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Mystery shopper scam making the rounds, BBB says

ST. LOUIS – Service Excellence Group, a St. Louis County business that hires mystery shoppers, has been victimized by scammers who are using the company’s name to steal money from unsuspecting job hunters, Better Business Bureau warns.

Marci Bikshorn, CEO of Service Excellence Group, said her office has been contacted by about a dozen consumers across the nation who report they received solicitations from scammers claiming to be from her firm. The thieves send out bogus checks and instruct recipients to use the money to shop local businesses. One assignment asks that shoppers test Western Union by using a portion of the check to wire cash to a third party. By the time the consumers realize the check is fake, their money is gone.

A man from Houston, Texas, estimates he may have lost more than $1,000 in the scheme.

“We usually are very, very cautious,” he said. The man said he believed the employment opportunity was legitimate after checking Service Excellence Group’s website and doing other Internet research. He did not suspect that thieves had stolen the company’s name.

Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said that similar mystery shopping scams have been around for years. “But stealing the name of a real, legitimate company is taking this scam to another level. Not only are they victimizing consumers, they also are victimizing reputable businesses.”

Bikshorn, who also is a board member for a national mystery shopping association, said the thieves end up hurting businesses like hers that legitimately employ mystery shoppers. “They give all of us a bad name,” she said.

Bikshorn recently outlined the scam on her company’s website and Facebook page. She said the thieves have used her company’s name “in an attempt to trick consumers into disclosing their personal information in exchange for high-paying mystery shops, sending fraudulent checks with instructions for a hypothetical mystery shopping assignment.”

The man from Houston said a man claiming to be with Service Excellence Group and identifying himself as Vincent Whitehead sent a check for several shopping assignments, including wages for the work. The consumer said his wife used a portion of the money to purchase items from a department store and an electronics retailer, as directed. He said they also followed instructions to send more than $650 cash via a Western Union wire transfer. The man later learned that the original check was phony and that he had been scammed. “I was in shock,” he said.

A woman from California said she lost nearly $1,200 in a similar scheme involving scammers posing as representatives of Service Excellence Group. She, too, said she dealt with a man she knew as Whitehead.

A consumer from the Dallas, Texas, area said he learned about the program in a series of emails from Whitehead and a from a man who identified himself as Calin Vargas. One of the Vargas emails said that “our employees can earn up to $1,800 per week by completing in-store surveys while at the same time working on their own schedule.” That consumer did not fall for the scam.

BBB offers the following tips for persons contacted about mystery shopping jobs:

Ignore claims that you will make big profits easily.
Avoid falling for claims that “guarantee” a position, without training.
Be cautious of unsolicited mailings, e-mails or advertisements offering “work-from-home” jobs.

Be on the lookout for businesses that send checks and ask that you use money from the checks to pay for your shopping assignments. Bogus checks often look real.

Never pay money in advance. A legitimate mystery shopping service will not charge money for materials, training or recruiting. Never give them your credit card or bank account numbers.

Never wire money to businesses you know little or nothing about. Wiring money is the same as sending cash. Once the money is gone, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recover.

One resource for determining whether a mystery shopping job is legitimate is the Mystery Shopping Providers Association at
Check out the company’s BBB Business Review at or by calling (314) 645-3300.

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