Ways to spot a "secret shopper" scam

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Nina Pineda sits down with a victim of a secret shopper scam and gives tips to avoid becoming a victim. (WABC)

It's a sneaky scam that promises easy work at home cash. But there are some tell-tale tip offs to the rip off that you should know before you lose thousands.

The method of secret or mystery shopping is employed by real marketing firms, which send in phony customers to see how a business is operating. But this shopper scam isn't real research, it's just baloney. But people fall for it because its believable.

After jumping at the chance to just earn some green, scam victims seeing red.

"It looked so legitimate and to make a few dollars with the holidays coming," Yonkers resident Margaret Nolan said.

She was all in when she answered an email soliciting "secret shoppers." She got a fat bank check for nearly $2,000 express mailed to her, along with a detailed letter.

She was told she would be evaluating customer service skills. After sending the cash, scammers instruct the secret shoppers to keep $200 for their salary.

With the rest of the money, $1,800, the secret shoppers are next instructed to go to a CVS, Duane Reade or Walgreens and look for these Green Dot Money cards. Under the guise of evaluating the drug store clerks, Margaret was supposed to purchase the prepaid cards and load them with the cash. She was told, specifically, to load $500 each on three money cards, $275 on one more, and then scratch off the backs to reveal the PIN numbers. Then she was told to call or email the secret codes to the scammer.

The secret shopper then thinks his or her mission is complete. But here's how the scams stings its victims. The original check eventually bounces, and the bank drains the full amount out of the trusting victim's bank account.

But there's a twist.

"At least I was smart enough not do it," Margaret said. "It looks so legitimate. That's the whole point."

Margaret very smartly stopped short of buying the prepaid cards and waited weeks for the check to clear, which of course it didn't. All she was out was one bounced check fee.

The big takeway here is to remember that there are legitimate mystery shopper companies. So research any company on the web first before responding to any email offers. Never wire or give pre-prepaid card codes to strangers. And remember, even though a bank cashes a check, it doesn't mean it's cleared.

Sometimes revealing a check is bogus can take weeks.

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