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Telltale signs of a secret-shopping scam

It's an unfortunate reality of the mystery shoppers' existence: Many of the offers circulating the Internet and infiltrating email accounts are scams. All savvy, street-smart entrepreneurs need to be on the lookout for "opportunities" that are actually anything but.

The Federal Trade Commission recently released an updated consumer information bulletin addressing this very issue, aiming to highlight the warning signs secret shoppers should be most aware of. Many are obvious and easily sniffed out, but whether you're a veteran of many jobs or someone who's just begun dabbling in mystery shopping, it's worth educating yourself on the latest scamming trends. The last thing you want is to have your mystery-shopping experience marred because you were duped into an assignment you should have recognized as phony.

Requesting payment upfront
Nearly all of the legitimate job-finding resources, such as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, will make it clear upfront that these are not high-paying gigs. If you're entering into the secret-shopping world hoping to earn a fortune, you're likely going to be sorely disappointed.

In that vein, any assignment featuring the promise of big-payday dividends should be approached with skepticism, and any that requires a deposit of any sort ought to be avoided entirely. According to the FTC, where scammers used to post newspaper ads, they're now creating websites for "registration," with an upfront fee required before you can become certified or be guaranteed a job. Usually, the promise of high earnings is attached to this registration in some form. But both new and seasoned shoppers should know that certification is rarely necessary, and lists of companies utilizing these services are available to the public for free. Consulting with an assigner has its benefits, such as removing much of the legwork from the exercise, but a legitimate provider will never present the opportunities as cash cows - nor will they demand large sums in advance.

Money service evaluation assignments
Transparent as they may seem, many of the most successful secret-shopping scams hinge on getting applicants to "evaluate" a service - such as Western Union or MoneyGram - that specializes in transferring funds. In these instances shoppers are hired and told to complete their first assignment, which usually entails receiving a check, depositing it in a personal bank account and then withdrawing cash to wire to a third party.

The scam, of course, is that the check is a fake and the person who wired the cash will ultimately be on the hook for the funds weeks later. The lesson is simple: Don't ever cash a check from an unknown source, and certainly don't send the same party money back. Furthermore, there are few, if any, mystery shopping assignments that require the evaluation of a money-wiring service, so it's prudent practice to avoid any such offers altogether. Still, these scammers prey on the naivete of shoppers and the hope that there's a desire to earn money quickly and with little effort.

Weeding out the real from the fake
Legitimate assignments will pay you to work for them - not the other way around. It's important to conduct research and use good judgment when weighing any prospective assignment. Never wire money as part of a shopping gig, even if instructed to do so, and when in doubt, dig deeper. The Better Business Bureau serves as a trusted resource filled with information on known scams and ploys. It also carries reviews of the providers who are credible and trustworthy.

For some people, speaking to a live assigner over the phone is reassuring, and it can also help establish a strong rapport and generate more opportunities. That's a sound strategy to start with, as long as all the other red flags are accounted for as well.