The Virgin Islands Police Department warned Monday that residents of the territory are getting preyed on by scam artists using the "Mystery Shopper" game, which can cost the individuals money and even make them criminally liable.
Mystery shoppers, sometimes referred to as secret shoppers, are hired to go into businesses and act like a customer, evaluating the service at businesses. In legitimate shopper services, the individual is essentially paid to shop and then report on the experience, according to a news release from VIPD spokesman Kevin Jackson.
Fraudsters are sending solicitations via mail, print, text and email to entice consumers. The scam uses fraudulent offers, fake checks and wire transfers to persuade unsuspecting consumers into sending money to fraudsters who are often located outside the U.S.
Residents of the Virgin Islands are now receiving counterfeit U.S. money orders from scam artists, offering them the chance to make money as Mystery Shoppers.
According to Jackson, it works like this:
– The scam artist sends a letter, email solicitation or places an ad in a newspaper or on an electronic message board describing a paid, stay-at-home position in which the consumer will evaluate customer service at large retail stores, businesses with familiar names. In reality, these stores have no affiliation with the scam artist placing the ad.
– After responding to the ad, the consumer receives an "employment packet" containing a training assignment, a list of products to purchase at different stores and a realistic-looking United States Postal money order or cashier’s check, often for $2,000 to $4,000.
The "training assignment" is to deposit the check into the consumer’s bank account, pose as a shopper, and then use a wire transfer to send the balance of the check’s proceeds (minus the cost of the purchases and the consumer’s "salary") to an address outside the United States, often in Canada.
The problem is that the money order or check is fake. When it bounces – which occurs after the money is wired – the consumer is liable – in some cases, criminally – to the bank for the entire amount of the fake check, plus additional penalty fees.
In some instances, consumers are asked for personal bank account information. The company will then "deposit" money into their account for payment and funds with which to perform their Secret Shopper tasks. These consumers often then become victims of identity theft or have their accounts drained by fraudster.
Jackson suggested the following steps for self-protection:
– Don’t open or respond to unsolicited emails asking you to become a mystery shopper or secret shopper.
– Never deposit a check you receive in the mail from a "mystery shopping" company. No legitimate
business will pay in advance and ask you to send back a portion of the money.
– If you have posted your resume to an online job site, verify with the site any job solicitations you receive.
– Don’t click on or respond to online ads or Web sites offering free gift cards.
– Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Anyone who has fallen victim to a Mystery Shopping Scam can contact the V.I. Police Department at 1-340- 778-2211 on St. Croix or 1-340-774-2211 on St. Thomas, or the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs at 1-340-718-2226, St. Croix, or 1-340- 774-3130 on St. Thomas. Or contact the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-382- 4355.