2005-12-23 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Audrey PhefferAudrey Pheffer You have probably heard it before: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The recently popular mystery shopping scams are a prime example. After all, what sounds more appealing than being paid to dine in fine restaurants, stay at expensive hotels, and shop in exclusive stores during your free time? Unfortunately, many of these scams offer only empty promises and high expenses for consumers.

Mystery shopping offers are not always scams. Some companies and retailers do hire market research companies to gain feedback regarding their products or services, and these research companies hire mystery shoppers to anonymously make a purchase and report their experience. Generally, mystery shoppers are allowed to keep the product or service, and they are reimbursed for any expenses they have incurred. Legitimate mystery shopping promoters rarely advertise through e-mail or newspaper ads, and they never charge fees for registration, certification, membership organizations, or directories of companies hiring mystery shoppers.

Fraudulent mystery shopping promoters often advertise to consumers through e-mail or through newspaper ads and claim to be hiring mystery shoppers to work for well-known companies for large sums of money. Some scams advertise that their mystery shoppers can earn incomes ranging from $347 a week to $24,000 a year, when in reality legitimate mystery shopping jobs are usually temporary or sporadic in nature and generate far less income. These advertisements often direct interested consumers to a website where they may be guaranteed employment, offered a directory of mystery shopping companies, allowed to register, or offered a certification program, all for an often substantial fee. Some fraudsters publish a phone number that, when called, automatically charge fees to your phone bill. Any mystery shopping promoter that uses these tactics is likely fraudulent and should be avoided. Companies that have been involved in similar activities include The American Mystery Shoppers Association, Top Communications, Mystery Survey Centers, and The Local Shoppers Network.

If you are interested in becoming a mystery shopper for a legitimate promoter, visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MPSA) website at www.mysteryshop.org. This website has a database of available jobs, information on the industry, as well as information on how to become a mystery shopper for a legitimate company. Many of these companies have websites that accept applications for employment, free of charge. You can also learn more about mystery shopping at your local library, bookstore, or on the Internet.

If you have responded to what you believe to be mystery shopper scam, file a complaint with your local consumer protection agency, Better Business Bureau, or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC’s website can be found at www.ftc.gov, and you can also call

1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or TTY: 1-866-653-4261.

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