Mystery shopper scam returns to East Tennessee

How to tell the difference between real secret shopper businesses and scams

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Scams are known to come and go, and those that are profitable for criminals often return. One that's back in East Tennessee is the mystery or secret shopper scam.

You can make money as a mystery shopper. There are franchises around the country, including in East Tennessee, but it pays to do some homework to make sure the job is real.

Trish Overton is president of a legitimate mystery shopper business, Mystery Shoppers of East Tennessee. She says her business is part of the nationwide Mystery Shopping Providers Association, where shoppers can sign up to go into a business or call a business and rate the service.

"They can do anything from a phone call shop to a retail visit location to a service industry visit or order something online and have it delivered to check quality. They could do an apartment shop or restaurant shops, those are the kinds of mystery shops that we do," said Overton.

As the rules say, mystery shoppers are independent contractors, are not charged a fee to apply, and are not given any cash advances.

"The money that they use if they're asked to make a purchase is something they use out of their pocket and we reimburse them after the fact, after the shop is completed," Overton said.

Velta Lane at first believed she was being asked to be a mystery shopper when she received the information delivered by Priority Mail.

"Well, they want me to cash the check and then they want me to go to a specific store," Lane said.

Lane said she was given instructions on which stores to visit and what she was to do when she got there.

"I'm supposed to check on how clean the store is, if I experienced any overcharges. I was supposed to be a secret shopper for them," she said.

As a secret or mystery shopper, Lane said she was sent a check for $2,155 was told to deposit it in her bank and kept a small portion as salary. She said all that sounded fishy but was really convinced it was a scam when she was instructed to go and buy money cards.

"I was supposed to get three of them for $500 dollars and another for $450. And according to the check, there was enough money to purchase all the items," Lane said.

Lane said she never loaded the cards and had not deposited that check, but within a hours received information on what to do with the money cards.

"He told me that I needed to make sure that I entered the PIN number for the reloaded cards correctly," she said.

She never loaded the cards and the check, though it looked real, was bogus. Remember, the real mystery shopper businesses do not hand out money to their shoppers. However, Overton says she's getting calls from people like Lane letting her know the mystery shopper scam has returned.

"The scammers are really picking up their game and trying to hit people," Overton said.

"If I had followed the instructions, I would have lost $2,155 out of my personal checking account," said Lane.

The real mystery shopper or secret shopper business will not charge a shopper to affiliate with them. There are, however, individuals scamming shoppers. Often they have foreign accents. Don't be fooled by them. The real mystery and secret shopper organizations have warnings about the scam on their websites.

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