If you’ve ever flipped through the want ads in your local paper or looked for a job on the Internet, you probably have seen an ad like this: “Earn Money While Shopping.” Or perhaps you’ve gotten an email asking if you’d like to be a comparison or mystery shopper. These ads or emails claim that by working as a mystery shopper you can earn a living while shopping, dining out, or even staying in fancy hotels. But what is mystery shopping and can you really make a living at it? Or, is getting paid to shop too good to be true?
What is mystery shopping?
Market research companies hire mystery shoppers to anonymously evaluate the quality of service at a store or restaurant. These market research companies will assign a “mystery shopper” to make a particular purchase or eat at a particular restaurant. The mystery shopper then writes up a report about the experience. In a legitimate situation the shopper is reimbursed and often gets to keep what he or she has bought.
Mystery shopping is a real business which provides important information to companies about their customer feedback. There are more than 1.5 million mystery shoppers across the country. Therefore, there are legitimate mystery shopper jobs, usually posted by market research companies.
But you are not going to “get rich quick.” According to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, the typical shopping assignment pays about $10 to $2 and you are not always reimbursed for your gas or mileage—this means you can actually lose money completing an assignment. You will rarely get to buy and keep a lot of “cool” products. You might get a free meal but don’t count on a laptop or designer outfit.
Mystery Shopping goes by many names
Legitimate Mystery Shopping
If you really want to become a mystery shopper there are real opportunities out there—opportunities that don’t cost a thing. Here are some tips of how you can find them:
1. Do your homework. Check your local library for books on mystery shopping. A quick search of Amazon.com brings up a fair selection of books on how to become a mystery shopper. Be sure to read the reviews before purchasing anything.
2. Do an Internet search for mystery shopping companies. Find the ones accepting applications. Real mystery shopping companies won’t charge an application fee and often allow you to apply online.
3. Check the Mystery Shopper Providers Association. This site can tell you about MSPA-member companies, has a database of available jobs, and can help you get started. They also have the latest mystery shopping scams so you can keep up-to-date on what to watch out for.
4. Check Volition. This site has forums full of real mystery shoppers. It also has a bulletin board where companies post legitimate mystery shopping jobs.
5. Check the FTC website and do a search for mystery shopping. This site has a great database of all the mystery shopping scams, what to watch for and what to do if you get scammed.
6. Check theBetter Business Bureau to make sure any company that you want to do business with is real. If the company does not have a nearby office that you can visit then do not skip this step.
7. Avoid any mystery shopper companies that are out of the country.
8. Respond directly to companies that post the assignments. Sign up with as many companies as you can. If a company asks you to pay anything DO NOT do it. Simply move on to the next one.
9. Be patient. It can take months before you receive your next assignment.
10. Once assigned a job complete it according to the guidelines you are given. Use common sense: do a good job and you have a better chance of getting another one.
Mystery Shopping Scams
Unfortunately, there are also a lot of fraudulent mystery shopping jobs. The ads you see in newspapers or any unsolicited email about mystery shopping usually falls under this “scam” category.
Here are some scams to watch out for:
Scam #1: Something for Nothing. This scam gets you to pay for something you don’t need.
• Any place that asks you to pay a fee for a certification (which you don’t need to be a mystery shopper)
• A directory of mystery shopping jobs
• Access to a website where you can register for mystery shopping jobs
• A guarantee of mystery shopping work
• Promise of loads of free stuff
• Any place that asks you to buy their sponsors products
Or they simply want you to get your information to:
• Phish for identity theft
• Gather your personal information to sell to marketers
• Gather your personal information to send you other scams and send you spam
Scam #2: The Cashier Check
Here is how the scam works:
1. You respond to an ad for mystery shoppers.
2. The company sends you an employment packet, including business evaluation forms, a training assignment, and a cashier’s check. The cashiers check is often between $2,000 and $4,000.
3. You are told that you must complete the training assignment within 48 hours or you will lose the job.
4. The training assignment is to deposit the check, pose as a customer, and wire the money through a wire transfer company such as Western Union, often to an address in another country, such as Canada. You are supposedly evaluating “response time.”
5. The check is a fake. The check bounces after you wire the money, leaving you liable for the fake check. You lose the money you have transferred and the wire transfer service fee, in addition to the total amount of the check. You can also be prosecuted for cashing a fraudulent check.
6. Often the scam involves fraudulent websites using a misspelled URL.
The warning signs of this scam:
• Getting paid before you do the work
• The 48-hour deadline to pressure you
• Sending money to someone you have never met
How to avoid a fake cashier’s check scam
• Don’t trust a cashier’s check from someone you don’t know.
• No one should ask you to wire money to someone you don’t know.
• Just because the bank accepts it for deposit doesn’t make it authentic. It can take banks and other financial institutes up to a week before realizing that they (and you) have been duped.
• You are responsible for the deposited fake check—even a cashier’s check. When the check bounces the bank will deduct the amount (with fees and charges added) from YOUR account.
Legitimate mystery shopping companies will never send you a check prior to the work being completed. Their advertisements should include a contact person and phone number. You should take all checks to a bank to be verified.
How to spot an email scam
• Poor grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (in other words, something that has not been proofread)
• No website
• No contact phone number or a number that goes straight to a recording
• No physical address
• You are told you must act very quickly
• Anything relating to wire transfers
• Anything asking you to accept payments or transfer funds
If you think you’ve been scammed
If you think you’ve been targeted by a mystery shopper scam, report it to the following agencies
The Federal Trade Commission: Visit www.ftc.gov or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).
Your state or local consumer protection agency: http://www.consumeraction.gov/state.shtml
The Better Business Bureau: http://www.bbb.org/
Your State Attorney General: Visit www.naag.org for a list of all state Attorneys General
If you think you’ve been targeted by a counterfeit check scam, report it to the following agencies
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service: Visit http://www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect or call your local post office.
Sites to check for real mystery shopper jobs
Mystery Shopper Providers Association – With more than 180 member companies worldwide, the MSPA has a diverse membership, including marketing research and merchandising companies, private investigation firms, training organizations and companies that specialize in providing mystery shopping services. Its goals are to establish professional standards and ethics for the industry, educate providers, clients and shoppers to improve quality of service, improve the image of the industry and promote the membership to other industry associations and prospective clients.
Volition - This site offers a bulletin board with legit mystery shopping jobs. A forum where you can find out which companies pay on time and which do not. Volition offers other opportunities for free stuff on the Internet, including advance movie screenings.
Emily Torres has written for Salon.com and Life’s a Bitch Books.