“If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not.”
Those words — an adage repeated by Rushton McGarr, co-founder of mystery shopper company Market Force Information — might be an especially poignant reminder as Internet scammers continue to exploit people looking for work with promises of fast money and easy labor.
These scams can happen anywhere, consumer advocates say, and recently an incident landed in Darien when a woman lost nearly $2,000 after she was employed as a mystery shopper with a company called Market Force. This company, however, was not the same company started by McGarr and two others in 2005 — a company that made the No. 69 spot on Forbes’ 2011 list of top 100 companies to watch.
The company that stole from the Darien woman is a fraud, according to Darien Police Capt. Fred Komm, who said it became clear that the mystery shopper scam employed by the fraudulent Market Force company has been used many times.
“It appears that the scam artists may be using the names of legitimate businesses in order to gain credibility,” Komm stated in an email to The Darien Times.
The alleged victim told police that the scammers emailed her on Wednesday, Jan. 16, offering her a position as a mystery shopper. Mystery shoppers are paid to provide feedback on customer service after purchasing a product or service from a client. The client pays the mystery shopper’s employer for the feedback.
The online job description consisted of the victim getting paid to evaluate the job performance of Western Union employees, police said, so she completed an online application to begin work.
For each assignment, she was told she would receive a check from the company and she was to deposit it into her personal bank account. She would keep $250 as payment and send the balance to someone in the company via Western Union.
On or about Jan. 23, she received an assignment and a subsequent check for $1,990, police said. She deposited the check, deducted the $250 and sent the balance of $1,740 to the company.
Six days later, she received another assignment and a check for the same amount, but she was then advised by her bank that the both checks were counterfeit. She was able to successfully reverse the transaction with the exception of a $250 transaction fee, police said.
When officers investigated, all of the contact information provided by the company proved invalid.
“A check with the Better Business Bureau revealed a mystery shopper scam using the name Mystery Force Inc. with the scam methodology appearing very similar,” Komm said.
McGarr told The Darien Times that this has been happening to his company for years.
“It happens continually — literally on a daily basis,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s nothing new. All mystery shopper companies are subject to this kind of behavior.”
In 2011, the Internet Crime Complaint Center marked the third year in a row that it received over 300,000 complaints, a 3.4% increase over 2010. The adjusted dollar loss of complaints was $485.3 million, according to the Center, which was established as a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center to manage Internet-related criminal complaints.
Most victims have been between the ages of 40 and 59, the Center reported, which represented 43% of total complaints in 2011.
Last September, Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, shut down two websites connected to bogus mystery shopping programs. The websites, IdealCorp.net and SurvsOnl.com, were duping people looking for work as mystery shoppers.
“These scams are particularly insidious because they target individuals looking for ways to bolster their income in today’s challenging job climate,” Schneiderman stated in a press release. “While legitimate ‘work from home’ opportunities do exist, scammers who are simply stealing money under the guise of offering employment are on notice. Our office will continue to protect consumers and shut these bad actors down.”
In September of 2010, a Maryland woman was arrested for scamming an elderly Pennsylvania man out of over $3,000 with the same wire transfer ruse employed on the Darien victim. Police found roughly $110,000 worth of counterfeit checks at the suspect’s house, and reports indicated the woman was connected to an international network with connections to China, Vietnam, Canada, Ecuador, England, Nigeria, Romania and Cyprus.
Police traced the suspect’s email account to a website that was supposedly set up by a Connecticut man, who turned out to be a victim of identify theft, according to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Dan Denston, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, said investigations into such scams consume considerable resources, and given the international nature of the crime, there is little the FBI and other federal agencies can do.
“Unless you get 30 or 40 people scammed out of two grand — I hate to say it — but two or three people losing two grand, it might not be worth the manpower to investigate it,” Denston said, adding that the number of victims is likely much higher than reported, but many people are too embarrassed to come forward.
“It’s really hard to track down,” said McGarr, who serves on the board at Denston’s association, acting as chairman of the scams and integrity committee.
Not only does the scam prey on those who might be in a difficult economic situation, as noted by New York’s attorney general, but it also harms the reputation of companies whose brands are hijacked to present an image of legitimacy, McGarr said.
“It’s important we have a positive brand image,” McGarr said, “so yeah, it’s hurt. I’m sure there are people who would like to be mystery shoppers and heard about the scam and saw the name used and decided not to. Shoppers are our lifeblood. If we don’t have shoppers, we can’t serve our clients.”
The important thing for legit businesses is educating the public about these scams, Denston said.
“You don’t get paid prior to performing a mystery shopping job,” Denston said. “If someone offers you money prior to doing a job, then it’s a scam.”
To appear credible, scammers often advertise work opportunities on reputable websites, television stations and in publications, and many media outlets are unable to verify the legitimacy of these fraudulent jobs, according to the Internet Complaint Crime Center.
More information on how to avoid Internet scams can be found at LooksTooGoodToBeTrue.com. To report a scam, contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov, or the Federal Trade Commission at FTCComplaintAssisstant.gov or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.