Is becoming a mystery shopper to earn money a scam? The truth may surprise you: Internet ScamBusters #194
As we promised, today we have a very special issue for you. Over the years, we’ve had thousands of subscribers ask us about whether becoming a mystery shopper was a real way to earn money — or was it just a scam?
Today, we have the answer for you — and you may well be surprised.
We interviewed Cathy Stucker, who has been a mystery shopper since 1995. She is the author of The Mystery Shopper’s Manual, an excellent and very popular book about mystery shopping. In addition to the following interview, you can learn more about
mystery shopping at Cathy’s website:
We think you’ll find that Cathy knows a LOT about the truth about mystery shopping.
The Truth About Becoming a Mystery Shopper
If you assume that every offer to become a mystery shopper is a scam like most of our subscribers do, you’re in for a surprise. Today we’re delighted to share an interview Audri did with an expert on the topic, Cathy Stucker.
Cathy has been a mystery shopper since 1995 and she’s helped thousands of people become mystery shoppers. She was selected by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association to present their Gold Certification Workshops.
Audri: Welcome Cathy!
We’re really excited to finally get the real scoop on mystery shopping. We’ve now been publishing ScamBusters for over 11 years, but we’ve only mentioned mystery shopping once, and that was in connection to popular home based business scams. Yet, mystery shopping is a topic a lot of our subscribers want to know more about. So let’s get started…
Let’s begin with: what is “mystery shopping” and what do mystery shoppers do?
Cathy: Mystery shoppers are “undercover customers” who gather information about service, quality, cleanliness and other issues on behalf of business owners. We go into stores, restaurants, banks, apartment complexes, and all kinds of businesses posing as customers.
We ask questions, make purchases, return merchandise and other things that regular customers do, but with a twist.
Mystery shoppers are also making observations about cleanliness, service and other issues. Afterward, the mystery shopper completes a report form.
Audri: Many people think that mystery shopping is a way to get paid for your opinions.
Cathy: That is one of the most common misconceptions about mystery shopping.
As a mystery shopper you’re not saying what you thought about the experience; you are reporting what happened.
Most of the questions on a mystery shopping report are yes/no questions. Were you greeted within 30 seconds? Was your order run up correctly? Were you given a receipt?
Audri: And mystery shoppers get paid for this? Who pays them and why?
Cathy: Mystery shoppers are hired by businesses that want to know about their customers’ experiences.
For example, if you own a chain of restaurants, you might want to know how long customers wait to be seated, if servers tell customers about the daily specials and suggest additional items, if plates and utensils are clean, if the food is properly prepared, and if customers are thanked and invited to return.
You might use that information to recognize and reward your top performers and to determine training needs and other deficiencies that may exist.
Audri: What kinds of businesses use mystery shopping?
Cathy: Almost any organization that has contact with customers may use mystery shoppers to evaluate how they appear to their customers. That includes retail stores of all kinds, banks, restaurants, hotels, salons and spas, housing (including apartments, new home sales, assisted living facilities and others), health care providers, and others.
Even government agencies get mystery shopped to determine how well they serve their citizen “customers.”
Audri: Fascinating. Should someone who wants to be a mystery shopper contact the businesses they want to shop for?
Cathy: Most companies have their mystery shopping programs managed by companies that specialize in mystery shopping.
There are hundreds of mystery shopping companies located all over the world.
Audri: So mystery shopping is legitimate? Frankly, I assumed most of it was a scam.
Cathy: Yes, there are an estimated 2-1/2 million mystery shoppers working for hundreds of mystery shopping companies.
However, the interest in mystery shopping has brought the scammers out of the woodwork. Anyone interested in mystery shopping should use caution when considering a mystery shopping opportunity, and only deal with legitimate mystery shopping companies.
Audri: So, how can we tell if a mystery shopping company is on the up-and-up?
Cathy: Companies belonging to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association go through an approval process and agree to uphold ethical standards. You can learn which companies are members at the
Do not assume that a company is not legitimate if they do not belong to the MSPA, but if a company is a member of MSPA, then it is a company you can trust.
Audri: So how can we spot a scam?
Cathy: If a company asks you to pay a fee to apply, run.
Mystery shopping companies will not charge you to complete an application. The companies that want to charge you may not always be scams, but they are not mystery shopping companies.
Most of the time they promise that you will get access to jobs by paying them, but you can get access to the same jobs (and better ones) directly from the mystery shopping companies for free.
Be suspicious of outrageous claims. If they tell you that you’ll make $50 or $100 an hour, or that you will get to keep free designer clothes, or if they try to make it sound as if mystery shopping is money for nothing, it is probably a scam.
Audri: That makes sense. OK, so mystery shoppers don’t make $100 an hour. How much do they earn?
Cathy: Shoppers are typically paid by the job not by the hour.
Shopper pay may range from $8-$10 for a simple assignment, up to $20, $50, $100 or more.
The fee paid to the mystery shopper generally takes into account how much time is required to do the shop and complete the report. Fees may be higher for shops that require specialized knowledge or skill, or for remote locations that are difficult to fill.
Another factor in shopper pay is the amount of any reimbursement included with the shop. Some types of shops, such as banks and apartment complexes, generally would not have any reimbursement because there is no required purchase.
Restaurants typically reimburse the cost of a meal for the shopper and a guest. Some of these shops only provide reimbursement with no additional fee, but your reimbursement might be $60, $75, $150 or more.
Audri: Do mystery shoppers get to keep everything they buy on a mystery shop?
Cathy: Some retail stores do include a small purchase allowance, usually just a few dollars.
The really cool free stuff comes when you are evaluating services. I’ve had lots of restaurant meals paid for, as well as haircuts at high-end salons, dry cleaning, even getting the oil changed in my car.
Some mystery shops may include free hotel stays, spot services, admission to movie theaters or amusement parks, print and copy services, and lots of other stuff that you either have to or want to buy.
Audri: OK, I understand that mystery shoppers are usually paid by the job, not the hour and that they sometimes get free meals, etc. Can you give our subscribers some range of what they might expect to earn per hour (with and without the free stuff)?
Cathy: There are so many variables that it is almost impossible to give a rate, especially when you consider the free stuff. However, expect that an experienced mystery shopper should be able to make $10 an hour and up.
At first, it takes shoppers longer to prepare, do the shop and the report, but with experience you get more confident and the requirements become more familiar. Also, as you get experience, you qualify for the high-end shops that with fees and freebies provide a much higher rate of return.
Audri: Is it possible to make a living as a mystery shopper?
Cathy: It is possible, and but not easy.
Most mystery shoppers do this part-time or in their spare time, as a way to make extra money.
Full-time mystery shopping would require being very organized and working with a large number of mystery shopping companies.
It would also help to be open to doing assignments other than mystery shops. For example, many mystery shoppers also accept assignments for merchandising, audits, demos, surveys and other market research projects.
Audri: What experience or qualifications does someone need to become a mystery shopper?
Cathy: There is no special training or experience required to be a mystery shopper. What is most important to mystery shopping companies is that you are reliable, observant, and have good writing skills.
If you have experience in customer service, such as working in retail or the hospitality industry, that is helpful but not required.
Audri: I’ve heard about certification programs. Is it necessary to be certified to become a mystery shopper?
Cathy: There are several different kinds of certification. Many mystery shopping companies require that you go through their certification programs before they will give you assignments. This is just to make sure you’ve read through all the guidelines and requirements for doing shops and understand them.
There is no charge for these certifications, and they are specific to the mystery shopping company.
The Mystery Shopping Providers Association also provides two levels of certification for shoppers. Silver certification is completed online, and the Gold certification is obtained by attending a one-day workshop. There is a charge for these certifications.
No company requires that you be certified in order to become a mystery shopper for them; however, many MSPA member companies give preference to MSPA certified shoppers when making assignments. (Full disclosure: I present the Gold certification workshops sponsored by the MSPA.)
There are other certification programs available; however, most are not recognized by mystery shopping companies.
Before paying for certification, ask what mystery shopping companies recognize the certification and what the benefits of certification are.
Audri: If someone wants to become a mystery shopper and avoid getting scammed, how should they get started?
Cathy: Mystery shopping is not a full-time job. Shoppers work as independent contractors and take assignments from many different companies.
The best way to get started is to apply to as many mystery shopping companies as possible.
The best way to avoid getting scammed is not to register with any company that tries to charge you a fee to apply.
Audri: What kind of information will mystery shopping companies ask for on the application?
Cathy: In addition to the basic information, such as name, address, telephone number, etc., some mystery shopping applications ask questions that might make you uncomfortable.
For example, applications may include demographic questions such as age, gender, marital status, number of children, and race. These questions are asked so they can match you to available assignments.
For example, shoppers between the ages of 21 and 27 are needed for age verification shops. The shoppers might be asked to go to a store and by alcohol or cigarettes to see if they are asked for identification.
Race is important in matched pair testing. This is where two or more people of different races are sent into a financial institution with identical credit histories to see if they have an identical outcome.
There might even be questions about what kind of car you drive, if you have pets, if you wear glasses, if you own a digital camera, and others that seem ridiculous.
Each question is on the application because one or more of that company’s clients need shoppers that match a particular profile.
Mystery shopping companies in the United States will ask for your Social Security number. This is required because they may have to report your income to the Internal Revenue Service.
Before entering sensitive information such as a Social Security number online, verify that you are on a secure site. Look for “https” at the beginning of the URL, and the image of a lock at the bottom of your browser window.
If anything about the site makes you uncomfortable, you may not want to apply and give them your personal information.
Audri: As the publisher of ScamBusters, entering Social Security numbers makes me very uncomfortable. If you have to enter your Social Security number (and I understand why the company needs this info), I recommend that subscribers please do everything they possibly can to make sure they aren’t on a scam or phishing site.
Check out our website for more info, including this article on
Let’s move on. How can people find mystery shopping companies located near them?
Cathy: Shoppers may work for mystery shopping companies located in their city or state, or across the country.
What’s most important is not where the mystery shopping company is located, it is where they have clients. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to know which mystery shopping companies need shoppers in your town.
Therefore, the best thing to do is to apply to as many legitimate mystery shopping companies as you can find. Most mystery shopping companies have websites and accept applications online. You can do a search in your favorite search engine for “mystery shopping company” or similar terms to locate sites where you may apply.
Keep your credit card in your wallet, because you will also find many sites that are not mystery shopping companies. Never pay a fee to apply. I recommend applying to at least 20 to 30 companies to start, and then to more as you have time.
Audri: I’d like to propose an even better idea so subscribers know the mystery shopping companies are legit. If you are serious about becoming a mystery shopper, then you should definitely check out Cathy’s excellent book, “The Mystery Shopper’s Manual.”
Here’s why I mention it now: when you order Cathy’s book, you’ll receive a bonus download file with clickable links for more than 100 companies hiring mystery shoppers. That way you don’t have to find the mystery shopping companies yourself — or worry about whether or not they are legit.
Click here now.
OK. What about people who are not located in the U.S.?
Cathy: There are mystery shopping companies all over the world. To locate companies in your country, do an Internet search for terms such as “mystery shopping company” and the name of your country.
One more important bit of advice to avoid mystery shopper scams: NEVER cash a certified check and send cash to someone.
This is an old scam (I’m sure you have seen it before), but it is now being used to scam people interested in mystery shopping.
Sometimes the bad guys even use the names of legitimate mystery shopping companies when recruiting via classified ads. Mystery shopping companies will not ask you to cash a check and send the money to them. You will be out all of the money when it turns out that the check was forged or stolen.
Audri: Excellent advice! This is called the “overpayment scam” and subscribers can read more about it here.
Thanks so much Cathy — this has been great! You’ve really taken a lot of the “mystery” out of becoming a mystery shopper — and offered a great deal of excellent advice on not getting scammed. 😉
In conclusion, I recommend our subscribers check out your book now:
Thanks again, Cathy!
That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.