Who doesn’t want to believe a research company is soliciting your opinion as a mystery shopper? Why would anyone think that a mystery shopper offer could turn out to be a financial scam? Hey, $500 for two hours of work — I’m game, as long as they don’t ask anything too personal.

The Anatomy of Mystery Shopper Scams | CentSai
Heck, he even wished me good health.

So when a company calling itself Fortress Insight texted me about my mystery shopping acumen, I did give them my name, address and phone number (I know, naysayers).

A few days later I received a professionally written text asking me if I was near a Target, Walmart, or Walgreens, as they chose me for this special undercover assignment.

Two days later, a USPS Priority Mail envelope arrived.

In it was a cashier’s check for $4,900, which looks real — I was to deposit it in my bank account, pocket $700 for my time and an extra $200 for my expenses, head to Walmart, and use the remaining money to purchase four money orders of $1,000 each.

I was asked to leave the recipient name blank, and FedEx Priority Overnight them once I completed my assignment.

My brain:

The check also came with detailed instructions — supposedly from Walmart — for the esteemed appraisal personnel (me) about how not to blow my cover as a mystery shopper. No one could know. This was essential.

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The Anatomy of Mystery Shopper Scams | CentSai

I looked at the USPS shipping address and I was intrigued. Why was my mystery shopping package coming from Rhinestone Divaz — a retail store based in Odessa, Texas, with a presence on Facebook?

I contacted the store owner, and I was saddened when she told me that her stamps.com account allegedly had been hacked, and $3,000 of shipping labels were fraudulently bought and used. The owner, Krista Coskrey, and I were now united to expose this mystery shopper adventure turned financial scam.

The Reality of Financial Scams

In truth, there’s nothing funny about scam artists. In 2020, Americans lost nearly $3.3 billion, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The Anatomy of Mystery Shopper Scams | CentSai

Two million Americans went for the bait, and it’s not hard to understand why.

These scams are becoming more sophisticated and seemingly real. Here’s how this scam works.

Under federal law, banks must make deposited funds available quickly, according to the American Bankers Association (ABA). That said, just because you can withdraw money instantly doesn’t mean a check is real, even if it’s a cashier’s check or money order.

In fact, it will be a few days before the bank realizes there is a problem. If you withdraw cash — as I was instructed to do — the scammers are long gone with your cash, gift card, or money order, before anyone catches on.

The FTC provides information on how to protect yourself or a loved one from a scam. Here’s what they say:

1. Scammers pretend to be from organizations you know.

I received a fake questionnaire from “Walmart” that included its logo.

2. Scammers say there is a problem or a prize.

In my case, I was helping with an egregious problem since “Walmart” allegedly had received, “numerous complaints against staff misconduct, customer misdirection, unsatisfied service… Due to the sheer volume of complaints in your area, this mandatory Secret Evaluation Exercise has been prompted.”

Cue the James Bond theme.

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3. Scammers pressure you to act immediately.

I was told in my questionnaire, “If by any chance you don’t respond, a phone call will be put through to your cell digit [sic], and a follow-up visit to your address on file by our TASK FORCE…” Yikes.

4. Scammers tell you to pay in a specific way.

“In the envelope you are mailing through FEDEX FIRST OVERNIGHT EXPRESS, should contain all four (4) Walmart Money orders of $1,000 each, and the Receipt of Purchase.”

The Anatomy of Mystery Shopper Scams | CentSai
Walmart’s response to author, Doria Lavagnino, on Twitter.

Fraud and scammers target the unassuming. That’s why the older population and teens are at particular risk.

But scams, like the mystery shopper scam that hit me, can target anyone.

“Scammers are relying on people being lonely due to the pandemic, says Bill Kroll, managing director of the Casey Group and former executive vice-president of the ABA.

“They are looking for things to do and tend to trust the first person they talk to. The elderly are vulnerable since their kids have not been around to check in on things. Identity fraud is out of control,” Kroll adds.

Here is what the FTC recommends to protect yourself:

  • Block unwanted calls or messages.
  • Conceal personal or financial information to an unanticipated request.
  • Resist pressure to act immediately….
  • Learn how scammers typically ask you to pay.
  • Talk to someone you trust.

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Ending the Mystery Shopper Scam

Back to my “supervisor,” I let him know I was writing an article and wanted to give him a chance to tell his side of the story.

You decide for yourself.

If you have been a victim of fraud, you should file a police report and supply as much information as possible.

To help others it’s important to report a scam to the FTC here and the Better Business Bureau Scam tracker here.

I guess I am not destined for mystery shopping, but at least I did not lose $4,000 learning that lesson.