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Mystery Shopping Facts and Fiction

Published in Quirk's Marketing Research Review, January 1997

By Mark L. Michelson

Mark Michelson is President/CEO of Michelson & Associates, Inc.., an Atlanta, Georgia based marketing research company that has provided mystery shopping services nationwide since 1984.

Beware of mystery shopping employment fraud. Recently mystery shopping has become a popular target of scam operators. This past summer we have seen numerous advertisements for mystery shoppers to earn incredible income such as $347 a week or $24,000 a year.

In addition, there are several books being sold that list marketing research companies with advice on how consumers can earn a living as a mystery shopper or professional focus group participant. These books and advertising schemes promise much more than what can realistically be earned by the average consumer, and in some cases advertisers are charging people for this information without their knowledge. These fraudulent activities can damage the reputation of our industry and affect everyone's ability to recruit shoppers.

One of the most notorious of these scam operators has advertised in numerous newspapers throughout the country. (See listing of this company below) Because of their widespread advertising, it is no longer possible to place ads for mystery shoppers in many newspapers. They ran classified ads that ask people to call a local number. Once people called this number, they were told to call another number using a special MCI international access number to dial to area code 809. Consumers were told there would no additional expense other than the cost of a normal long distance call. In fact, calling this number cost unsuspecting consumers at least $30 and as much as $100. The recording on this call lasts over 20 minutes and basically provides unrealistic information on mystery shopping opportunities and lists the names and addresses of 17 companies that hire mystery shoppers.

Obviously, people have a desire for the type of part-time work that mystery shopping offers, and they are very interested in the prospect of being paid to act as mystery shoppers. Recruiting shoppers is an important aspect of mystery shopping, as service providers always need more people to help them complete their evaluations. It is unfortunate that the media is now associating these recruiting scams with mystery shopping and the Better Business Bureau has now decided that all mystery shopping is nothing but a scam.

The FTC is taking more positive action by preparing consumer education information regarding mystery shopping. If you have information you would like to provide for this soon-to-be released report please contact the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection in Washington, D.C. at 202-326-3755 or fax to 202-326-3395

How to identify a scam

The consumer is promised unrealistic earnings such as $347 a week or $24,000 a year or the ability to get free big ticket merchandise.

Consumers are not made aware of charges made to their phone bill when responding to ads.

Consumers are promised on-going "get-rich-quick" income opportunities for a fee.

Consumers are not told that mystery shopping is temporary, part-time work.

From the Marketing Research Association
in a letter to members - Fall 1996:
In January 1996 many MRA members began to receive calls from the public seeking employment in the field of mystery shopping. However, most - if not all - of the members who were contacted do not conduct mystery shopping. Even so, their company was listed as a source of mystery shopping employment.

MRA immediately became concerned about the possibility of consumer fraud or false advertising. Therefore, in September we requested that members send us any information they received about such calls. We discovered that many of these calls result from listings in booklets that are purchased by the potential employees.

As a result of the information you provided to us, we have uncovered the booklets' publisher. We have also talked with the Attorney General of the State of Connecticut on your behalf. He, in turn, met via conference call with the attorneys general of 12 other states. Together, they are now conducting an in-depth investigation into this potential mystery shopping fraud. In addition, we have worked with our legal counsel to provide you with the following information.

If you are faced with this situation, we request you take the following steps immediately:

Find out as much information as you can about how the caller got your company's name and phone number.

Tell the caller clearly that this is misleading advertising and that you do not hire mystery shoppers (if that is the case); encourage the caller to contact the Better Business Bureau in their area and complain.

Obtain the address of the publisher of the booklet and write to them requesting the publisher remove your name from their booklet.

Notify the Attorney General of your state. Send as much information as you can to support your complaint.

Notify MRA Headquarters of your actions by sending a copy of your correspondence and any other information you discover.

More Information On Recruiting Scams

Not included in the Quirk's Article

The company behind the infamous 809 scam is known as The American Mystery Shoppers Association located in Burbank, California. The American Mystery Shoppers Association is owned by an individual who also owns and operates Top Communications and Mystery Survey Centers.

Top Communications has been running classified newspaper ads with phone numbers that once called, a minimum of $30 is charged to your phone bill. These charges are billed falsely as adult sex lines operating from the Carribbean. Then, once you respond to the ad, they send you a mailing to solicit membership in The American Mystery Shoppers Association. This organization is currently under investigation by the FTC Bureau of Consumer Affairs and is being targeted by several states for fraud.

Another organization that is despised by the industry is Local Shoppers Network out of Anaheim, California. Local Shoppers Network runs ads in tabloids and newspapers promising people that they can earn $347 per week and get free big ticket merchandise such as TV sets. Technically, it is not illegal to lie the way Local Shoppers Network does, but they have caused a lot of headaches and concern among many consumers and legitimate shopping service providers.

Local Shoppers Network and The American Mystery Shoppers Association both sell booklets and newsletters with lists of companies that may or may not actually provide mystery shopping services. Neither of these organizations have permission from most companies they list in these publications.

As a result of being listed, many unsuspecting companies have been flooded with unwanted mail and phone calls from people seeking work - for jobs that often do not exist. The shoppers seeking work end up not only paying Local Shoppers Network and The American Mystery Shoppers Association, but they also waste their time and money writing letters and making calls. And, while these organizations say they offer a money back guarantee - there is virtually no way to get your money back once it has been sent. They won't even respond to your letters.

We are aware of Local Shoppers Network and The American Mystery Shopper Association because they both listed our company without our permission or knowledge. If you are aware of other mystery shopping recruiting scams such as these, please let us know.

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