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Column: How the secret-shopper scam almost took down Superman’s pal

TERI HATCHER, DEAN CAIN
The supervising producer of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” starring Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain, is among people nationwide targeted by this sneaky racket.
(ABC)

Tony Blake knows a thing or two about bad guys.

As the supervising producer of the 1990s TV series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” he routinely pitted the Man of Steel against all manner of villainy.

But Blake, 72, had to think twice after he and his wife received a letter the other day from Whole Foods congratulating them on their participation in a secret-shopper program.

Their job would be to spend Whole Foods’ money at other businesses to help gauge the quality of customer service. Included with the welcome letter, which arrived by priority mail, was a check for $2,950.52, of which the Blakes were invited to keep $450 for their trouble.

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“Have fun, make money and help us improve customer service on a Global level,” the letter says.

This is, of course, a scam currently making the rounds of households nationwide.

It may not be Lex Luthor-caliber skullduggery. But it’s a persuasive enough come-on to result in millions of dollars in annual losses.

“While some mystery shopping opportunities are legitimate, many are scams that rob you, not pay you,” said Lisa Lake, a consumer education specialist with the Federal Trade Commission.

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The secret-shopper racket is so prevalent, and so effective, that a 2018 FTC blog post on the danger is now followed by 23 pages of consumer comments — hundreds of victims and would-be victims — detailing their own experiences.

“I just received a check for $2,600, was told to deposit the check and then in 24 hours it would be good,” says one comment posted last week. “Figured out was a scam.”

Another comment from last week: “I just had a gut feeling something wasn’t right, so that’s why I’m on here searching for similar stories and WOW!! I was surprised to see I’m not the only one. Fortunately for me I didn’t cash the check but what should I do??”

Short answer: Walk away.

The letter Blake received looks real enough. Along with the Whole Foods logo, it has a Whole Foods watermark for added authenticity.

Blake and his wife were instructed to deposit the $2,950.52 check, keep $450 for themselves and then run their secret-shopper test on sportswear behemoth Nike.

They were told to go to any store selling Nike gift cards and purchase $2,500 worth of plastic. Then they would take photos of both the card numbers and PINs, and email the pics within 12 hours along with details about the store location and the “overall experience.”

“Under no circumstances should you acknowledge that you are evaluating their services as that will deter the purpose of the whole program,” the letter warns.

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Blake, a Woodland Hills resident, had to closely examine the letter and accompanying check before deciding this wasn’t on the up and up.

“I’m familiar with secret-shopper programs,” he told me. “This just smelled bad.”

What makes this scam doubly sneaky is that it victimizes people twice.

First, there’s the gift-card angle. After buying $2,500 worth of cards, you’re basically making their full value available to the con artists by revealing the card numbers and PINs.

A scammer could either use that info to make purchases himself, or he could sell the card details to others.

Then there’s the check fraud. It goes without saying that the enclosed check is bogus, although it looks valid. In Blake’s case, the check he received appeared to be drawn on an account at Memphis-based First Horizon Bank.

Blake called First Horizon. It said the check was no good.

The racket has been around for years under various guises. Victims deposit the check in their account and then promptly withdraw the funds for the secret-shopper purchases — or for whatever other scam is being run.

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You don’t find out until the check bounces days later that you were spending your own money the entire time.

This isn’t to say all secret-shopper programs are phony. Two of the leading such companies, Secret Shopper and Market Force, have web pages warning of potential fraud.

“Don’t be fooled by these scams!” says Secret Shopper. “By the time you find out that the check is not legitimate, you are out the money you sent and will be held accountable for the bounced check by your financial institution.”

Adds Market Force: “These individuals or groups want to take your money and will go to extreme measures to trick you into believing that they are a legitimate business.”

Numerous companies are used as cover by scammers. Whole Foods crops up in recent posts on the FTC site. Other well-known names include Walmart, CVS and Apple.

No one at Whole Foods responded to my request for comment.

If you receive an invitation to be a secret shopper, go to the website of MSPA Americas, a trade group representing “mystery shopper” firms. You can run a search to see if the company is registered with the association.

Under no circumstances should you deposit a check with the expectation that your account will fill with cash. No legitimate secret-shopper program operates this way or will compel you to send them something of value, such as gift card numbers.

I asked Blake how he’d have handled it on “Lois & Clark” if Lois Lane had received a scammy secret-shopper letter.

“I’d have her get in touch with Superman, and have him fly over to the address of the scammers and dangle them off the roof,” he said.

I pointed out that’s more a Batman move than something Supes would do.

“Yes, that’s true,” Blake replied.

But he’d still do it.


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