If you receive a letter hiring you to be a “secret shopper” at a big-name store, please understand it is almost certainly a scam. The letter may be extremely detailed, and it may be accompanied by a cashable bank check. But both are illegitimate and you stand to lose a lot of money if you participate. Here’s how the Mystery Shopper scam works:

The Setup & Instructions

The victim responds to a Facebook post or unexpected text, expressing interest in a money-making opportunity. The scammer sends over this kind of letter, along with a check for a large amount of money:

mystery shopper scam

In short, the letter claims that the job is to pose as a secret shopper. The purported work involves entering Walmart stores and buying $2000 worth of gift cards, while casually taking notes on the store and customer service. The check amount exceeds the value of the gift cards, and the “shopper” is instructed to “keep the remaining money” as their pay.

The victim deposits the check into their bank account and immediately gets to work: Visiting stores, taking notes, buying gift cards. They return home, write out details on the shopping trips, and transmit all of the numbers from the backs of the gift cards to the “boss.”

It all seems like quick and easy work, and the average person will look at the math, and feel like they can make $470 in a heartbeat. But it takes a while for the other shoe to drop…

The Cunning Defense

Many scams use gift card purchases to rob people of their money, everyday, and the big-name stores know all about it. As a result, Walmart trains their employees to watch for questionable gift card purchases. Cashiers are told to gently inquire with any shoppers buying large quantities of gift cards. They truly want to stop this crime and protect their shoppers from losing money. Store workers are ready to explain the scams and save people from themselves.

But the “story” presented in this mystery-shopper-letter grooms the victim to be discreet and not respond to such questioning. If the mystery shopper “blows their cover”, then they will “fail in their mission”. This preps the victim to resist any in-store conversations that might help them spot the scam.

The Payoff & Switcheroo

So the victim has deposited the check, visited stores, purchased gift cards, and sent the info to the person running the show. Everything seems finished and quiet. How does the other shoe drop?

1-5 days later, the victim’s bank will contact them. The bank will inform them that the check they deposited for $2470 was fraudulent or illegitimate. The amount of the check has been reversed and removed from the victim’s account.

It may seem confusing, because right after the deposit, the money appears on the victim’s ledger and is viewable as “available funds” through the bank website or app. But that is not a promise or guarantee of any kind. It can take almost a week for the bank to verify the check and finalize the entire transaction. When a fraudulent deposit is caught and reversed, the person who deposited the check is held liable for the amount.

After the bank explains this to the victim, the scam truly reveals itself: A fake check & letter convinced the person to spend their own money on gift cards, and send them over to a stranger. The scammer emptied the gift cards and now has $2000 in untraceable, nonrefundable money, and the victim has lost $2000 from whatever account they used to buy the gift cards. Or more, if the bank assessed any fees for the bad check!

What To Do

If you’ve encountered this scam, you can report it. The FTC and your state’s OAG would like to hear from you!

If you’ve fallen victim to this type of scam, you may contact your local authorities. But please understand that they probably cannot help reverse gift card or wire transfers, and your money is likely gone.

If you really really want to find legitimate mystery shopper employment, that is possible. But never from a Facebook post or random text. Consider reaching out to the official Mystery Shopping Professionals Association, if you think this is a good career path for you.