Mystery Shopping: Get Cash and Freebies, Avoid Scams

Last Updated May 20, 2011 11:21 AM EDT

When Billy Peterson needs to make some quick cash or earn a useful freebie, the 22-year-old college student likes to go undercover at CVS or Fantastic Sam's. He's a bona fide "mystery shopper," and says it's a lesser-known way to make and save money. "I am the middle child in my family, and refuse to ask for money [from my family] ... The way I saw it, mystery shopping was free money with very little work. And it's fun in most circumstances," says Peterson.

The trick is, not all mystery shopping offers are to be trusted. The industry does attract its fair share of scam artists looking to rip off would-be shoppers. Read on to learn how the real programs work - and how to steer clear of the scams.

How it works: First you need to sign up with at least one of the legitimate mystery-shopping firms. We've listed some of them below; Peterson says he is signed up with a few, which boosts the number of projects he gets offered. The firms will ask your age, gender, location, your employer and Social Security number. The more flexible you are with your schedule, the easier it is to land jobs.

Then it's time to get to work: Mystery shoppers are asked to either make a purchase, evaluate a retailer's customer service and/or see if specific standards are being met. They then have to report back to the market research firm, which has actually been hired by the company - usually a retailer - to evaluate its stores or branches. Shoppers need to be at least 18 years old and have secure Internet access.

"Should you choose to accept [your assignment], you review an instruction manual that tells you what to look for, when to visit the shop, and how to upload your findings online. A few weeks later your money arrives," says Peterson.

Peterson adds that the time frames for conducting the surveys are short. "Many mystery shops need your review a week ago. When you sign up ... you will only have a few days to complete the shop," he says.

What are the benefits? Rewards range from reimbursements (if you had to pay for anything) to cash or a store gift card for your time and feedback. It's not huge money, but a nice way to earn $20 here and there or free stuff. A couple weeks ago Peterson snagged $20 when he got a "mystery haircut," then picked up a free breakfast when he surveyed a local restaurant, a savings of about $15. Bank reviews are sometimes the most lucrative, he says, with fees as high as $100.

"The more the shopper has to do, or the more time it takes, -- the higher the fee," says Gayle Gold, program consultant for Beyond Hello, a mystery shopping company based in Madison, Wisc., with several hundred thousand registered mystery shoppers in its database. "For example, a basic retail store visit might have a shopper fee of $10 - $12. However, additional factors could increase the fee: required purchase, required purchase and return, large store with multiple departments, out-of-the-way locations, etc. A quick phone survey conducted from home would pay less because it requires less time and effort."

What are some legit companies? Peterson works with firms like MarketForce, SassieShop.com, SecretShopper.com and ICC Decision Services for his assignments, which are provided to him via email. Beyond Hello is another valid company with 20 years in the industry.

How can you avoid the scams? I asked Leonard Gordon, a director at the Federal Trade Commission, for some advice on how to steer clear of fraudulent companies.

  • Fees are a big warning sign. "Do not pay an upfront fee to become a mystery shopper. It shouldn't cost anything," says Gordon. "Scammers may try to justify the fee as necessary for a certification, a guaranteed job, or access to a list of opportunities," he says. But watch out. If they ask that you deposit a check or wire money to the company, "you're kissing your money goodbye," he says.
  • Check for certification. "Make sure you understand who you are dealing with and do your homework, including visiting the mysteryshop.org website," says Gordon. That's the site of the Mystery Shop Providers Organization, which offers a database of legitimate mystery shopper assignments and shows you how to apply for them. Also check the company's status with the Better Business Bureau.
  • Beware of "Help Wanted" ads. It may seem like these ads are from companies hiring mystery shoppers, but the FTC says they're sometimes fraudulent. A job "guarantee" is a red flag; legitimate firms won't guarantee work. Remember to check a company's verification on MysteryShop.org, and do a web search for the company to see what reviews pop up.
Farnoosh Torabi is a personal finance journalist and commentator. She is the author of the new book Psych Yourself Rich, Get the Mindset and Discipline You Need to Build Your Financial Life. Follow her at www.farnoosh.tv, and on Twitter.
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    Farnoosh Torabi is a personal finance journalist and commentator. She is the author of the new book Psych Yourself Rich, Get the Mindset and Discipline You Need to Build Your Financial Life. Follow her at www.farnoosh.tv and on Twitter at @farnoosh.

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