Fraud is just one of those unfun facts of life like taxes and in-laws. It is everywhere, of course, and the mystery shopping industry is no exception.
Indeed, we’ve seen a new wave of fraud and scams plaguing the mystery shopping industry. Crooks are once again using the TrendSource name (and even our Director’s signature!) to defraud potential mystery shoppers. They send a letter via priority mail on letterhead looking surprisingly similar (but not identical) to ours, outlining instructions for depositing a (bogus) check and then wiring money back to the sender.
At the end of the day, the scam is merely an updated version of good ol’ fashioned check and wire fraud: Though the specifics vary greatly, the basic mechanics remain unchanged since the days of alleged Nigerian princes.
Look, this situation is embarrassing all around. It is embarrassing for us—that’s our name people are using out there to defraud everyday Americans who, ultimately, we rely upon for our most important work. It’s embarrassing for the victims who must admit they have been hoodwinked by one of the older tricks in the book. And it is embarrassing to the mystery shopping industry writ large as it associates it with fraud and sours people’s perception of its credibility.
New Mystery Shopping Scam, Same Old Fraud
Here’s how the mystery shopping fraud works. Victims are sent a letter claiming they have been selected by a real and established mystery shopping company (like TrendSource) to work as a secret shopper. They are provided a check, which always seems to be for $2,300.00, and instructions to deposit it as payment for their future work.
The checks are pretty darn convincing. We’ve gotten our hands on a couple over the past few months, and the printing is truly exceptional, complete with watermarks and acid washed paper to almost perfectly imitate a legitimate check. There is something that still feels a bit off about them—something about the weight and thickness of the paper—but for people not accustomed to discerning true from false, the differences can be almost imperceptible.
From here, things start to vary. Sometimes, victims are instructed to mystery shop a money wiring service like MoneyGram or Western Union—and as part of the “shop” they are to wire some of the money on deposit to a third party. Other times, they are given a “project” that doesn’t involve wiring money, but then is followed up by a phone call in which the second project does in fact involve wiring money.
Regardless, the result is the same: the original check for $2,300 is invariably bogus, and ultimately the bank discovers this, voids the check, and comes calling for the balance due. The victim is on the hook for any money they have sent to the crooks, as well as what they have spent on themselves.
Don’t Cash a Check for Mystery Shopping Work You Have Not Done!
No reputable mystery shopping company does business this way—not us, not our competitors, not now, not ever. The mystery shopping industry, which almost exclusively operates on an independent contractor system, only pays for work once it has been completed.
It is important to note that the victims of this fraud are not the independent contractors working for TrendSource. Instead, the scam targets aspiring independent mystery shopping contractors. The victims have no previous relationship with TrendSource, and often reach out to us when they find the suspicious letter claiming we have “hired” them.
And believe us, we’ve heard some truly sad stories. Victims who used the money to pay for medication, food, or just to make ends meet find they are in a financial hole they did not even know they were digging. The bank, while possibly sympathetic, is in no position to forgive the negative balance; the actual mystery shopping company, with no connection to the fraud other than having its name invoked by criminals, cannot start settling debts on victims’ behalf. And the police, well, they’d love to help, no doubt, but the source of the bad check is frequently untraceable, by design of course.
How Mystery Shopper Frauds Find their Victims
Oftentimes, victims are found on employment websites where they have uploaded their resume, complete with their personal information. This alerts perpetrators that the potential victim is looking for employment, likelier to take a chance on a too-good-to-be-true scheme because, you know, desperate times and desperate measures.
We’ve also heard that crooks find many potential victims through third party mystery shopping databases. For those unfamiliar with these databases, they are a repository of aspiring mystery shoppers, which mystery shopping companies pay to access. We understand that this resource is invaluable for potential mystery shoppers, and we turn to it to engage Field Agents every day. But every tool will come with some inherent risks, and it seems that a criminal element is pulling victim information from this database.
Over the last three weeks, we have been fielding at least five calls a day from potential victims. Imagine what percent of victims actually follow up with us, and you get a sense for how expansive this scam has become.
Tips to Keep You Safe From Scams
With all of this in mind, we offer you the following four tips to keep you safe:
- You never get money for nothing. Anybody offering you a check before you complete any work is trying to steal your money. When in doubt, shred the check and move on with your day. But if you can’t bring yourself to shred it, at least move on to step number two…
- Always research the mystery shopping company you believe is reaching out to you. Chances are, it’s not them you are hearing from. Call them, email them, Skype them…whatever. Any effort you put in to do your due diligence will come back to you tenfold if it manages to save you from fraud.
- Keep track of where you have given your information on the internet. If you just recently signed up for something online, expect a good amount of spam and even fraud to come your way. Be particularly suspicious in these cases.
- Do not rely on your bank teller to tell you if the check is real or not. We hear stories every day about banks accepting the check, even assuring the victim the check was good, and then days later discovering the fraud and demanding the balance. They are trying to be helpful, no doubt, but unless they offer to guarantee the deposit (which they won’t), do not rely on their endorsement.
The only other thing we can add is to use common sense. Never ascribe something to good fortune that can be just as easily explained by malfeasance.
(Also, if you want the real deal and are looking to sign up with The Source, TrendSource’s proprietary database of Independent Contractors, apply here: https://www.thesourceagents.com/Application/)
Stay safe out there, shoppers!