Mystery Shopper Scams Never Die

One of the first fraud prevention topics I ever wrote about (all the way back in 2009) was the Mystery Shopper Scam.

The scheme was almost always the same: victims would receive a cashier’s check in the mail with instructions to cash the instrument at their bank, then wire most of the money (a couple thousand dollars) back to the sender, allegedly to report on the “customer service” at Western Union. Later, the check would turn out to be counterfeit, leaving the victim on the hook for the money they already wired.

Of course, eventually people started catching on. Banks and credit unions began to verify cashier’s checks and ask questions before handing over large sums (bringing an end to the days of a cashier’s check being “as good as cash”), and tellers were trained on how to spot a fishy monetary instrument. Western Union got hit with a $586 million fine for “aiding and abetting wire fraud” and became more vigilant about how its services were being used. Consumers began to be wary of strangers mailing cashier’s checks.

However, I received this text message recently:

Become a Mystery Shopper with us. You will be requested to shop at various locations: Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, Family Dollar, 7-Eleven, and Walmart. You will conduct “American Express Gift Cards” and Groceries purchases. Verifying stores ID Requirement process are being met. Pay Rate: $295. Apply today online [URL redacted]. HR Byrnes

From this, I gather that the scam has evolved to circumvent the changing landscape. The “Groceries purchases” are irrelevant; the real action is the American Express Gift Cards. If I had to guess, I would say that at some point they ask victims to buy these cards preloaded with some specific amount, then relay the card numbers back to them. Maybe there is a fake check involved (some of the above stores do offer check cashing services), but if they can convince the victim to load up a gift card and tell them the numbers, why go through the trouble?

Notice what they’ve done here: by switching from wire transfers to gift cards, the only other person the victim needs to have contact with is the cashier selling the cards, and with nothing inherently suspicious about loading a gift card, what is the likelihood that cashier is going to ask any questions? After that, the victim is alone, with nobody between them and their phone to say, “Hey, maybe don’t give those numbers to a stranger.”

One more point to make: real mystery shopper gigs do exist. They pay about $10 per assignment, less than 3.5% of the rate being offered in this text message. Nobody is getting paid $295 for 15 minutes of work, at least not as a mystery shopper.