You’ve seen the ads in the newspaper, or on Craigslist, buried between thick clusters of exclamation points:

!!!!Mystery shoppers wanted!!!!

Allegedly there’s an employment agency that recruits these shoppers.

Their website looks like a giant newspaper ad, and I had to sign up through email just to read what they're all about. Already I have buyer's remorse.

The Mystery Shopper Employment Agency's sales director, Karen Somers, says on the website that the shoppers, who are given the more credible name of service evaluators, visit stores or restaurants, asking all sorts of questions and purchasing items or meals, then submit a full report to the agency on the customer service, sales tactics and store appearance.

Apparently you can make up to $55,000 a year doing this if you go full-time. No experience necessary.

I'm starting to wonder why I bothered getting a college degree when I could have gone straight into the lucrative secret shopping -- sorry, I mean, service evaluator business.

“You will be on your way to fulfilling your dream of free meals, free merchandise, and services while getting paid to shop,” she says.

There’s a little link on the bottom that invites you to join the Shopper Employment Program, where the truth comes out.

They're secret shopping you, and it's not exactly subtle.

MSEA wants your credit card number. It costs $34 to become part of their "small, exclusive group." Once that's taken care of, you will receive a list of job postings which you can accept or decline on your own terms. They even guarantee you’ll get your money back if you can’t find a job within two months.

The jobs aren’t coming through the agency itself, but from outside sources. They claim they'll reimburse you after the assignment is finished and you've spent your last rent check splurging on McDonald's and Wal-Mart.

I'm willing to give people the chance to tell their side of the story, so I tried to contact MSEA for an interview.

I wanted to know the usual details about the agency's history. I've always wondered how many retailers get “bad” reviews, and if mystery shoppers are actually effective in changing store practices.

The only contact info I could find was one of those painted-by-numbers email inquiries that get “forwarded” to whomever determines you’re worthy enough for a response.

It first yelled at me for exceeding 250 characters.

The very minute I sent my queries out, I got what was obviously an automated response from a woman named Allison Faber:

“Thank you for your email. Karen Somers  has answered all of your questions and concerns in the following link.”

I sincerely doubted this link intuitively anticipated my questions, but I checked it out.

Sure enough, none of the answers were anything remotely related to what I'd planned to ask. I can’t even call the agency. (“We unfortunately do not have call center facilities at this time. We would be happy to answer all your questions and concerns via email.”)

After reading the Q&As, I had to wonder: Are people really that naive? Sadly enough, the answer is probably yes.

According to Somers, the MSEA cannot deduct the membership fee from your first paycheck. It has to be paid before signup.

"We only accept online credit card payments at this time," the Q&A says. "You may want to consider getting a pre paid credit card or have a family member or close friend pay the one time $34 SEP membership payment with their credit card on your behalf."

The Secret Shopping Blog warns you of professional-sounding agencies like this one that targets victims like stay-at-home mothers, who are lured by the offer of “flexible hours.”

They send you a fake check for thousands of dollars, but you’re only allowed to keep a low amount. The check bounces and after the bank credits the victim, they send the money to the agency and never hear from them again.

People might genuinely wonder why I'm blowing the whistle on MSEA.

It might have something to do with the fact that I found someone questioning the veracity of MSEA on Yahoo! Answers, because of the $34 fee, and the response was: “Scam. Do not trust anyone who wants money up front. When someone says ‘I will get you a job in the future if you pay me money now’ you know you are dealing with a con artist.”

Some people are, and they’ve written reviews for the website. Here are a couple examples:

“I have already paid of [sic] my debts, and accumulated enough money to pay for our child’s college tuition.”

“Me and my girlfriends have all changed out [sic] lives around thanks to Mystery Shopper Employment Agency.”

“I was able to buy my 2 kids the best Halloween costumes on the neighborhood, and enough candy to overfill every kids candy basket.”

That’s all great, but then I realized the comments were all by the same person.

If you’re going to write bogus reviews, at least change the name.

Tags: Business, Scam, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Allison Faber, Fake check, Identity theft, Karen Somers, Mystery Shopper Employment Agency, Mystery shoppers, Recruit, Secret shopper, Secret Shopping Blog, Service evaluators, Shopper Employment Program