Most mystery shopper scam emails are pretty easy to spot. They are full of errors. They come from free email addresses (e.g., Hotmail, Gmail, etc.) instead of emails using the company’s domain name (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org). They ask you to respond to the email with all of your personal information instead of filling out an application at their website.
Then along comes a scammer who is just a little more sophisticated. Someone who understands how email and websites work won’t fall for this, but lots of people don’t even look. Here is a scam email I got recently that looks sort of legit. Someone who wanted to believe that it was real and didn’t look closely could easily fall for it. This is from the email:
First, what looks good is that it has a nice logo and no obvious spelling or grammar errors. It says it comes from scott@pineconeresearch, so that looks good. And they ask you to go to their website to sign up.
One flag is that this landed in my spam box. While some legitimate emails land in spam, the fact that this one did should make you take a second look.
Here is what you need to know about this email and others like it:
It is easy to forge an email header to make it appear that an email is coming from any email address. Even though it says that the sender is scott@pineconeresearch, it could be from anyone. Most emails are from the person they say they are from, but scammers can fool you. Do not trust what is in the “from” field to be accurate.
You would assume that the link would take you to the PineCone Reseach site. Their site is, not surprisingly, https://www.pineconeresearch.com/. The link in this email takes you to a page on a games site, not even close to PineConeResearch.com. Click on the link and you are taken to a page where you can enter your personal information to apply. Just for grins, I clicked the submit button without entering any of my information. A page came back saying this:
Keep in mind that I had entered NOTHING in their form. Not my name, address, email address or anything else. I submitted a blank form. Still, they accepted me and say they are in the process of cutting a check. The acceptance even has logos from a survey organization and the Better Business Bureau.
How can you tell that something like this is a scam?
The fact that they accepted my application without anyone reviewing it–and without me actually filling it out–is a clue.
Anytime you hear Western Union or MoneyGram, hold on to your wallet. When someone wants you to wire money, it is a scam.
Never assume that an email is from the person it claims to be from. Most of the time it is, but do not rely on that as proof that something is “real.” Do a little checking.
Look at the URL they want you to go to. I would not blindly click on a URL in an email (it could take you to a site you do not want to go to), but if you hover over it, you can view the actual URL. If for some reason that doesn’t work for you, put the cursor over the URL, right click and choose “Copy link address.” You can then paste the link into a program where you can see what it is (e.g., your word processor or email program). Does the URL match the name of the company they claim to represent?
Don’t trust logos and other attempts to give the scam credibility. Some people see a BBB logo and assume that they are dealing with a legitimate business, but a scammer can copy and paste the logo on their site. No, they are not supposed to do that, but they are not supposed to steal money from people either. Real BBB logos link to the company’s profile on the BBB website.
Think it might be a real offer? Go to Google or another search engine and search for the company name–in this case, “PineCone Research.” When you do, you get the URL that takes you to their real site. And lookee here: They have a link on their home page titled “Important Security Notice” that leads to this:
This is a scam. If you had any doubts that it is a scam. they should be gone by now.
If this all seems too complicated, I have two simple rules that will help you identify and avoid mystery shopper scams:
Never pay to apply to anyone. Legitimate companies do not charge you, they pay you.
NEVER, EVER WIRE MONEY TO SOMEONE YOU DO NOT KNOW FOR ANY REASON AT ANY TIME. It is always a scam. It doesn’t matter what they say. There are versions of this scam with more variations than you can count. It doesn’t matter who they claim to be or why they want you to wire the money, it is a scam. Always. No exceptions. The check is fraudulent and you will have to pay back all of the money you wired to the scammers. Trust me on this. I have heard heartbreaking stories more times than I want to remember.
If you follow those two rules, you will be scamproof, at least when it comes to mystery shopper scams.
Cathy Stucker is the author of The Mystery Shopper’s Manual. She estimates that she has stopped people from being scammed out of more than $2 million over the last several years, via personal conversations with potential victims and posts on this blog.