Working as a Mystery
by Roz Scanes
Many people would love to find a way to boost their income in their free time.
Sadly, it’s often difficult or impossible to find a part-time job that will work
around your existing work or family schedule. Finding work as an independent
contractor is ideal for anyone who wants flexibility, as steady work hours each
day are not necessary and each contract is dependent on a particular task. This
makes mystery shopping, which is generally done entirely by independent
contractors, appealing for many people.
What is mystery shopping?
Businesses need a way of observing their business operations from the
perspective of a third party. This can range anywhere from an owner of a single
restaurant wanting accountability for employees when he is away for a day, to a
multi-national corporation wanting data about the performance of remote
As a mystery shopper, you agree to visit a business and behave as a customer. In
general, mystery shops request that you follow a specific scenario. For example,
if you're visiting a clothing store, you may be requested to try on an item, or
to ask questions based on a script provided by the company. In exchange, you
receive a flat fee from the mystery shopping company, reimbursement for the
items that you purchased, or both. Some mystery shops are “revealed”, where you
reveal yourself as a mystery shopper at some point during the shop, but most are
completely covert and require you to privately report the results to the
Mystery shops are done either in person, online, or by phone. Online and
telephone shops tend to pay $5 or less, whereas in-person shops average $10 to
$15 for a simple visit. More complex or time-consuming shops typically pay more,
as do companies that require more experienced mystery shoppers. Restaurant
mystery shops, fine dining in particular, generally pay little or no fee but
will reimburse all or most of the meal for you and a guest.
Most mystery shops must be done within a given time period. You may have the
flexibility of doing the shop anytime the business is open during a period of
days or weeks, or you may be required to shop at a specific time of day. The
mystery shop posting should include all pertinent information you will need to
determine if you would like to accept the assignment, including the compensation
provided, the time the shop must be completed, and general information about the
scenario to be performed.
There are thousands of mystery shopping companies operating in the US alone.
Some mystery shopping companies are small and serve a particular area of the
country or a few clients. Others are large companies that serve hundreds of
different clients and have shops all over the country and the world. Finding
companies in your area that serve businesses convenient to you is usually the
most time-consuming part of mystery shopping, especially because larger
companies with more mystery shops tend to pay less than smaller companies.
The best method to get plenty of mystery shops is to sign up with many different
companies. Most companies will email you when shops are available in your area;
others have online job boards you can check for mystery shops. Businesses often
move from one mystery shopping company to another, or share their databases with
other companies that have mystery shops available, so it is often worth the time
to sign up with companies even if they have no current clients in your area.
While you can sometimes find mystery shopping companies in your local classified
ads or Craigslist, there are several good websites to find mystery shops online
and to read more about mystery shopping.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Unfortunately, the mystery shopping industry, like the work-at-home industry as
a whole, has been targeted by many scammers and opportunists who are not
affiliated with legitimate mystery shopping companies. Scams are usually easy to
spot, but if you are concerned that a company is not legitimate, try reading
more in mystery shopping forums. The industry association for mystery shopping
providers is the MSPA (http://www.mysteryshop.org), so if a company is
MSPA-affiliated, it is probably legitimate.
Most mystery shopping scams revolve around requesting payment from you. Such
companies offer information about mystery shopping companies – information that
can easily be found free of charge using online resources – in exchange for a
flat or monthly fee. It is unnecessary to use such services, and any company
that asks you for a payment for information is likely a waste of money if not a
scam. If a mystery shopping advertisement promotes unrealistically high returns,
it is a good sign that the company is attempting to sell you information.
Never take on a mystery shop where you are asked to deposit a money order and
send the money to another location. These are not legitimate jobs and are common
scams targeting job seekers of all types. Legitimate mystery shopping companies
have no reason to transfer thousands of dollars in order to get information
about a business for a client. Your financial risk as a mystery shopper should
be limited to the upfront payment you make at a business to use its services,
such as your restaurant bill or the cost of purchase at a retail store.