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How to quickly lose $1,100 in a Walmart shopping scam

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

If you receive an unsolicited job offer from Walmart that involves shopping and getting paid big bucks to do it, it’s certainly a scam. But when Michele Turner received such an invitation, she was sure she had found the perfect way to make some extra cash. Unfortunately for her, there was a thief on the other end of that email who was about to reel Michele into an expensive mystery shopper scam. And the only person about to make some extra cash was that predator.

Now Michele is hoping that our advocacy team can help retrieve the over $1,100 she lost during this fiasco. But how? 

A surprise job offer from Walmart

Michele says that this scam began one morning when her fiance received a surprise job offer from Walmart to be a mystery shopper.

“I received an email from my fiance about secret shopping opportunities at Walmart,” Michele recalled. “After careful consideration, we both decided to become mystery shoppers.”

The couple applied for the positions and soon received texts of their acceptance as “customer support conducting agents.”

Of course, any unsolicited job offer that arrives via email or text should always be considered suspect.

But Michele says that Walmart’s unusual recruitment method didn’t set any alarm bells off for her.

“I had no indications that the offer was a scam or that it wasn’t coming from Walmart,” Michele recalled. “I was eager to get to the shopping part of the job.”

However, although her new title sounded official, after she got to work, things quickly took a strange turn.

What followed can only be described as complicated shenanigans designed to steal as much money from Michele and her fiance as possible.

The Walmart shopping scam starts with a check 

First, a person known only as “Salvador” sent Michele a check for $2,450. His instructions said that she should deposit the money into her own bank account. As soon as the bank allowed, Salvador told her to withdraw the money.

“Salvador explained that my first mystery shopping assignment involved making two wire transfers at the local Walmart,” Michele remembered. “I would complete the transfer through Ria, the wire transfer company inside the store.”

Surprisingly, Michele’s fiance received the same initial mystery shopper “assignment.”

The day after Michele deposited her check, her bank made most of the funds available. So she withdrew the money and headed to Walmart to make the wire transfers. Her fiance’s bank placed a 5-day hold on his check from Salvador. So he couldn’t immediately begin his strange mystery shopper duties.

FYI: Scammers love wire transfers and other instant cash transfer services like Zelle.

And they especially love wire transfers done through services like Western Union and Ria — where both the sender and receiver can be almost anonymous. Once you send the money through such a service, it’s typically gone forever with no way to track it. It’s like handing an anonymous stranger cash.

But Michele was still under the impression that she was working as a mystery shopper for Walmart. She had no idea that she was about to send her own money to an anonymous scammer.

Heading to Walmart to complete the next steps of this shopping scam

As Salvador instructed, Michele took her giant wad of cash down to the local Walmart and sent $1,800 to two complete strangers.

After she completed her two wire transfers, she contacted Salvador. He was pleased and said that he had more mystery shopper tasks for her. Next, she should buy $200 in iTunes cards.

Still at Walmart, Michele went to the gift card rack and bought the iTunes cards.

“Salvador then said he would send me the address of the charity that I should mail the cards to,” Michele recalled. “But first, I needed to scratch off the silver panels and take pictures of both numbers and send them to him.”

Of course, if you are a regular reader of my column, you know what happened next. You may have read about the man who tried to sell his Target gift cards on Craigslist. He also sent a photo of the numbers off the back of his card. That ended poorly for him when he discovered the scammer had quickly stolen his card’s entire value.

But Michele says that she didn’t see the red flags in any of this either. She didn’t know what exactly she was doing in her new job as a mystery shopper, but she pressed forward.

“I was unsure as to what I was truly doing,” she explained. “I was not familiar with these cards and had no idea you could use them remotely.”

Unfortunately, for Michele, the scammer was very familiar with how to steal gift cards — those numbers she sent were all he needed.

The bank: The check is bad — you’re involved in a scam

The bad news for Michele came early in the morning the very next day. She received an alert from her bank that her account was overdrawn. The bank had discovered that the check from Salvador was worthless.

In a panic, Michele contacted her bank and asked what they could do to retrieve her money. That’s when she learned that she would be responsible for covering the phony check and all overdraft fees.

She turned her anger not on the anonymous Salvador and his mystery shopping scam, but on her bank. She demanded to know why the bank had detected that there might have been something wrong with her fiance’s check, but she received no such warning.

FYI: If you’re a good customer, your bank assumes that any check you deposit is valid. As a courtesy, the bank will typically release the funds as soon as possible. Michele’s bank, PNC, explains how these funds become available:

…deposits of checks or money orders will be available on the first business day after the business day of your deposit for all purposes.

However, that doesn’t mean that the check has actually cleared. And if it doesn’t clear, the customer will still be on the hook for the value of the check. These terms also describe a variety of reasons why PNC would put a more extended hold on a check that a customer deposits. Most of these reasons have to do with the trust and track record the customer has developed with the bank.

Is it possible to stop the wire transfers?

In general, wire transfers are not reversible. Once your bank sends the money you can assume it’s gone.

But Michele frantically tried to get back her money. She looked at the two wire transfer receipts and noticed that she could check the transfers’ status. One had already gone through, but the other one had not. Luckily she was able to reverse one of the transfers, for $900.

Unfortunately, when she checked the iTunes gift cards’ balance, she discovered the thief had drained them both. Michele could do nothing to retrieve that $200.

The website for Ria, the wire transfer company, has a page dedicated to avoiding scams that involve wire transfers.

And there is no shortage of known scams that involve wire transfers. On that page, there was all the information Michele needed to understand the mystery shopper scam in which she was involved. It’s too bad that she didn’t read over this page before making any wire transfers:

The Mystery Shopper Scam
Lucky you! You just landed a new gig as a mystery shopper and have been assigned your first task. All you need to do evaluate the customer service of a local retail store. Sounds easy enough, right? There is just one catch. You were sent a check or money order with instructions to deposit it, yet you find out the amount is more than it should be. So, now you need to send money back to the sender. Sounds a little fishy, but you don’t think too much of it. Yet, as soon as you send your transaction, you learn that the original check was counterfeit and now you can’t get back the money you just sent. So now you’re out for both amounts.

Are there real mystery shopper jobs to be had?

The reason that the mystery shopper scam can be so successful is that legitimate mystery shopper jobs do exist. Some companies hire secret or mystery shoppers to test customer’s retail experiences.

The difference between a real mystery shopper gig and a mystery shopper scam? A real mystery shopper job will pay little to nothing, but you may get to keep a product or have a free meal.

If this type of job sounds intriguing to you, the place to start your legitimate mystery shopper job search is The Mystery Shoppers Professional Association. You won’t find any promises of high paying assignments there, but you just might find some fun opportunities to make a few bucks and try out some free products.

How to avoid falling into a mystery shopping scam

Unfortunately, we can’t help Michele recoup her money. This case is a matter for her bank, the police department, and possibly the FBI to investigate. But her story is a cautionary one for others who may not be aware of the mystery shopping scam. Here are some things to keep in mind so you’ll avoid falling victim to a shopping scam.

  • Ignore surprise job offers
    Legitimate companies do not send out unsolicited job offers via text or email. These messages always arrive addressed to no one in particular. Of course, that’s because the scammer doesn’t care who accepts the “job.” These are phishing expeditions and the internet criminal is just looking for a victim. Delete any surprise job offer that arrives in your email or text messages.
  • Never send a wire transfer or cash app payment to a stranger
    Wire and cash app transfers are an internet scammer’s favorite form of payment. If you’re asked to send a wire transfer or Zelle payment to a stranger as part of a new job, you can be sure that you’re involved in a scam. Don’t do it.
  • Don’t buy and giveaway gift card numbers
    Gift cards are a close second to the preferred payment method of scammers. Remember, if you scratch off the silver panel and send those numbers to anyone, you’re giving the value of the gift card away. That information is all the person needs to redeem the gift card. The terms and conditions of every gift card reminds users to treat the card like cash. So if you give that card value away to a stranger, it’s gone. If you’re asked to buy gift cards and read off the numbers to a stranger, you’re most certainly being scammed.
  • Report scams to the Federal Trade Commission and to the FBI
    If you believe you’ve been targeted or have been the victim of an online fraud, make sure to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and also report the crime to the FBI. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)
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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.
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There’s a special place in he** for people that pull these kinds of scams…!

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