TDCI Clues In Consumers About “Mystery Shopper” Scams

Thursday, July 23, 2015 | 12:05pm

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance (TDCI) Division of Consumer Affairs is warning Tennessee consumers to be wary of mystery shopper scams.

Sometimes retailers hire consumers to secretly evaluate their stores’ customer service – a practice  commonly known as “mystery shopping,” or “secret shopping.” But unscrupulous mystery shopping scams can leave consumers holding the bag. In Tennessee, the Division of Consumer Affairs has fielded four consumer complaints since July 2014 related to mystery shopping scams.

In legitimate mystery shopping arrangements, consumers will shop at a store, report on their experience and are reimbursed for their purchase or are allowed to keep their purchases. Scammers who want to take advantage of consumers will create fraudulent mystery shopping solicitations – sometimes by mail or e-mail – promising to pay consumers to evaluate a retail experience or products. (The stores mentioned in the scammers’ ads have no affiliation with the scam artist.)

Lured into the scam by fraudulent offers, fake checks and wire transfers, consumers are persuaded into sending money to the scammers, many of who are often located outside the U.S. One popular scam involves shoppers being sent a phony check with instructions to deposit it in a personal bank account, then withdraw the amount in cash and wire it to a third party.

Banks must make funds from deposited checks available within days, but it may take weeks to uncover a fake check. Unfortunately for the scammers’ victims, it’s the consumer (not the scammer) who is ultimately held accountable for the entire amount of the fake check. In some cases, scammers target consumers’ personal bank account information, leaving them open to identity theft or having their bank account cleaned out.

How to protect yourself:

Never open or respond to unsolicited e-mails asking you to become a mystery shopper or secret shopper.

Never deposit a check you receive in the mail from a "mystery shopping" company. No legitimate business will pay in advance and ask you to send back a portion of the money.

Never click on or respond to online ads or Web sites offering free gift cards.

Remember the old adage: Things that sound too good to be true usually are.

For more information about secret shopper scams and how to protect yourself, visit the Federal Trade Commission for more details.

If you were a victim of fraud via the Internet, you should file a report with your local law enforcement agency and file a complaint with TDCI’s Division of Consumer Affairs.