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12 signs of a fraudulent mystery-shopping company

Don't expect to make big bucks if you decide to try it.

By Karen Datko Oct 10, 2009 2:19AM

This post comes from partner blog Blueprint for Financial Prosperity.

"Many professionals in the field consider mystery shopping a part-time activity, at best." --

Take that quote, from a Federal Trade Commission consumer alert called "The secrets of mystery shopping revealed," to heart and you'll be able to sniff out a lot of mystery-shopping scams.

The bottom line is that mystery shopping is a side pursuit at best. Any promises or hints that a company can offer you more is a sign that you're dealing with a bad company. If you're one for lists, the following might be helpful, but nothing beats your gut feeling.

You must pay an application fee. What job would ask you to pay an application fee? The answer is none.

You must be certified, likely by the company. Essentially any requirement that makes you pay out of pocket to join is a sign that you're being scammed.

You have to buy a list. Selling access to a job list or company list falls into the "pay out of pocket" category.

You're asked for lots of personal information. If someone asks for your Social Security number right away, it's likely a scam. The most they'll ask for is your name and address so they can mail you a check. They may need your Social Security number later depending on how much you earn. Some will ask for a bank account to direct deposit funds, but that will always be optional if they are legitimate.

They contact you because of a resume you posted on a job Web site. Scammers scour employment Web sites for marks.

You're guaranteed that you will get jobs. There's no way a company can guarantee that.

You're told you get to keep thousands of dollars in merchandise. If a company says you can keep the merchandise you purchase with the company's money, it's probably a scam. 

You're promised that it will take only a few minutes a day. The actual shopping may take 10 to 15 minutes, but the reporting often takes much longer.

You are promised that you’ll earn thousands in your spare time (or even a more modest $30 an hour). While the potential to make thousands is there, the fact is that you'll need a tremendous amount of spare time to earn that much money. The pay from a mystery shop simply isn't that great considering the time it takes to complete it.

The company is based outside the U.S. You have far less protection when dealing with a foreign-based company.

You will have to handle lots of money. In one popular scam, you're paid to use a store's money-transfer service to wire a large sum of money to an account, only to find out the check you were given by the company is fraudulent. This is a twist on a popular fake international check scam -- e.g., "Dr. Smith" e-mailed you the other day and will give you $1,000 if you cash his $20,000 check. You will never handle lots of money if you're working for a real mystery-shopping company. Here's a Consumer Reports article about this type of scam.

They’re not in the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. The MSPA represents 180 companies. While membership doesn't guarantee legitimacy, you'll at least get the comfort of knowing the MSPA has seen the company's name.

Always check with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission to see if a company is legitimate. It never hurts to do that with any company you plan to deal with, whether you're paying them or they're paying you.

Other articles of interest at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity:

Published Jan . 8, 2008


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