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.

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 NCUA.gov 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 surveyjobs003@aol.com 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 surveyjobs003@aol.com — 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 AngryCitizen.com:

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 Empower Personal Dashboard, 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.

>> 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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7 years ago

Dude these are insane, I havn’t done a mystery shopper experiement yet but now going to be doubly cautious!

I’d also add to your list of what to do, add the company and check name to AngryCitizen.com or Yelp. Usually, people trying to find out by a scam will check these first and not the FTC Complaint Assistant.

Anyway I could try this and tell the Scammers that I buried the money in the desert at 8.0093 by 9.98349 because I think banks are unsafe? =)

Steven D Etnire
3 years ago
Reply to  Jim Wang

I do to. The Nigerians sending an email saying I had a check for $2,000,000.00 waiting and all I had to do was send them $2,000.00 to have it released and sent to me. I usually emailed them back and told them to take the $2,000.00 out of the 2 million dollar check by asking whoever it was from and write 2 checks. Then send me the $1.998 million dollar check and he can cash the $2,000 check. I also received 2 checks just last month, each for $3,980.00 made out to me, but had a address from a Technology… Read more »

Rob
7 years ago

Here is a simple rule of thumb for mystery shopping. If they every send you money up front, it’s a scam!!! Why would a company that doesn’t know you send you money up front expecting you to send the majority back to them in some form? Simple Answer: The don’t. I’ve dealt with over 30 companies and NONE of them ever send you money up front!

Lin
7 years ago

I love this post because it teaches a valuable lesson There are scammers out there and this helps you stay on your toes Sorry to say but, people are not always honest and articles like this always interest me Thanks for the tips

7 years ago

I’m a bit confused. How exactly are the scammers making money? Were there some additional instructions not shown? You initial paragraph says the shoppers are supposed to take pictures of the gift cards and send them to the scammers. OK, I can see how they can then use the numbers and get the money from the cards, but I can’t find anything in either letter that tells the shoppers to do this. Or do the shoppers get a text after the purchase telling them to take the photos?

Aaron P Smith
6 years ago
Reply to  Shaun

i have one right here in front of me that says go buy apple gift cards and scratch off the spots and reveal numbers and sent them a text message at 530-270-9349 and its daniel kippne , MBA

Robert
5 years ago
Reply to  Aaron P Smith

I have one on front of me and am worried about iy

Susan Cerrito
5 years ago
Reply to  Robert

I saw an advertisement to secret shop at Walmart they want me to buy gift cards. I instantly felt it in my
stomach . If you feel funny about it dont do it! I have cancer and I need the money bad but Im not putting that cashier’s check in my bank. Mine did come USPS though so Im going to GET RID OF IT, I SUGGEST YOU DO THE SAME. Especially if ifs 3000.00 and they want you to buy cards.

not_duped
5 years ago
Reply to  Shaun

because they only need numbers from cards to use the funds credited to them.

Laura
4 years ago
Reply to  Shaun

I have just that received it today

Michelle Sharrah
6 years ago

What about ones they say they need your bank account information to deposit funds into? Is there a way to make sure this is legit?

Diane weaver
6 years ago

So glad I read your article. Just received a check from Field Market Research for $2980. Yes, same request that is, go to three different stores and purchase ITunes cards. I have to admit, it was tempting but my husband was the voice of reason. He’s going to say “I told you so’ after he reads your article. Thanks!

Lisa Dylla
6 years ago
Reply to  Jim Wang

Second to none sent me a cashiers check for 2,390 and the exact same letter you posted. They are rushing me to deposit it. Thank you for your info I almost fell for it

Carol
5 years ago
Reply to  Jim Wang

I just got a check in the mail all most $2000 bucks to go by iTunes gift cards and take a picture of them.and the receipt and send it to them and I keep 300 + 45 for gas and the transportation I know this is illegal so there’s no way in hell I’m doing this just happened to me once before but I turn the last one in over to the bank and I don’t know what they done with it I didn’t want to know I don’t care but this one I’m taking to the cops.

Jennifer Walker
5 years ago
Reply to  Jim Wang

My daughter is in college and just received 3 checks totalling overt $2800 to be a “mystery shopper”. Thank goodness she mentioned it in our phone call and we stopped her. Your article confirms what we suspected, that it’s a scam. Unfortunately, many students at her school signed up for this. I alerted the school, but I’m sure students have been scammed out of a lot of money. We will be alerting the authorities.

Malika J
6 years ago

Something told me when I received a check for $1983 to do paid survey to look a little further into this cause I wasn’t comtable with the letter they sent and the large amount to do a survey. so I goggled the company name on the check Which was Haborlight Credit union which the address matched what was on the check then I goggled the payable through bank which BONK NA EUGAULA, OK which I came across this website thank you ,thank you ,thank you after reading I realize this was a scam it’s a shame this goes on this… Read more »

James Rodriguez
6 years ago

I guess I got Scam – I got the same type letter from Select Marketing Research Group out of Buffalo NY 14203 Tel 716 313-9180 – and a Check for $1,983.00 – now I guess I should have known, but the way things are I was broke and it came on my Birthday noless – man can’t get a break, now the problem is I spent a few dollars, my wife told me not to use it, well I did not much but enough to worry since I’m on SSD and when the check bounces I will need to payup… Read more »

Ginger
6 years ago

Thanks for the information. Solidify my suspicions. Applied for a mystery shopping job for Kroger’s by E-mail. Dear “John S” texted me at 3am asking if I had received my payment instructions. Your Target example is exactly the same letter I received, except it is Kroger’s. The text at 3am set my alarms off.

Going to report this.

Thanks again.

Kathy G.
6 years ago

Hello, I just came across your post. I have done some of the online surverys where you earn a penny a point. Now I regret letting them know my range of income. I also when signing up for it chose to receive other surveys through my mail or email. Last week I received 3 day priority mail. A cashier check for 2,650. Of which I’m supposed to deposit it. Then let them know through a text that I have done so. Then go to an Apple store and purchase 2 Gift Cards. One for 1k then the other for 1400.… Read more »

Aaron P Smith
6 years ago
Reply to  Kathy G.

i have same letter but cant get a picture of it in here for some reason and mine was for 2990 to buy 2 cards and keep the rest of it bad part is i do live in tx so this could be a problem and i am gonna try to get to the bottom of it since this came via usps oh and i got a number of (530)270-9439

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