How Mystery Shopping & Work at Home Scams Trick You (with real life examples and what to do with them)

This story is very familiar.

You fill out some form online or answer some ads. The company, usually with very official letterhead, mails you a massive check of a few thousand bucks. You’re told to deposit the check, buy hundreds or thousands of dollars in gift cards, take photos of them and email them back, and keep the change as your fee. You need to write up your experience as part of the “job.”

It sounds “safe” enough, right? You deposit the check, the funds are available in a day, and you go do your job. Except after a few days, the check will bounce, the bank will take back the funds, and now you’re out the money you spent.

It’s happened over and over and over again.

Here are two real-life examples and then how you can prevent it.

Table of Contents
  1. Why This Scam Tricks So Many People
  2. What Does This Scam Look Like in Real Life?
    1. Mystery Shopping Scam #1
    2. Mystery Shopping Scam #2
  3. Massive Red Flags for This Scam
  4. What Should I Do With The Fake Check?

Why This Scam Tricks So Many People

When you deposit an official check (U.S. Treasury, government checks, bank checks like cashier’s checks, certified checks and teller’s checks), under Federal law the bank must make the funds available to you in one business day.

For unofficial checks (personal, business), banks must make the first $200 available after one business day and the rest after another day.

But that doesn’t mean the check has cleared! And it won’t clear!

The funds are available but the bank has not confirmed that the checks are good. That process can take several days to several weeks. Until the bank confirms it, you are responsible.

Scammers take advantage of that glitch in the system. What happens is that you deposit the check, federal law says the bank must give you access to the funds (even though the bank hasn’t received them), and you think the check is good because the money is in your account.

The scammer gets you to you spend money on gift cards as quickly as possible (that’s why they are so pushy). They do this because eventually the bank will tell you the check is bad, they take back the money (rightfully), and you’re on the hook for it.

That’s why all the checks will be “official” checks (cashier’s check, etc.) and not a business check, like from a mystery shopping company.

What Does This Scam Look Like in Real Life?

After seeing two real-life examples, it’s astounding how much information is on these “cashier’s checks,” in quotes because they are not real.

A real cashier’s check from a bank is very plain. These checks are chock full of officially looking crap.

A cashier’s check will not have the “purchaser” because there is no purchaser, the check is technically from the bank itself. It also won’t list an issuer location, like Walmart or MoneyGram, because the bank issues it.

That alone is a red flag (besides the sheer insanity of a stranger sending you thousands of dollars on the hopes you won’t just run with it) but that’s only if you’re familiar with cashier’s checks.

Let’s look at two real-life examples…

Mystery Shopping Scam #1

A reader emailed me because they were recruited by a mystery shopping company. At least they thought they were.

They were researching the company and found my post about mystery shopping scams, saw the company they were working with on my list of OK companies, but still felt suspicious (good!).

It turns out, anyone can copy a logo, get a Google Voice number that matches the area code, and pretend to be an employee of that company. In this case, they pretended to be an employee of About Face, an Atlanta-based mystery shopping company listed in the MSPA, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association.

She sent me a photo of the check and the very official-looking letter.

Very official looking, eh?
An even more official looking letter!

First, the massive size of the check is a classic check overpayment scam. You see this with Craigslist a ton. You’re selling a thneed for like $500 and someone says “oh here’s a $3,250 check some other jabroni sent me but I can’t cash it, can you cash it, give me the thneed and the extra cash, and keep another $100 for yourself.” Or some BS like that.

(it’s BS because anyone can cash a cashier’s check, it’s an official bank check!)

Besides the large amount, the check also says issued by Moneygram Payment Systems (huh?) and then Drawee says BOKF, NA, Eufaula, OK. It seems strange right?

What convinced me it was a fraud was the ABA routing number. 103100551 doesn’t match the name of the bank on the check. 103100551 matches Bank of Oklahoma, A Division of BOKF, National Association but the check was from “Jordan Credit Union.” (look up ABA numbers here)

BOKF is what it says under Drawee… so is the check from Jordan Credit Union or BOKF? Oh wait, it’s an official check issued by Moneygram, it says so right there!

Too many banks in the kitchen on this one!

If you even believe that Jordan Credit Union is real (which I do not), you could check the website though it would be hard to confirm since the check has no address (another reddish flag). There is a Jordan Credit Union located in Utah and it shares the same logo… but why would an Atlanta based company use a credit union in Utah? (and their ABA routing number is 324379705, not 103100551)

The answer…. is that they wouldn’t. Nor would they use Moneygram when they can just write you a business check for free.

But a scammer would set it up this way because of how checks are processed.

Mystery Shopping Scam #2

This one is allegedly from Target, here is the check and the letter.

I’m **sure** Target uses [email protected] for official correspondence.
They need to refill the ink in their printer!

What is fishy about this one? A lot.

The first suspicious thing is that email correspondence will be with [email protected] — not something Target would do. I mean seriously… you have to do better than that.

I emailed that email address according to the instructions (with a disposable email address of course, how big of a fool do you take me for???) and got no response, so don’t bother trying to mess with them. I didn’t dare text. 🙂

You can also Google the phone number, 585-391-0687, to see if there are any reports of fraud… I found at least one on

Good recommendation!

If this wasn’t enough to trigger your internal fraud alarm to stay away, here’s a look at the ABA number.

The ABA routing number (314972853) does match Woodforest National Bank but not the one in Texas. In Texas, they use 113008465 (except for their branch in Refugio, Texas).

Not good. Check bad.

Massive Red Flags for This Scam

Here’s what I look for:

  • If they require you to pay them anything. If they require you to pay an application fee or a certification fee or take a paid class, it’s a scam. If they require you to pay a membership fee to access a special list or pay extra to get priority access, it’s a scam. You will never pay a legitimate company.
  • A high dollar check – Why would they pay you thousands of dollars just to have you spend it on thousands of dollars in gift cards, money orders, etc? They give you $3,000 and have you spend $2,700 and keep $300? They wouldn’t because that would be insane. That’s probably why you found this page in the first place.
  • Using a cashier’s check or money order – If you were a big business and did these reviews constantly, why would you pay the fee to get a money order or cashier’s check? You can just as easily cut a regular check. Except there are no laws that require a regular check to clear in a single day, which is the loophole scammers use.
  • If they contacted you through an online posting. This happens a lot if you post your resume online and they scan your email. It’s likely a scam because mystery shopping companies often have more shoppers than opportunities.
  • If they ask for sensitive personal information. They don’t need more than your name and address to send you a check (or email for Paypal). They don’t need your social security number, that’s a big red flag.
  • They use a free email account – A reputable company can get an email address that matches their name and not one from Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Outlook, etc.
  • If they make seemingly unreasonable promises. Do you get to keep a ton of merchandise? Will you be inundated with jobs? Will you make a fortune? Will it only take a few minutes a day? All lies and usually these promises are there to get you to pay the fee. The reality is you’ll get about $15-20 a task. It’s nice extra cash but you will not get rich.
  • Check the ABA routing number – The scam relies on a bad check but one that takes more than a day to confirm, so an ABA routing number that is real but doesn’t match the bank is one great way to fool the system for a little while.
  • You can always call the bank to verify the check – OK let’s say you do as much research as you can, everything appears 100% legitimate, and you don’t believe me when I say sending a $3,000 check for a $3000 is fishy… you can the bank’s check verification services for confirmation. Don’t call a number on the check, look up the bank online and call that.
  • Did it come by UPS or FedEx? This is more of a light red flag but scammers use these services because if they sent it by the United States Postal Service, it’s mail fraud. Mail fraud is a federal offense.
  • They’re not in the Mystery Shopper Providers Association. There are enough legitimate mystery shopping companies in the MSPA that I’m confident saying you should skip the ones not in it. Do yourself a favor and start with those first.

Last but not least, if you aren’t sure… use my foolproof anti-scam strategy: ask five friends. They’ll set you straight.

Here are some reputable companies (all are in the MSPA) that we know about:

Remember, a scammer can pretend to be from one of these companies, just like that previous scammer said they were from Target.

What Should I Do With The Fake Check?

If you think it’s fake, it’s time to report it to the proper authorities.

You should report your fake check to the authorities by:

They will investigate it and, hopefully, catch the scammer or scam ring.

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  1. Caroline Valencia says

    I got this check asking me to buy 2500.00 in Apple store gift cards .thanks for
    Information I will not cash it i kind of thought to good to be true

  2. Claudia Lopez says

    I just got a check for $2,250 to buy four Best Buy gift cards and I’ve been instructed to not only send them a picture of the cards but send them a picture of the cards with the silver stripe that protects the code scratched off… as of it couldn’t be any fishier. I know it’s a scam but I saw you mentioned if this was sent by USPS, which it was and I have pictures from Informed Delivery, that this is mail fraud. How can I report this?

    • Jim Wang says

      Was it for thousands of dollars? And do they expect you to buy hundreds of dollars of gift cards, send them the codes, and “write about your experience?”

      If so, it sounds like a scam.

  3. Jessica says

    Glad I read this. I just got two Postal Money Orders for $975.00 each. I would love your thought s and help and you could use this as another example since this is a money order from the post office.

    These people make me sick.

      • Jessica R Gieg says

        If you want I could take pics of what was sent and a pic of the letter that you could use for your blog. Would that help?

        • Jim Wang says

          Hi Jessica – thank you for the generous offer but we have a lot of these photos already and they all seem to match the same type of scam. Thank you anyway though!

  4. L. Hall says

    Received a check for $2800 from Comerica Bank for a store/shop evaluation job to be done at Walmart. I was to deposit the check then email & text them location so they would know where I would be. I was to purchase $2,400 worth or Walmart gift cards and then complete a survey and email then the answers about the survey.

    Do not do it! If you get anything from the following, get rid of it immediately! Correspondence came from

    John Simpson
    HR Manager
    [email protected]

  5. Wanda Majkol says

    I just found your site from a different site, It has good info. I worked in banking for many years, when I retired I wanted to find something I could do on my own time, and make some money doing it.
    That was 1995, and it was before the Mystery Shoppers started using the internet. It was ads in the Newspapers to fine the work, I applied to several companies, it took 6 months before I had an offer to start working from home. It was fun, it was by phone, and overnight shipping. A company would call to see if you would be able to do the shop(s). I did mystery shops on all types of business, setups in retail, and Theaters (blind shops, head counts, displays setup. etc. Gas stations, apartments and more. Yes, and I was paid to do them, generally $5. to $25.00. Part of the time I would get a call that was a rush, some body wasn’t able to do their assignment, I would have to be there within an hour, for that the pay was raised up to doubled! They overnight the paperwork and I would do the shop, call a report in, and overnight the finished documents, receipts on buying something, and overnight it to the company. That was the way it was done in those days. They finally setup on the internet, much simpler and a lot faster! The companies would mail checks, after they received the paperwork and they received payment from their clients. Your pay was what they had stated plus reimbursement for out of pocket. Their were very few time that they would pay up front! If the shop was a costly shop they would send a check, depending on the type of shop. If the shop required you to spend $50, (a nice dinner and drink for two). Ended up my husband and son was doing shops also. The saw that I was really getting paid to have fun!
    Now days, you make more money, like everything else prices go up!

    • Jim Wang says

      It can take a long time for checks to clear. Banks will often put the cash into your account as a courtesy but then take it out when the check bounces days later.

  6. Casey E Nyembe says

    I received one of these check. I looked at it and wonder how I can play these guys back though. I didn’t take it to my Bank.becouse. it looks good enough to me but the idea of having to buy gift cards and send them back it turned on the red flag somehow thanks for your feedback Jim.

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