How to find work as a mystery shopper

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If you love to shop, and wouldn’t mind earning a few extra bucks at the same time, working as a mystery shopper may be your true calling.

A mystery shopper — also known as a secret shopper — goes “undercover,” posing as a customer while evaluating the service at a bank, department store, movie theater or just about any other type of business. Companies hire mystery shoppers to determine how employees at specific locations are treating customers. Specifically, they will often check to see if workers are promoting certain specials and services.

Mystery shoppers get paid by the assignment, with typical rates around $10 to $20 per shop. Fees are usually higher for time-consuming assignments or those requiring more than one visit to a location. The busiest mystery shoppers usually live in big cities where businesses (and therefore assignments) are plentiful. “Most of the time mystery shopping is a ‘spare time’ activity,” says Cathy Stucker, author of “The Mystery Shopper’s Manual,” and a longtime mystery shopper. “However, there are shoppers who make a significant part-time or even full-time income. One of the things about mystery shopping that is wonderful and frustrating is that those shoppers do not work a regular schedule. Most shoppers work for multiple companies and take the assignments that interest them from several companies each month.”

Finding legit opportunities

Mystery shopper ads are everywhere — but so are mystery-shopper scams, so how do you find legitimate opportunities? A good place to start is online at the Mystery Shopping Providers Association.

“The MSPA is like the BBB of Mystery Shopping,” says Sarah Goshman, quality control senior editor for AboutFace, a large mystery shopping company. “Not all of the legitimate shopping companies are listed there, but most are. They also offer two levels of certification for shoppers, which essentially makes a shopper look better to the shopping companies and often makes one eligible for shops or gives them first preference.”

Fringe benefits

Mystery shoppers are freelance workers and therefore aren’t entitled to benefits a regular employee might get. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy a few rewards. For one thing, many assignments involve a purchase, for which you are later reimbursed. If this item happens to be something you would normally buy, or would like to buy, this can be like getting a cool freebie.

Stucker particularly likes doing restaurant assignments, because she and her husband love going out to eat. “We have done mystery shops in every kind of restaurant from fast food to fine dining, where the reimbursement and fee are as much as $200,” she says. She has also been reimbursed for car oil changes, haircuts, dry cleaning, eyeglasses, toys and more.

As independent contractors, mystery shoppers can also claim work-related expenses on their taxes and can take advantage of other tax breaks such as the home office deduction.

Details you will need to divulge

When applying for assignments, some would-be shoppers are surprised they are asked personal questions, which may include things like their age, credit score or dress size. “When they ask those questions, it is because they have clients that require shoppers with certain demographic characteristics,” Stucker says. In other words, the company wants to make sure you fit in with their typical clientele, so as not to stand out from the regular customers. One more thing: Companies will usually request your Social Security number, which is needed for tax purposes. “Before divulging sensitive information, make sure the company is legitimate and you are on a secure Web site,” Stucker says.

Steering clear of scams

There are many mystery-shopping frauds out there — with new ones popping up every day — so it’s important to be careful when looking for assignments. Perhaps the most common scams these days involve bogus checks or money orders, which are often used in conjunction with a wire transfer transaction. “No one should ever cash a check and wire money to someone they do not know for any reason,” Stucker says. “When someone asks you to cash a check and wire some of the money to them it is a scam. Always. There is no mystery shopping company that will ever ask you to do this.”

You should also steer clear of companies that charge a fee to apply as a mystery shopper, or sites asking you to pay for a list of mystery shopping companies (this is information you can easily find online for free). The only expense you should ever incur as a mystery shopper is the cost of a required purchase, which the company will reimburse you for later.