Scams appear to be on the rise. The most common mystery shopper scam is the cashiers check scam. The victim receives a large check and they are instructed to cash it and wire most of the money to someone, usually in Canada. Although this is a common scam, mystery shopper scams represent a small percentage of the fraud perpetrated. Other types of scams include lottery and sweepstakes scams, financial investment scams and other versions of the cashiers check scam.
Recently, the psychology department at Exeter University, working on behalf of the UK’s Office of Fair Trading, released a study detailing how and why people fall victim to scams. They found that several persuasive techniques were commonly used by scammers, including:
- Appeals to Trust and Authority – In the secret shopper scam, this is done by using the names of trusted mystery shopping companies, and well-known businesses such as Wal-Mart, Western Union, McDonald’s and others.
- Visceral Triggers – Scammers prey on basic human desires and needs to get an emotional response from their targeted victim. Many scams, including the secret shopper scam, convince the recipients that large sums of money await them.
- Scarcity – Many mail and e-mail scams appear to be personally directed to the recipient. They make it sound as though you were “chosen” out of many other people for this opportunity. There is also a stated or implied sense of urgency—you must respond now or miss out.
- Behavioral Commitment – Scammers may begin by asking for a small commitment. For example, they may ask you to respond to the e-mail with some basic information. Once the victim has taken an initial step, no matter how small, it becomes easier for them to take the next step and the next.
- The Promise of a Big Reward for a Small Cost – The mystery shopper check scam promises hundreds of dollars in return for work that they claim will take more no more than a couple of hours.
Although many of the findings of the study were as to be expected, there were some surprises too. Many scam victims:
- Have a better than average knowledge about the topic involved in the scam – This may not be true with the mystery shopper scams; however, it is commonly true in scams involving a lottery or investments.
- Spend more time analyzing the scam then non-victims – This may reflect the fact that people who do not fall victim to the scam it immediately recognize it as a scam and give little or no thought to it.
- Recognize that there is something wrong with the offer and they are taking a gamble – Often, though, the size of the promised reward causes them to ignore the little voice in their heads and take a chance that it is in fact legitimate.
- Do not discuss the scam offer with others – Perhaps this is because they intuitively know that there is something wrong with the offer, and they do not wish to risk someone else pointing out the flaws in the offer to them.
How can you avoid being the victim of a scam?
Do not take the information in an offer at face value. Scammers who will steal thousands of dollars from you will lie about who they are, and what organizations they are affiliated with. Do not assume that because they use the names of trusted organizations they have any association with those companies.
Investigate before you commit. Go online and do a search. For example, a search for “mystery shopper check” turns up dozens, if not hundreds, of warnings describing exactly how the scam operates. Talk to people you trust to get advice about other ways you might check out the offer.
Most importantly, listen to your little voice. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.