5 On Your Side

'Sneaky' secret shopper scams are claiming more victims

Posted August 28
Updated August 29

— A sneaky ongoing type of scam called the "secret shopper scam" is affecting people like Nicole Johnson, who says she can't believe she fell for it.

Many retailers -- including restaurants, shops and supermarkets -- hire real secret shoppers to assess their businesses, but some scammers have been creating a fake secret shopper service to steal money from their "employers."

If scammers are keen enough, this crime can be hard to detect, and Johnson wants to prevent similar scams from happening to others.

It all started when Johnson said she got an email that looked like it was from Kroger. Since she regularly shops at the grocery store, and used to work there, it didn't seem weird at all.

The questions asked in the email were not suspicious either. "They didn't ask for a credit card number or bank account number, so there were no red flags," said Johnson.

Days later, Johnson's "secret shopper" packet arrived with a cashier's check for $2,350 dollars. It added up to $50 to buy groceries, $300 to answer questions about her experience and the unusual part -- $2,000 to buy 20 iTunes gift cards worth $100 each.

"That seemed a little strange, but I've never been a secret shopper, so I didn't know what would have been out of the realm of possibilities," said Johnson.

It was when her "supervisor" texted her to scratch the cards and send pictures with the redemption codes exposed that Johnson started to feel more unsure.

"I thought maybe I shouldn't do it; maybe I should just tell him to back off," said Johnson. "But again, I was like maybe I'm just being paranoid."

When the funds for the gift cards showed up in her checking account, Johnson sent photos of the iTunes cards by email. Two days later, the money she got to buy them was gone.

"My heart just fell through the floor," said Johnson. "I said this can't be right, it was there last night." While Johnson used the $50 worth of groceries, she was out $2,000 for the iTunes cards.

A quick online search shows victims keep getting hit by secret shopper scams.

In fact, the North Carolina Attorney General's Office has already received 47 complaints in 2017, and nine people permanently lost more than $34,400.

Research shows scammers often operate from foreign countries that usually cooperate with the law, and their persistent. Even after Johnson told the scammer she was done, she said he continued to text and email, trying to convince her to continue.

Experts are sharing the following practices to make sure you don't get caught in the same scam:

According to financial advisers, verifying that a check is good can take weeks. And, until a bank confirms the actual check is cleared, users are responsible for any money they withdraw.

"I'm mad at them, and I'm mad at myself for falling for it," said Johnson. "I really should have just listened to those red flags."

A spokesperson for Kroger contacted WRAL after reading the story with the following statement:

"We don't promote our mystery shop program through media channels," the spokesperson said in a statement. "We've encouraged customers not to engage or interact with any links they receive about a mystery shop program."

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  • Laura Stanberry Aug 30, 12:27 p.m.
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    Yep I almost got snagged in the same scam. When I got texted I didn't think much but when a cashiers check for well above what I needed to shop showed up I called the Attorney generals office and then destroyed the check and blocked the caller on my phone. Glad I used to work for a bank. I should have known that any legitimate company would not reach out to anyone. They have outside companies that they contract and as the article states compensation is basically just enough to cover what you are purchasing typically no more than $20