Mystery shopper scam: misery shopping

Here’s an email I received recently. I’ve been meaning to blog it for a while, but other stuff keeps getting in the way: nevertheless, it’s a pretty good example of a common scam.

You have been invited to participate in our Western union Valuation Surveys !!!!
$150 per  survey

Pine Cone Research assigns over 150,000  Western union surveys each year and has provided business evaluation services  for over 15 years. It is free to sign up and we are always looking for  enthusiastic new shoppers.

Through our business evaluation surveys,Pine Cone Research delivers an accurate picture of the customer  experience, using on-profile people in real situations to report on their  interaction. Apply to join our panel and get paid to shop, enjoy leisure  activities, or have your say on customer service standards.

If you  would like to be considered for assignments, please fill out the Application  below:

Address Line 1:
Address Line  2:
Zip Code:
Home Phone Number :
Mobile Phone  Number:

Thank  You,

PineCone Research
250 East 5th St. 9th Floor,
Cincinnati, OH 45202
PineCone Research Copyright 2012© PineCone Research Foudation

The information contained  in this e-mail, and any attachment, is confidential and is intended solely for  the use of the intended recipient. Access, copying or re-use of the e-mail or  any attachment, or any information contained therein, by any other person is not  authorized. If you are not the intended recipient please return the e-mail to  the sender and delete it from your  computer.


Sounds tempting? Maybe you’ve received this and thought of trying it out? Don’t!

I’d never heard of PineCone Research – well, I don’t live in the US – but it turns out that they do indeed exist. However, my scam detection antennae were waving furiously, so naturally I did some digging. For a start, there were enough red flags in the headers to deter swimmers on every beach in California (like the forged sender-related fields).

It turns out, though, that if you follow through, you’ll be offered a check to be cashed so that you can proceed with your first assignment:

Carry out a Secret Survey on the nearest Western Union outlet in your location by forwarding a fixed amount {$1,550.00} to a “Mystery Consumer” in another region who’s conducting the same survey at the “Recipient” end.

[Information on the recipient of the money and the amount you can expect to be sent]

Your income is $150.00 for the survey.
You’re to deduct another $150.00 to cover the transfer charges (Money in Minutes) at the Western Union outlet.

That sounds like a generous rate for what you’re asked to do.

You’re to simply rate the Western Union outlet’s service by simply observing and recording the parameters below:

Outlet store Address:
Appearance of Agent:
Time taken to complete Transaction:
Future improvement you would like to see:

Upon completion of the survey you are to Immediately send us an E-mail with your rating of the outlet and the 10-Digit MTCN (Money Transfer Control Number) Nos of the transaction at Western Union which would be needed by the mystery consumer to complete her survey.

Then there’s similar sign-off text as in the previous mail, plus the claim that Pinecone Research is a proud member of the Better Business Bureau. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but then his message isn’t from Pinecone Research at all.

Here’s how the scam works: the check is, of course, a fake. The victim pays it in and goes ahead and follows the instructions, but the check subsequently bounces, and the victim is deemed responsible for the transaction and for any additional fees.

According to the Better Business Bureau, some victims have lost as much as $3,000.  And according to Pinecone’s own warning on the scam, Western Union wire transfers are only one of the ploys used by the scammers: other ploys include “business evaluation surveys” or “hiring” employees.

Author David Harley, ESET

  • MilaXX

    Just received one today. My check was for $1255 with instructions to get a MoneyPak for $1000. Thankfully I know better. I’ve been a Pinecone member for years and never, ever heard of them doing something like this.

  • Roxy Rox

    Shit, I’m a part of the PineCone research which I know is legit because I’ve gotten paid from them in the past, I got this exact email today and I thought 2 or 3 times before clicking submit whether it’s a scam or not and for some stupid reason I decided it’s legit so I gave my info, did not give out any bank info, or SSN, Hopefully I’ll be safe, if I do get a check from them for the secret task I’m supposed to do then I’ll just tear it up or maybe record it to the police.

    I haven’t gotten my check yet so I’m glad I read this, I should’ve looked for this info before submitting my info.

    • Well, if you’ve dealt with the real PineCone research, I guess it’s understandable if you thought it was them contacting you again, rather than a scammer. There’s some more info in a later blog here, which also includes a couple of links you might find useful: I hope they don’t misuse the information they gave you, but it might be an idea to talk to the police anyway.

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