Believe it or not, getting paid to shop is a legitimate way to make money. "Mystery shopping" involves going under cover as a typical consumer to help stores learn more about their customers' experiences. Mystery shoppers are usually reimbursed for their purchases, and often given a small payment. There is even a company called Secret Shopper that facilitates this service for businesses.
The problem comes in when scammers pretend to be a legitimate provider of secret shoppers to take advantage of people who want to pursue this line of work. They use email and newspaper ads to lure victims, then give them an initial "assignment" of checking out a money wiring service. They send a check, which the "shopper" is instructed to deposit into a bank account, then wire part of it back. Of course, the check is bad so the victim is left in the position of having to pay the bank for the missing funds.
If you're interested in becoming a mystery shopper, follow these suggestions to avoid this scam:
Legitimate mystery shopper requests appear online for free so don't respond to newspaper want ads or emails promoting these positions.
Never pay a fee or wire money to an unknown source.
Mystery shopping doesn't require certification so don't be fooled into paying for it.
There are resources available if you do become a victim: Contact your local police department, the Federal Trade Commission, or your state's Attorney General.
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