Mystery shopping recruiter struggles to find workers because of scammers

A company that recruits mystery shoppers says scammers are hurting business because potential shoppers are worried about falling victim to fake job postings.

Legitimate business says it’s being hurt by skeptical job seekers

Tens of thousands of Canadians get paid to be legitimate mystery shoppers, but the industry has been beset by scammers in recent years. (Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock)

Just Google "mystery shopper" and you will instantly see what the problem is. The first page of results turns up articles about people scammed out of thousands of dollars after responding to fake job postings.

Now, a Toronto mystery shopper recruiter says the people behind those scams are hurting her business by making potential recruits skeptical. Some even had the audacity to pose as her online.

'If I waited for there not to be a Facebook scam, I would never recruit,' mystery shopper recruiter Julie Anthony says. (Julie Anthony)

"A lot of the time they will target legit company names and right now there is a scam under my company name," said Julie Anthony, CEO of Shoppers Confidential.

When she reaches out to potential recruits, it often takes time to convince them she is legitimate. She has even had people call her to complain they had been fooled by a scam under her own name.

Anthony said people are dismissing and avoiding her posts on social media. But using social platforms has become the only way to reach potential recruits in remote locations.

"If I waited for there not to be a Facebook scam," she said, "I would never recruit." 

Her company has recruited tens of thousands of Canadians to be secret shoppers. They go undercover to check out service and cleanliness at places like fast-food restaurants or even five-star hotels. The recruits are paid to report back to the company on their experience.

Most mystery shopping scams involve victims wiring money back to the person behind the scam. (Shoppers Confidential)

This type of employment has become a major target for scam artists posing as legitimate recruiting firms and targeting victims on social media.

Statistics collected by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre show 204 job scams in just the first two months of 2017, with a cost to victims of $500,000.

How it works

The scam is common but fairly complicated. Someone poses as a legitimate business looking for recruits on social media or via text message.

When they find a potential victim, that person is sent a cheque, told to cash it, keep a portion of the money for themselves, spend some at the business retail outlet they are being asked to evaluate and return the rest to the scammer.

A few days later, the victim finds out the original cheques were fraudulent and they are on the hook for the money they just returned.   

Falling victim to the scam

"They do this for everybody though, it's not just me and it's not the first time," said Anthony. "I have people calling me saying, 'Is this Julie?' And they start talking about a cheque, and I am like 'I didn't send you a cheque. Oh no, what did you do? ' "

Anthony said her office employees are often accused of being scammers online and that's why they created a video to explain how their business actually works.

"I just want a megaphone and scream to the world: 'Cheques don't come for free in the mail,' " she told CBC News in an interview.

The animated video points out that the typical pay for a mystery shopper is between $20 and $50, not the thousands promised by scammers. It also points to some red flags, like being paid before work is done or being asked to wire transfer money.

"It's not surprising to me at all," says Evan Kelly, senior communications adviser with the Better Business Bureau of Mainland B.C.

Employment scams were the No. 1 scam last year in the agency's list of the top 10 scams.

"The mystery shopper and stay-at-home administrative assistant are the two fake jobs scams that are out there and typically they are cheque-cashing schemes," says Kelly.

Victims are often out thousands of dollars, he says, and there is good reason for people to be skeptical, but he admits that can create challenges for companies doing legitimate business.

"It becomes a communication issue. How does the business rise above that and that's the big hurdle they got."