Thursday, October 30, 2014

BEWARE - SCAM ALERT! Mystery Shopper Scam Using Social Media

Many people seek opportunities to generate extra revenue. There are, of course, more ways to approach this then there is room in this post to mention them all. A lot of the readers of this blog are "location independent" (full-time) or at least part-time "travelers. So, you are usually looking for portable, mobile or, in someway, location independent opportunities.

So, here's the deal. There are at least as many scams and possibly more as there are legitimate opportunities. The challenge is often that the scam or con is so well crafted that even the smartest of us can be duped. I fell into the trap just one time, probably 20 or 25 years ago when I had a very active audio recording business in full swing. I needed to upgrade to some new technology and decided instead of actually biting the bullet and buying the equipment outright, as I normally had, I would try equipment leasing. I applied to a legitimate leasing company I found in one of the industry journals and was turned down. But, they referred me to a company in Dallas, Texas they said would be more likely to handle a deal like mine.

Well, the second company was a one man operation who designed his con so well that he had the legitimate companies referring to him. I bit. Everything seemed pretty much on the up and up until a certain point. then I became a bit uneasy. I should have stopped and backed out. My intuition was saying Run Away from this deal. But, I didn't. I sent the requested $800 for the first and last payments on the lease along with the signed paperwork. That was the last time I saw my $800.00 and I never saw the equipment. I had been in business about 25 or so years at that point. I'd seen many "so-called" once in a lifetime opportunities come and go without getting caught. But, this time, I didn't trust my intuition and I learned the hard way. When it looks too good to be true, it usually almost always is."

Mystery Shopping

Mystery Shopping is a legitimate business and income opportunity. It is used by just about every retail industry and category there is. Even the largest retailers like Walmart, Target, Lowes; restaurants like McDonalds, Applebees, Pizza Hut; motel/hotels like Holiday Inn, Best Western, Hilton: supermarkets, pharmacies, clothing stores, you name it and they are probably using or have used mystery shoppers at some time.

I won't go into the details of mystery shopping. That's not the focus of this article. What I will tell you is that there is at least one and more than likely many cons and scams going on currently using the mystery shopping field as their vehicle. In the case of the leasing scam I was caught by, it was done domestically from Texas and the guy was caught. He used the UPS or Fedex to deliver his paperwork. However, he would occasionally use the U.S. Postal Service and that was how he was caught, convicted of fraud and other charges and sent to prison.

These new schemers are located around the world. They use email and a variety of social media to find their targets. They communicate via text messaging and email. They create a subterfuge by using different text numbers to send from and receive messages back from the mark. The same with email. They have often stolen the identity of legitimate people and businesses to add credibility to the con. The bottom line, if you were to do a cursory due diligence you might very well deduce that this is a real person, a real business and a real opportunity. That's when you may get hooked.

The LinkedIn Connection

I have a very large LinkedIn Network, the business social media network with 300 million plus members. I am one of the first one million members, so I've been around LinkedIn a long time. A friend forwarded me a solicitation for mystery shoppers through LinkedIn. Now, I'll be honest, it's kind of a warped hobby for me to discover these scams. From the beginning I was skeptical (and rightfully so, I must say). I forwarded the requested information and almost before I could blink my eyes I received a reply saying I had been accepted and my first assignment would be coming soon.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. The man's name is John M. Hendrick. His company is Retail Active. Yes! There is a John M. Hedrick (probably a number of them in the world). Yes! There is a company in the mystery shopping business that goes by the name of Retail Active. But, the plot thickens.

First, Mr. Hendrick didn't seem to have a real command of the British English or American English written language. It wasn't bad, but there were some very obvious things that anyone with a good solid basis in these two versions of English would notice. That's why knowing your native language reasonably well is important.

Second, Mr. Hendrick sent me a text and an email saying my first assignment was going to be with the Western Union services offered at most Walmart stores and Walmart of my choice. So, he selected two, very well established and credible businesses to mystery shop.

Third, he notified me I'd be receiving a check (didn't indicate how I'd receive it) made out to me for $2,950.76, which I did, through my mail forwarder in South Dakota. It took about a week and a half to receive it during which time I received numerous texts and at least one email from Hendrick asking if I received the check and had I deposited it, yet. The first $400.00 dollars of that money was my payment for the mystery shop I was going to perform. The balance of the funds I was supposed to wire me via Western Union to three different people a three addresses.

Anatomy Of A Scam

Now, think about this. I have received no formal terms or conditions. I've received no agreement or contract of any kind. But, Mr. Hendricks trusts me enough knowing virtually nothing about me to send me almost $3,000.00 and expects I'll follow his orders and send this money to people I don't know. I'll be honest, no legitimate mystery shopping company operates this way and I knew it because I've done some mystery shopping in the past. I can also tell you that $400 as payment for an assignment like this is pretty bogus, too.

So, I knew from the get-go that I was dealing with some slick con operator in the Ukraine, Russian, China, perhaps somewhere in Africa and even South America. So, I have no terms and conditions. I have no contract or agreement. I have a check made out to me in my hands for $2,950.76. The check is drawn on PNC Bank, a branch in Princeton, New Jersey. The check is a business check issued by Berlitz International, Inc. (Notice, every organization in this scam is a legit business, credible and high profile.)

I called the PNC branch which actually existed and spoke to someone there who confirmed the check had their correct routing number on it, but it was a fraudulent check. I called the Princeton office of Berlitz International and although the check had the correct street name on it, it was the wrong street number, probably close to a mile or so from where the actual office was. They also indicated they were aware of these checks and their were not worth the paper they were written on. Additionally, that office didn't issue checks. Berlitz checks were issued out of an operations center at a different location.

I then emailed Active Retail, which I had discerned were located in the England and, as I was aware from their Web site, only operated in England doing mystery shopping assignments. And, of course, they had never heard of anyone going by the name John M. Hendrick. I have only received one additional text from John M. Hendrick wanting me to respond and tell him if had deposited the check as I was instructed and made the wire transfers. Of course, I'm sitting here looking at this useless piece of wall paper. By now, I suspect that Mr. Hendrick, or whoever he really is, has figured out that I'm onto his scam and don't plan to follow through.

I've also filed a claim with LinkedIn with all the details, so they can watch for him. I've heard that he's also appeared on Facebook, though I don't have first hand knowledge of that allegation.

There's A Sucker Born Every Minute

These people are becoming very sophisticated. People have been falling for the Nigerian Letter scam for years. I believe I read somewhere that someone in the U.S. Treasury almost fell for it and cost the taxpayers a pile of money (as if they don't squander enough already). For whatever the reason, people's greed and gullibility, I guess, they still believe there is a "free lunch" out there for them somewhere.

I don't go down this road playing games with a scam artist very often, only when it tickles my fantasy or I think I may learn something that will help others avoid it. And, don't believe that you're too smart to be scammed and defrauded. AT&T Mobility, my cell and wireless Internet provider, is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission for selling unlimited full-speed Internet connections to some 3.5 million customers, then throttling back the speed to slow speed Internet approximately 2/3 the way through a month of service.

Think about it. If they just throttle back an average of 20% of a month's service every month on 3.5 million customers paying and let's just use $60.00/month, how much would that be? It would amount to $12.00/month of service not delivered as contracted or $42 million/month AT&T has received. In my book that is fraud and theft. How many of us may be part of that 3.5 million customers?

Mystery Shopping is a legitimate enterprise. It's a valuable service for the retailers, the managers, the shareholders, the employees and the consumers. It's also a great way for those of us to add a little extra revenue to our bank accounts. And, it is an especially interesting opportunity for those of us who are location independent travelers. Just be careful. Do your due diligence and protect yourself. And, believe that any legitimate mystery shopping service is going to do their due diligence checking you out before allowing you to represent them.

If IT looks too good to be true, IT almost always is.