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Secret shopper scam: How you can avoid falling victim

These scams are just too good to be true.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Secret shoppers are a not-so-secret part of the retail world.

You get to shop around and check out the latest products for quality and availability, but there are some new scams popping up that sound just a little too good to be true. 

"This one has been around for a while but now it has a couple of new twists. Scammers whenever something works for them will ride that pony as long as they can," said Tom Bartholomy, President/CEO of Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont and Western North Carolina.

How the scam works 

You receive or solicit an offer to become a secret shopper, and you don't even have to interview because you're the perfect person for the position. 

Next, the "company" mails you a check to cover your secret shopping purchases. 

Typically the check will be worth more than the items you buy, so you get to keep the rest as a bonus. 

It sounds great so far, but here's where the scam comes in. 

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"They say 'go ahead a deposit that [check] right away,' and... 'go buy prepaid debit cards,'" Bartholomy said. 

The scammers create a sense of urgency for you to spend your own money right away while waiting for the check to clear the bank. It's not until a few days later you realize you're not getting that money back. 

"The unfortunate part is: that check they send you is fraudulent and it will take a few days to clear, but in the meantime, you've made these purchases out of your account. When you find out three or four days later that the check was fraudulent, you've already bought those prepaid debit cards, sent them off to that scammer, and you're on the hook," Bartholomy said.

How to avoid secret shopper scams 

The Better Business Bureau offers a few tips to avoid falling victim to this type of scam:

  • Research the secret shopper companies before applying
  • Check the Mystery Shopper Professionals Association database
  • Be wary of companies that hire on the spot
  • Beware of jobs that involve receiving and returning money
  • Never wire money or buy prepaid debit cards for strangers

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The bottom line

Bartholomy says if you still want to believe its true tell the scammers you're going to deposit the check now, but you're not going to spend any money until the check clears the bank. 

"You're going to make them very upset which is exactly what you want a scammer to be," Bartholomy said.

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More tips to avoid becoming a victim of a scam

  • Emotional appeal 
    Any pitch that ratchets up your emotion will inhibit your rational judgment. 

  • Sense of urgency 
    You MUST act now, or else. 

  • Request for unorthodox payment 
    Gift cards, prepaid credit cards, wire transfers, etc. 

  • Explanations that don't ring true 
    If your new “landlord” can’t show you the inside of the house, that could be because they don’t own it. 

  • You won, now pay up 
    It’s not a prize if you have to pay for it. Taxes, fees, shipping, whatever. 

  • Too good to be true 
    That’s because it’s not true. Sorry, your long-lost relative didn’t die, leaving you millions. That car you bought online for a third of its Kelly Blue Book value doesn’t really exist. The son of a billionaire diamond broker didn’t “swipe right” on you and fall instantly in love. That work-at-home job paying you hundreds of dollars an hour for stuffing envelopes isn’t real.

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to WCNC Charlotte by emailing money@wcnc.com.

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