While being a “mystery shopper” for reputable companies can help generate some extra cash , Cameron Huddleston of Kiplinger.com, warns that con-artists use the compelling promise of “getting paid to go shopping” to lure individuals into scams. And now they are using social networking platforms like LinkedIn to initiate contacts with potential victims, in addition to their previous use of email and phone scams.

Mystery shopping scams

According to Rich Bradley, president of MSPA North America, the trade association representing retailers, restaurant chains and agencies that hire or provide mystery shoppers, there are two basic models of the scam:

  1. Victims are promised a job as a mystery shopper. However, to get the job, they are required to pay a fee in order to receive materials and credentials. The scammer keeps the cash but no job materializes.
  2. Victims are asked to cash a check that is sent to them by the scammer, in the guise of a bogus mystery (and sometimes, real) shopping agency. They are told to use the cash to purchase a list of specific items from the store or restaurant being researched. The victim is told they can keep the merchandise and a specific amount–this, they are told, is their compensation. They must wire back any money not spent on the merchandise. But in the end, the check bounces and the victim is responsible for covering the amount of the fraudulent check. The scammer, of course, pockets the portion that was wired back and disappears.

According to Kiplinger’s Huddleston, a new twist on these scam attempts is that scammers are using LinkedIn to connect with potential victims. “The scam artists, posing as IntelliShop, a legitimate MSPA North America member, are sending bogus mystery shopping offers to LinkedIn members.”

How to become a legitimate mystery shopper

The MSPA North America website contains extensive information on how to become a mystery shopper. Its members are stores and agencies that hire mystery shoppers. Members of the association are required to follow a strict set of guidelines prohibiting members from using any of the practices used by scammers.