Catch these mystery shopping scams

There are ways to see when a potential mystery shopping opportunity is a scam. Try to catch them, if you can.

The 2002 movie "Catch Me If You Can" is based on a true story and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, a high school dropout who becomes a wanted criminal for the elaborate scams he pulls pretending to be a doctor, lawyer and airline pilot. The movie is filled with action and suspense, as Abagnale keeps developing schemes to trick people, all while avoiding an FBI agent played by Tom Hanks, who is constantly on his trail.

An element to the movie that stands out as relevant to mystery shoppers is the ease with which Abagnale is able to forge checks. When he goes to the bank, he is given money without a problem, because the documents he has look so authentic. The bank has no doubt, given his uniform, the way he speaks and the look of the check, that this baby-faced kid does indeed work for Pan-Am Airlines. Little do they know, the check was made the night before in Abagnale's bedroom.

All across the country, mystery shoppers suffer that same problem. They are contacted by a brand that looks reputable and sent a check or money order they believe is authentic. Banks believe the cash is real too, until they try and get money from what turns out to be a dead account. The shopper is then billed with 'fictitious charges' and forced to pay the difference out of their own pocket.

This can cost shoppers big-time. However, there are ways to see when a potential mystery shopping opportunity is a scam. Try to catch them, if you can.

Don't transfer money
A common practice of scammers is to send checks to mystery shoppers, asking them to use the funds for their shopping needs and as their payment for the completion of the task. These scammers then ask the shoppers to wire the remainder of the money to a third party, which it turns out is a huge red flag.

Even if you don't submit your social security number or private financial information to these scammers, the act of wiring money is enough for them. Since the check is fake, you are putting nothing into your account. However, the bank will charge you for depositing a fake check and you have lost money by wiring funds elsewhere. Once you wire money from your bank account, there is no way to get it back.

A Federal Trade Commission report on secret shopping explains it further.

"By law, banks must make the funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks," the report says. "It may seem that the check has cleared and that the money has posted to the account, but when the check turns out to be a fake, the person who deposited the check and wired the money will be responsible for paying back the bank."

A key reminder to mystery shoppers: Don't deposit a check from a person you don't know, and definitely don't forward funds to a person you don't know. If the scammers wants money sent to the third party, they can send the check themselves.

Fake registration
Abagnale tricked the hospitals and airlines he worked for in a variety of ways, the main one being he looked the part. Nobody dug deeper to see if he was actually licensed to do what he said, they just took him at his word.

It sounds simple to fact-check, but how many of us actually do it on a regular basis? When you make a medical appointment, do you ask to see the doctor's diploma and then call the med school to confirm it's real?

The same type of faith is often given when it comes to mystery shopping, but like in the movie, that can be risky. Advertisements that look reputable will solicit potential mystery shoppers with spiels about their many years of success in the industry and why working for them is so valuable. Then, they will invite shoppers to sign up, only after paying a fee to be certified and registered.

Unfortunately, they are fakes. There is no paid certification and registration needed to be a mystery shopper, and these reputable-looking companies provide no actual services. They may tell customers they have a database of mystery shopping companies or a promise of a consistent job, but their main goal is to take your money,

There are plenty of mystery shopping jobs out there and none of them require a payment ahead of time to do it.