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What Is a Dummy Shopper? The ‘Emily the Criminal’ Scam Is a Real Scheme That Defrauds Millions of People

Here's if the movie is based on a true story.
Emily the Criminal
Image: Roadside Attractions / courtesy Everett Collection.

If you’ve watched Emily the Criminal on Netflix, you may be left with two question: What is a dummy shopper and is it a real scam?

Emily the Criminal stars Aubrey Plaza as Emily Benetto, a woman in Los Angeles struggling to find a well-paying job due to a previous felony conviction to takes a job as a “dummy shopper” to pay off her mountains of student debt loans. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2022, Plaza explained what attracted her to the idea for Emily the Criminal. T”he script is an incredible read. John Patton Ford is such a talented writer,” she said. “I loved it. Couldn’t put it down. I was reading it really for recreational purposes. I read a lot of scripts, and this one was given to me by a friend, and man, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I loved the character. I felt that it was touching on something that was relevant, that really had something to say but also was entertaining.” She continued, “And I just love the energy of it, the momentum of it. You start the film and you don’t stop. There’s no pandering to the audience. There’s no random scene of exposition. There’s just nothing unnecessary. It just feels lean and fun, and I became obsessed with it immediately after I read it.”

But back to dummy shoppers. So…what is a dummy shopper and is it a real scam? Read on for what we know about what a dummy shopper is and how many real people are affected from the scam each year.

What is a dummy shopper?

Emily the Criminal
Image: Roadside Attractions / Courtesy Everett Collection.

What is a dummy shopper? In Emily the Criminal on Netfix, Aubrey Plaza’s character, Emily Benetto, becomes a “dummy shopper” after a co-worker at her catering company job connects her to a “dummy shopper” service that promises to make her $200 an hour, which Emily soon learns is a credit card fraud ring. Emily’s first job is to purchase a flat-screen TV using a fake credit card and ID. After she succeeds, she’s sent on a larger job of purchasing a car with a no-limit credit card.

So what is a dummy shopper? Dummy shopping is a real scam. Urban Dictionary defines dummy shopping as the “illegal activity” of “using stolen credit cards to purchase expensive goods.” As explained by Distractify, dummy shoppers, also known as dummy purchasers, use fake, stolen or cloned credit cards to make expensive purchases, which are then sold for a profit to third parties. In Emily the Criminal, the credit card fraud ring Emily works for has a list of stolen card numbers, including the owners’ names and data used to complete the transactions. The scam also included falsifying IDs used to confirm the identity of the credit card owner.

The Federal Trade Commission reported in 2022 that the agency received more than 2.8 million fraud reports from consumers in 2021. Consumers also reported losing more than $5.8 billion in fraud in 2021, an increase of more than 70 percent from 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC also reported that the most common fraud categories are imposter scams followed by online shopping scams. Prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries, internet services, and business and job opportunities were the other top categories.

Is Emily the Criminal based on a true story?

Emily the Criminal
Image: Roadside Attractions / courtesy Everett Collection.

Is Emily the Criminal based on a true story? The answer is yes and no. In an interview with the Golden Globes, director John Patton Ford explained that the idea for Emily the Criminal came from a dummy shopper ring he read about in his neighborhood. “I had first lived in a neighborhood in LA where I knew that there was some organized criminal activity going on in the neighborhood, but I didn’t know what exactly – until one day there was this FBI bust and it was on the cover of the LA Times,” he said. “The FBI had arrested nearly 100 people and you could read the entire affidavit on the internet, so I read it all and learned about one of the crimes this organization was doing, with this elaborate dummy shopper scheme.”

Ford also revealed that his own credit card information has been hacked before. “I’ve been hacked and I feel like everyone has. It’s funny because I actually got my credit card information stolen while we were making this movie and I couldn’t get food at the grocery store one day because my credit card was shut down. It really made me question, ‘Why am I making a movie about the people who are doing this crap?’” he said. He also explained that part of the inspiration for Emily the Criminal came from his own struggle with student loan debt, much like Emily, and the “fear and desperation” over how he would pay it off. “I had about a hundred thousand dollars of student debt when I came out of graduate school and I think I had a lot of anxiety and fear and desperation about that, and ‘how am I ever going to pay it off’ kind of feelings. I knew that I wasn’t alone, and it just seems crazy that 30 percent of the population in the U.S. has this massive issue they’re dealing with, and you’d never know it judging by our movies, so that’s what started it,” he said.

Ford also revealed to Outtake magazine that Emily the Criminal wasn’t originally inspired by his own personal experiences with debt until a “couple years” after he started working on the script. “I think I had the idea for a thriller that just starts with someone going to a meeting and being offered a job opportunity. There was nothing personal about it – it was a hook, just a mercenary idea I had,” he said. “Only over time did it become personal. And then it was a couple of years after I had the idea that I began to think about her character, specifically as the person who would do this. It took time to figure out what was personal and what was emotional, but we got there eventually.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Aubrey Plaza, who plays Emily, confessed that she didn’t know what a dummy shopper was until she was cast in Emily the Criminal. “No, definitely not. That was something that John discovered when he was living in L.A. and researching the film. But no, it’s a real thing. I definitely didn’t know about it. Of course, I know about credit-card fraud and I think everybody does, but it’s a world that I was not privy to until I started working on this movie,” she said. Plaza also revealed that, while she didn’t talk to any real dummy shoppers about the role, she did use Ford as a resource about the scam. “I didn’t. But John was my resource, and he had. I think he’s done more of a deep dive and had more personal connections to it for writing the movie,” she said. “I didn’t go down that path and talk to any real dummy shoppers, but I did work that embossing machine, and I know how to work that thing. So if my career doesn’t pan out, I know how to make a fake credit card, and I’ll carry that with me until the end.” Plaza also told Dazed that she also hasn’t heard from any real dummy shoppers since Emily the Criminal was released. “I haven’t personally. But I know that people feel seen by the movie in many ways, and I’m sure that credit card fraud people are having their day in the sun,” she said.

Ford also explained why he doesn’t think Emily the Criminal glamorizes personal shopping unlike other crime movies and TV shows. “Well, I think that’s based on quality of life in the United States,” he said. “I think audiences don’t know how to do the math in their own lives,” he said. “They have all this student debt to pay off. The hurdle to getting over to homeownership is impossible for the majority of Americans at this point, especially millennials and young people. So we feel great release and great gratification watching the shows about people who actually break the rules to get what they want. Because so often we feel like that must be the only way. What else can we be expected to do? I think that’s where that’s all coming from. Emily the Criminal is probably dirtier and like, raunchier than those shows, but it’s I think it’s coming from the same jam.”

Emily the Criminal is available to stream on Netflix.

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