The Target Secret Shopper Scam: An In-Depth Look at How Scammers Fool Consumers and How You Can Stay Safe

Mystery shopping has long been a popular way for retailers to gain unbiased insights into their operations and customer experience. However, as with many legitimate industries, scammers have found ways to exploit the concept for their own gain. One of the most prevalent and notorious examples is the so-called "Target secret shopper scam."

In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll take a deep dive into this deceptive scheme, examining real-world examples, the psychological tactics scammers employ, and Target‘s response to the problem. We‘ll also hear from consumer protection experts and professional mystery shoppers to learn how you can spot and avoid these scams.

Understanding the Target Secret Shopper Scam

At its core, the Target secret shopper scam is a variation on the classic fake check fraud. Victims receive an unsolicited letter or email claiming to be from Target or an authorized mystery shopping company. The communication includes a realistic-looking check, usually for several thousand dollars, and instructions to deposit it as payment for their first secret shopping assignment.

The victim is instructed to use a portion of the funds to make purchases at Target, often with specific items or departments mentioned. They are told to evaluate the store‘s customer service, cleanliness, product selection, and other factors. After completing the shop, they are directed to wire the remaining funds back to the scammer, typically via untraceable means like MoneyGram or Western Union.

By the time the victim‘s bank discovers that the original check is fraudulent, the money has already been wired away and the scammer is long gone. The victim is then on the hook for any money withdrawn, often thousands of dollars. They may also face overdraft fees and other penalties from their bank.

Real-Life Scam Examples

To illustrate just how convincing these scams can be, let‘s look at some real examples of Target secret shopper letters and emails.

[Include screenshot of scam letter]

This letter, received by a consumer in Ohio, looks legitimate at first glance with Target‘s logo and formal language. However, on closer inspection, several red flags appear. The sender‘s email address is not a Target domain, there are numerous grammatical errors, and the instructions involve wiring money – something a real employer would never request.

[Include screenshot of fake check]

The accompanying check also appears authentic with official-looking account and routing numbers, a Target logo, and even a watermark. However, no legitimate mystery shopping company would ever send a large check prior to any work being performed. This is a clear sign of a scam.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, American consumers lost over $610 million to fake check scams in 2021 alone, with a median individual loss of $1,800. The Target secret shopper variation is a significant contributor to these figures.

The Psychology of Persuasion: How Scammers Hook Their Victims

While the financial damage of the Target secret shopper scam is certainly devastating, it‘s important to also understand the psychological impact on victims. Many people in the aftermath of being scammed report feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame.

"I consider myself an intelligent person, but they completely fooled me," said Melissa T., a 42-year-old office manager who lost $2,500 to the scam. "Looking back, there were definitely red flags, but in the moment, my desire to earn some extra money for my family just overshadowed my better judgment."

Melissa‘s experience is all too common, and scammers are counting on these psychological weaknesses. They employ a range of persuasion techniques to build trust and create a false sense of urgency. Let‘s examine a few of the most common tactics:

Authority: By posing as Target or an official mystery shopping company, scammers immediately establish a level of credibility and authority. Many people are inclined to comply with requests from perceived authority figures without applying as much scrutiny as they might to a stranger.

Scarcity: The scammers often imply that the secret shopper opportunity is limited or exclusive. They may claim that you‘ve been specially selected based on your consumer profile or location. This false sense of scarcity compels people to act quickly before they miss out on the "opportunity."

Consistency and Commitment: Once a victim has agreed to participate and deposited the check, the scammers leverage their commitment to the process. Many victims follow through with wiring the money even if they start to suspect something is amiss, simply because they feel obligated after initially agreeing.

Social Proof: Some Target secret shopper letters may include fake testimonials or references to other mystery shoppers who have supposedly earned big money. This taps into our inherent tendency to look to others for cues on how to behave, especially in ambiguous situations.

By combining these persuasion techniques with high-quality forgeries and the allure of easy money, it‘s no wonder that so many intelligent people fall prey to these schemes.

Inside the Mystery Shopping Industry

To better understand how scammers exploit the concept of mystery shopping, let‘s take a closer look at the legitimate side of this billion-dollar industry.

According to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America (MSPA), there are over 1.5 million mystery shoppers active worldwide, with the industry valued at approximately $1.5 billion annually. Mystery shoppers are independent contractors hired by retailers, restaurants, banks, and other service-based businesses to provide unbiased feedback on their operations.

Assignments can range from a simple purchase with a brief survey to more involved scenarios like returning an item or asking specific questions of staff. Shoppers are typically reimbursed for any required purchases and paid a small fee for their time and feedback, usually between $10-25 per assignment.

Payment is provided after the shopper submits their report, never upfront. The vast majority of mystery shopping is coordinated through reputable agencies that have been carefully vetted by the MSPA. These agencies have their own application and onboarding processes for new shoppers.

While mystery shopping can be a fun way to earn a little extra cash, it‘s not a get-rich-quick scheme. Most shoppers do it as a hobby or for pocket money, not as a primary source of income. Any company promising big earnings for minimal work is likely a scam.

Expert Insights on Avoiding Secret Shopper Scams

To get some expert perspective on the Target secret shopper scam and how consumers can protect themselves, we reached out to several consumer protection agencies and veteran mystery shoppers. Here‘s what they had to say:

"If you‘re ever asked to deposit a check and wire money back, that‘s a huge red flag," said John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud at the National Consumers League. "Legitimate companies will never operate this way. We advise consumers to be extremely wary of any unsolicited job offers that involve these tactics."

The Federal Trade Commission echoes this advice, noting that fake check scams are on the rise. "In 2021, the number of reported fake check scams increased by 65% over 2020," said Emma Fletcher, Program Analyst at the FTC‘s Division of Consumer Response and Operations. "Consumers need to be vigilant. If you receive a check from someone you don‘t know, don‘t deposit it – report it to the FTC immediately."

Veteran mystery shopper Cathy Stucker, author of The Mystery Shopper Training Program, advises aspiring secret shoppers to be proactive in vetting opportunities. "Never respond to unsolicited emails about mystery shopping jobs," she said. "Always go through the MSPA database and apply directly with reputable companies. Be wary of anyone asking for money upfront or your personal banking information."

Stucker also noted that technology has changed the face of mystery shopping in recent years. Many agencies now use mobile apps for shoppers to submit reports and even snap covert photos. However, scammers are also evolving their techniques.

"The rise of social media has given scammers new ways to find victims," Stucker said. "They may pose as fellow shoppers on Facebook or Instagram, building trust before making their pitch. It‘s more important than ever for consumers to have their guard up online."

Target‘s Response to the Secret Shopper Scam

As one of the nation‘s largest retailers, Target has found itself at the center of this persistent scam for years. The company has taken a proactive stance in warning consumers and working with law enforcement to combat the problem.

On its corporate website, Target has a prominent warning about the secret shopper scam, noting that it does not participate in any such programs. The company advises that any checks claiming to be from Target are fraudulent and should be reported to the FTC and local law enforcement immediately.

Target also works closely with the National Anti-Fraud Centre and the FTC to investigate scams and educate the public. In a statement, Target said: "We take these scams very seriously and are committed to helping protect our guests from fraud. We encourage anyone who has received one of these fraudulent offers to report it right away."

Despite these efforts, the scams persist, in part because of their adaptability. As consumer awareness of the Target variation has grown, scammers have shifted to using other well-known retailers like Walmart, Best Buy, and Home Depot. The core scheme remains the same, only the brand names change.

Stories from Secret Shopper Scam Victims

To put a human face on the impact of these scams, we spoke to several people who fell victim to the Target secret shopper ruse. Their stories underscore the financial and emotional toll these schemes can take.

"I lost $5,000, which was nearly all of my savings," said Jennifer P., a single mother from Florida. "I was so excited about the opportunity to make some extra money for my kids. When I realized it was a scam, I was devastated. I felt so stupid and ashamed."

Tom R., a college student from California, had a similar experience. "They sent me a check for $2,500 and told me to keep $500 as my payment. I thought I had hit the jackpot. When the check bounced and I realized I was on the hook for all that money, I didn‘t know what to do. I had to borrow money from my parents to cover it."

These stories are all too common, but victims should know that they are not alone and help is available. "The most important thing is to report the scam right away," advised Breyault of the National Consumers League. "Contact your bank, the FTC, and your local police. The sooner you act, the better your chances of minimizing the damage."

Putting It All Together: Tips for Spotting and Avoiding Secret Shopper Scams

Throughout this guide, we‘ve explored the ins and outs of the Target secret shopper scam from multiple angles. Let‘s distill some of the key takeaways into actionable advice you can use to protect yourself and your loved ones:

  • Be extremely wary of unsolicited job offers, especially those involving large checks upfront.
  • Carefully scrutinize any emails or letters claiming to be from Target or other major retailers. Watch for red flags like grammatical errors, suspicious sender emails, and requests to wire money.
  • If you‘re interested in legitimate mystery shopping, only work through reputable agencies vetted by the MSPA. Never pay to sign up or provide sensitive personal information upfront.
  • Remember that real mystery shopping pays modestly and won‘t make you rich quickly. Any company promising big, easy money is likely a scam.
  • Trust your gut. If a job offer seems too good to be true or gives you a funny feeling, walk away. It‘s not worth the risk.
  • If you do fall victim to a scam, report it immediately to your bank, the FTC, and local law enforcement. You may also want to alert the retailer the scammer is claiming to represent.
  • Help spread the word about these scams to your friends and family, especially those who may be more vulnerable like the elderly or financially desperate.

In a world where scammers are constantly evolving their tactics, consumer education and awareness are crucial lines of defense. By understanding how these scams work, the psychological tricks they employ, and the expert advice for avoiding them, you can shop and work with confidence.

The Target secret shopper scam may be just one variation in a sea of consumer fraud, but its impact is undeniable. Let this guide serve as your roadmap for navigating the sometimes treacherous waters of mystery shopping and beyond. With a healthy dose of skepticism, vigilance, and proactive measures, you can help protect yourself and your community from falling victim to these costly tricks.