July 3, 2008

‘Mystery Shopper’ an Online Scam, FBI Says

Courtney Hodge of Youngwood considers herself computer savvy and certainly not the typical victim of an online Internet scam.

But the 26-year marketing student couldn't have been more wrong.

When taking an online survey, Hodge checked a box asking her if she would be interested in becoming a Mystery Shopper. Since she was familiar with the Mystery Shopper program and had earned income working at home on her computer, she figured it was a legitimate endeavor.

Shortly after completing the survey, she received a cashier's check in the mail for $4,900. She was instructed to keep $300 and then wire the balance.

"It was a cashier's check, which is like a money order, so I went to my bank," Hodge said Wednesday.

At Dollar Bank in Hempfield, Hodge told the teller the check was related to work as a Mystery Shopper. The teller took the check to the security office, which confirmed it was counterfeit.

"They almost got me," she said. "And as a single mom, I can't afford to lose that much money."

Hodge said she notified the FBI and was told hers was one of several calls they received about the scam.

"I just want people to know not to fall for it. I am young and consider myself Internet savvy, and I almost fell for it."

Bill Crowley, FBI spokesman, said the bureau's phones are flooded with calls involving this and similar scams.

"It's usually some variation of the same scandal," Crowley said. "People want you to provide money up front. They come up with an elaborate set of facts. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is."

The state attorney general's office has been watching the "Mystery Shopper" scam, issuing an advisory on it in February.

"Any offer where someone wants to wire money someplace else, disregard it as a scam," said Nils Frederiksen, deputy press secretary for the attorney general's office. "This is one of a number of counterfeit check scams. They all will function in the same way. Strip away the lure of a good part-time job and easy money. No legitimate business operates that way, they just don't."

Both Crowley and Frederiksen recommend registering complaints at the attorney general's Web site at or with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

"We keep track worldwide of these scams," Crowley said. "If it's heavy enough, we'll pursue an investigation."

Additional reporting by Patti Dobranski.