Here's the reality of being a mystery shopper, and how to find a company that's legit

Mystery Shopper Services photo

Being a mystery shopper is more involved than a lot of people think. You have to apply, qualify, sign a contract, request specific assignments, get the assignments, complete the assignment on time, have your work reviewed and each assignment may only get you $25 or less.

Mystery Shopper Providers Association President Charles Stiles says many consumers have a common misconception about how the mystery shopping industry works.

"There's a lot of marketing surrounding mystery shopping where, you know, 'Earn money, stay at home, make a big paycheck, make all this money.' So people are really confused," said Stiles.

Stiles stresses that mystery shopping is really a way to make supplemental income, but not typically a full time way to earn income.

"Now, there are exceptions to the rule, just like everything in life. We do have mystery shoppers that make a very large sum of money on an annual basis, but these are people that have been doing this for a lot of years. They work for multiple companies. They live in large geographical areas where there are a lot of assignments available, and some of the assignments pay a higher income," Stiles explained.

Some of the mystery shoppers who work for Stiles' company, Mystery Shopper Services, make calls as online customers to help businesses evaluate how well their customer service reps interact with the public. Others document product prices to help manufacturers and retailers stay competitive. Some of his mystery shoppers act as perspective renters looking to lease an apartment.

"A lot of the apartment communities want to know; are their leasing agents really treating their customers properly when they're coming in," said Stiles.

But you don't just sign up and start raking in cash. You have to register with the company online, sign an independent contractor agreement, and a non-disclosure agreement. Once you're accepted as a mystery shopper you have access to listing assignments in your area and can make a request. Once you get an assignment, you must complete your report in detail, with proper spelling and grammar, and return it on time.

As for getting paid, Stiles says it usually takes 2 to 4 weeks, because your assignments have to be approved.

"If you're looking for averages — I don't know that there are statistics on that — but you know, people are probably earning on the average of a couple hundred dollars a month," said Stiles.

Stiles added that average reflects multiple assignments each week.

"Typically, people are going to a restaurant, and they're getting paid $15/$20/$25, getting a meal and getting reimbursed," Stiles said.

The Mystery Shopping industry does it's best to warn consumers and businesses about mystery shopping scams. Common scams involve bogus companies that require a fee, or sending you money with an "assignment" and asking you to return a portion of the money under the guise of testing your trustworthiness.

"You should never pay to become a mystery shopper," said Stiles.

"If somebody's saying, 'You pay me X amount of money to become a mystery shopper,' that's a scam."

So again — stay away from any company that asks you to pay them — or sends you a cashier's check with a so-called assignment. The check is bogus. Do a google search with the key words, mystery shopper scams, to learn how to avoid getting burned.

And before you sign with a mystery shopping company, verify their membership in the Mystery Shopper Providers Association (recently changed to Mystery Shopper Professionals Association or MSPA) which sets industry standards for quality and ethics.

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