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Working as a Mystery Shopper
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 locations.

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 company.

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.

Getting Started

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.