"FREE SAMPLES!" Who can resist? A growing number of Americans are looking for ways to supplement their income. Mystery shopping may seem to be the perfect way to enjoy free dining out, free samples and free products. Unfortunately, some people who thought they signed on with a legitimate mystery shopper business have found themselves scammed.

Recently, a Wisconsin resident fell prey to a scam where he answered an e-mail offer for mystery shoppers. After doing his assigned "mystery shopping," he received a substantial check as payment. He was instructed to forward a portion of that payment from his bank account to someone he didn't know. Unfortunately, the check he deposited was not genuine, and he never saw his money again.

Is That Free Lunch Really Free?

Many chains hire organizations to conduct "mystery shopping," in order to obtain candid consumer opinions about the quality of their products and services. Restaurants and cafes are especially fond of this method of inexpensively monitoring a franchise's performance. Usually, the "mystery shopper" is given precise written instructions about what, when and how to order or shop, and is instructed to keep the receipts and then submit the receipts for reimbursement. However, if anything about the "mystery shopping" arrangement seems unusual, it is essential to exercise caution.

Be Skeptical of Unsolicited E-mail Offers

With the advent of the Internet and e-mail have come new traps for the unwary. What was once only printed junk mail, cleverly disguised to appear personalized and sincere, is now available in wide distribution to thousands of unsuspecting consumers. The "hook" for mystery shopper invitations can be the appeal of fun and easy work. But ask yourself why solicitation by e-mail is necessary if the deal is so good.

A good source of information as to the legitimacy of a mystery shopping offer is the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Other groups such as the Better Business Bureau can also be helpful to understand the details of a legitimate mystery shopper business.

There may be trouble with any scheme where you're asked to send funds to a third party. If you're actually working for a mystery shopper business, then that business should be paying you, not vice versa. Do not be fooled by receiving a check or other payment, as that payment may not be legitimate. If you've already sent your own funds to someone else, it's very likely that they're gone forever.

Contact Local Authorities Immediately

E-mail bandits can disappear just as quickly as they appear. If you've given information about, or funds from, your bank accounts to a third party, contact the local police or the prosecutor's office immediately. It will likely be very difficult to identify and find the wrongdoer. Still, you may be helping others from falling prey to a similar scam.

Keep all contact information you have obtained from the "scammer," and print copies of all e-mail correspondence. Some scams are so advanced that they will cause their e-mails to vanish from your inbox. An attorney can give you advice on whether it would be worthwhile to pursue legal action against the scammer. It is likely that the most difficult hurdle will be the difficulty in identifying and locating the wrongdoer.

You should also immediately notify your bank of the scam. They may be able to trace the location of the account where the funds were received and can advise you of whether steps are necessary to protect the integrity of your own accounts.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is there a state or local resource I can use to check out the legitimacy of a mystery shopper business, in addition to using resources such as the local Better Business Bureau and mystery shopper trade organizations?
  • Do people work for mystery shopper companies as employees or independent contractors?
  • Are there banking or consumer protection laws that may provide help if I've been scammed and sent money to someone after cashing a mystery shopper check?

Tagged as: Consumer Law, Consumer Fraud, mystery shopping, consumer fraud lawyer