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Raise your hand if you’ve seen an ad for a mystery shopping gig and thought to yourself, "That can’t be real…getting paid to shop and point out all the problems I see in a store?!"
It turns out mystery shopping is a real thing…except when it’s not.
Here’s the lowdown on how you can make extra cash, get freebies, what to watch out for, and how to find legitimate mystery shopping opportunities.
What is a mystery shopper?
Mystery shoppers are hired by third-party companies to visit businesses–like Hilton Hotels, Macy’s, and Target–and use their services.
Basically you pretend to be a typical customer making a purchase, returning something, or browsing and asking certain questions. The tasks vary depending on the type of business and the objective of the visit.
Mystery shopping spans a ton of industries like financial institutions, automotive, and healthcare. Even funeral homes hire mystery shoppers!
Can I make a living mystery shopping?
Not really. Most mystery shoppers do this in their spare time as a way to make extra money, not as their sole source of income.
Full-time, or even part-time mystery shopping requires that you’re very organized because you work with quite a number of mystery shopping companies.
Being an experienced mystery shopper helps too because you’ll know what to expect and organization will be easier.
So, how much money can I make?
Well, it depends. You’ll get more opportunities if you live in a big city.
On average, expect to make about $10 per assignment. You’ll earn more for bigger, time-consuming assignments (like $50 and up). To earn the most, sign up with as many mystery shopping companies as you can and go for only your favorite assignments.
Unfortunately, assignments are never guaranteed. And that might be the biggest "catch" about mystery shopping.
You can sign up for as many as you want, but you can’t control which assignments you’re selected for. So don’t depend on the income; instead look at it as extra money to sock away or to blow on that Michael Kors bag you’re having issues justifying.
Keep in mind, mystery shopping is a time commitment. The surveys you fill out afterward (which you have to submit within 24 hours of completing your assignment) are often pretty long and require a lot of detail because stores want to get a lot of bang for their buck.
Also important to note–if you make more than $599 from one company in a calendar year, you’ll be issued a 1099 and have to pay taxes on whatever you made. You can run, but Uncle Sam will find you.
Any other perks?
- In addition to cash payment, many retailers ask you to buy certain items, reimburse you, and let you keep the items (which many shoppers return to the store for cash or store credit).
- Restaurants almost always give you a free meal up to a specified dollar amount, and some give you food on top of cash payment. You heard right–FREE FOOD+MONEY.
- Hotels give their mystery shoppers free night stays, and even sometimes free spa treatments or room service!
- Mystery shoppers occasionally snag free haircuts, movie tickets, amusement park admissions, dry-cleaning, oil changes, clothing, massages, and more.
- You don’t even have to leave the house! Many companies hire mystery shoppers to call in to their customer service departments and report back on their experience. A lot of these even pay by the hour! I know what you’re thinking–"I don’t have to put on real pants? Where do I sign up?"
How do I sign up?
Typically through a third-party company.
They’re contracted with the actual businesses you’ll be evaluating, and they’re responsible for hiring, scheduling and feedback.
Since there are hundreds of third-party companies, start by checking to see if they’re a member of the MSPA before signing up. The MSPA is the official organization responsible for regulating the mystery shopping industry’s companies and guidelines, and if the company is a member, they’re genuine.
Some legit ones we found that are absolutely free to sign up with are:
Simply head to their website and fill out an application. You’ll select the jobs you’re interested in, and then wait to see if you’re selected for them. Check back for new job postings often.
Is it true I need a "certification" to be a mystery shopper?
There’s no certification required to sign up and apply for jobs. If you find a company that says so, it’s probably a fake.
However, if you’re serious about becoming a mystery shopper, the MSPA does offer a certification course for $20, and it’s worth it.
You’ll most likely still get jobs without it, but many MSPA member companies give preference to MSPA Certified shoppers, meaning you’ll probably get the more lucrative, better-paying jobs, and more of them. Certification shows you have a good understanding of the industry, its requirements and guidelines, and that you take it seriously.
There are other certification programs floating around, but they probably won’t be recognized by the mystery shopping companies, and therefore are a waste of time and money.
RELATED: 9 Effortless Ways to Make Money Without Leaving Home
How can I avoid scams?
Unfortunately, the mystery shopping industry has been targeted by scammers in recent years.
According to the FTC, don’t do business with mystery shopping promoters who:
- Advertise for mystery shoppers in a newspaper’s “help wanted” section or by email.
- Require that you pay for certification.
- Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.
- Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities.
- Sell directories of companies that hire mystery shoppers.
And always RUN if someone asks you to deposit a check and wire some or all of the money.
Tips for success?
- Sign up with multiple mystery shopping companies. This will increase your chances of getting assignments.
- Check for new assignments often–the good ones go fast!
- Go ahead and get your certification through the MSPA.
- Complete every assignment you accept! Failing to complete an assignment will ensure you won’t be picked again by that company.
- Accept last-minute or lesser-paying assignments when starting out. It will eventually pay off. Once you prove yourself with quite a few solid assignments, you’ll get selected for the better, more coveted ones.
- Read the assignment’s requirements REEEAALLLY carefully before accepting it. If you fail to complete a step, you won’t be paid.
- Be prepared with the right equipment for the assignment. Since most of them will have you take pictures of certain things, you’ll need a camera (the one on your phone is fine), some sort of discreet note-taking device (like a small notepad, tablet or your phone), and a reliable computer with internet access. Read the instructions carefully to see if you need anything else before you head out to do the assignment.
So it seems like mystery shopping definitely isn’t a good full-time (or maybe even part-time!) gig, but it has some perks that make it worthwhile if you’re looking for a way to earn some side cash or a free meal once in awhile.