fact, simply be mailing money to the scammers from your own bank account. The scammers will use the numbers on the gift cards to buy merchandise which they can then sell. They will add the money from the pre-paid debit cards to their own credit cards.
But what happens if you don’t have enough money in your bank account to cover these purchases? Well, that’s when even bigger problems can occur. Here are a couple of excerpts from victim letters.
“I received a check through the mail for a Secret Shopper job. Ended up being a scam. I got arrested. Now they’re trying to give me 3 years for something I didn’t even know. Please help. I could lose my family 4 daughters.”
“I answered a secret shopper job ad in my email. They sent me a check. I cashed it and followed the assignments. Now the store I cashed the check at has filed charges against me. I am now trying to find information to clear my name.”
Almost always, the scammers insist that the victim cash the check immediately and perform the assignment. This is because they know that the check will eventually bounce and that they have a small window of opportunity. If you delay, you will be bullied by the scammers to do your job or the job offer will be rescinded. The bullying is often done in poor English, which should be a giveaway.
In this year’s scam, the scammers seem to be making use of your friends or contacts. One woman, for example, was scammed through someone she thought was a LinkedIn contact. The contact told her he had been making money being a secret shopper and thought she might want to get in on it. She did and lost $2000.
There are legitimate mystery shopper services and Target does use them. Here is what a legitimate ad looks like.
That said, there is no reason why scammers couldn’t use this same image with a sign up button directing victims to a site they control.
The bottom line is that the scam is getting more difficult to spot. However, it is all based on getting that check with too much money on it. Throw the check away or, if you are ambitious, report it to the police. You may think this is a waste of time, however, in July five members of a secret shopper ring were caught and are now serving prison time. They had apparently scammed people out of $1.3 million. Apparently, there is justice.