I love mystery shopping. I’ve personally done over a hundred different mystery shops in the last five years, picking and choosing shopping assignments that are near me and offer enough compensation to be worth my while.
As a stay-at-home-mom, it’s been a great way for me to earn extra money without sacrificing time with my family. I’ve gone out to eat with my spouse, taken my family to the water park, filled up on gas, bought groceries, and more — all compensated by mystery shopping agencies and their clients.
The question I get most often is whether mystery shopping is legit or a scam. And it’s easy to understand why. After all, getting paid to shop and go out to eat almost sounds too good to be true.
And I’ll answer some other common questions, like how much mystery shopping pays, where to find mystery shopping jobs, and whether you actually need to get “certified” to work in the field.
Mystery Shopping Basics
Most of us try to be at the top of our game when the boss is around. In the retail world, this can make it difficult for business owners and managers to evaluate things like how clean a store is and whether employees are providing great customer service.
As a result, many companies hire mystery shoppers (often referred to as secret shoppers) to provide a boots-on-the-ground evaluation of how their business is doing from a customer’s point of view.
Mystery shoppers go undercover as a typical customer, secretly evaluating the quality of their experience and reporting back to the company managers (usually via a third party that has been hired to coordinate the mystery shopping assignment).
A typical mystery shop involves visiting a store and looking for specific items, as outlined in the assignment. This could mean making sure that the proper in-store advertisements are in place, that the location has clean restrooms, or that certain products are displayed in a particular fashion.
In the case of restaurants, it may mean ordering a particular item off the menu, and sometimes even asking for it to be prepared according to a specific set of instructions.
The assignment may require the shopper to take photos of their food, the store, signage or all of the above. Additionally, the shopper is usually required to interact with and observe staff members to see if they’re polite, in uniform and helpful.
The shopper is often asked to make a purchase, which is reimbursed by the company. After he or she leaves the store, the shopper fills out a questionnaire, uploads photos and answers questions about the experience.
All kinds of companies hire mystery shoppers, including hotels, banks, fast-food chains, shoe stores, car dealerships, testing centers, amusement parks and more. If a large corporation has customer-facing involvement, chances are good they’ve employed mystery shoppers at some point.
However, these companies don’t hire mystery shoppers directly; they go through agencies that recruit and vet shoppers, and which handle all the paperwork, payment, training and data entry. Agencies advertise open mystery shops on their own job boards, as well as collective secret shopper databases like Jobslinger and SassieShop.
How to Avoid Mystery Shopping Scams
For most people, one of the first questions about mystery shopping is whether or not it’s legit. Getting paid to shop or go out to eat? It sounds a little too good to be true. To be honest, if my sister hadn’t already had a good experience with mystery shopping, I never would have tried it.
The short answer is “yes” — mystery shopping is totally legit.
However, because the opportunity is so enticing, mystery shopping scams are plentiful. If you see something fishy, check the Federal Trade Commission’s page about mystery shopping scams and review the company’s Better Business Bureau page.
Beyond that, you should be able to avoid most scams by keeping your eyes open for the following red flags.
1. Don’t Pay For Access to Mystery Shopper Jobs
If a website promises a list of shops or access to some database of opportunities, but requires you to pay first, run.
The same goes for those who sell “directories” of mystery shopping companies. Agencies should pay you to become a mystery shopper, not the other way around.
Note: We’ve provided a long list of legitimate mystery shopping companies at the end of this article, including those I have personally worked for.
2. Don’t Pay For Certification When You’re Getting Started
If you search for a phrase like “mystery shopper jobs,” one of the first things you’ll come across is advertisements for “mystery shopping certification” programs. These paid courses promise to help you find and qualify for opportunities.
One such program is offered by MSPA, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. MSPA is the trade organization that represents the interests of mystery shopping companies and their employees, and their certification program is legitimate.
However, becoming certified is not required to get started as a mystery shopper. In fact, I’ve performed hundreds of shops over five years for a dozen agencies, and not once have I been turned down because I lacked certification. If an agency requires you to get certified before working as a mystery shopper, you should look for another agency.
With that said, having an MSPA certification may help you qualify for some of the more competitive shopping opportunities. So if you complete a number of shops and decide you enjoy the process, it would not be unreasonable to consider certification later on down the line — though doing so is unnecessary for the vast majority of mystery shoppers.
3. Don’t Cash a Check or Wire Money
This particular mystery shopping scam is shockingly common. In this scam, you get an unsolicited email from a con artist posing as a reputable company. The scammer will “hire” you, then send you on an “assignment” to a wire transfer shop with Western Union or MoneyGram.
The scammer will send you a check and ask you to deposit it into your personal account, withdraw the cash, then wire the money to a third party. But it’s a fake check, and although the bank may release the funds, you’ll be the one left responsible when the fraud is inevitably discovered.
Note that legitimate mystery shops for Western Union and banks do exist. I have done a few myself. However, you won’t get random spam emails from a mystery shopping agency you haven’t already registered for.
How Mystery Shopping Works
To start as a mystery shopper, you’ll need to sign up with an agency that has shops in your geographic area.
Here comes the tricky part: you will likely need to sign up with multiple agencies to get more than a shop or two.
That’s because each agency contracts with only a handful of companies, and if you want to apply for a specific shop, you need to have an account with the agency that offers it.
This can be a little time consuming on the front end. Each company wants you to fill out an IRS 1099 form and provide your name, address, phone number, PayPal info, etc.
The good news is that once you have an account, you can instantly sign up for shops that the agency offers. You can also opt into email alerts to know when new shops open up in your area.
Once you receive your first mystery shopping opportunity, you’ll need to confirm your assignment with your shop scheduler. This person will email you about the shop, and you’ll need to click on the link to reply and verify that you’ll actually complete the assignment. You can also contact your scheduler if you have questions or problems meeting the shop requirements.
Note: Some of the bigger companies, such as Shopper Force, have an almost fully-automated process. With these firms, you may not interact with a scheduler.
Before you go on your shopping assignment, make sure to thoroughly review the requirements. Each shop, agency and company has different requirements, and many are extremely specific.
- A restaurant may require you to shop during the lunch rush and order a specific menu item.
- You may only be able to shop on a certain day of the week, or during specific hours.
- You may have to ask the customer service person a specific question, or time how long you were placed on hold during a phone call.
Read these instructions very carefully before going on your assignment, as well as the questionnaire you’ll be required to submit at the end. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in the agency docking your pay or rejecting your shop altogether.
Pro tip: Take notes on your phone to jog your memory later. It will look like you’re texting someone.
Many mystery shopper assignments require you to take pictures. A cell phone camera works fine for this. Save your receipt, as you’ll need to take a picture of that, too.
And remember: unless you’re specifically told to do so, never reveal that you are a mystery shopper to any employee. Companies rely on your anonymity for an accurate view of the customer’s shopping experience, so be sure to keep any notes or pictures you take out of sight.
How You Get Paid
One of the great things about mystery shopping is the many forms of payment, with compensation falling into the following categories.
Most companies ask you to purchase goods or services as part of the assignment. Generally, the mystery shopping company reimburses you for these purchases, though the cash to buy them initially comes out of your own pocket.
There is a dollar limit on how much you can spend, so the reimbursement isn’t a blank check to buy whatever you want.
That said, you’re often allowed to spend more than the reimbursement amount and just pay the rest on your own. This is especially handy when you’re doing restaurant shops with a friend or a date; the reimbursement may only cover one meal, but the mystery shop makes it buy one, get one free!
Reimbursement is tacked onto your paycheck, so you may not get the money back for a few weeks, depending on the secret shopping agency’s payment policy
This is the money the mystery shopping agency pays you for each assignment you complete. The payment will be clearly set before you agree to take the job. The typical pay for an average secret shop is between $10-$25, though complex jobs may pay much more.
Agencies typically pay their shoppers via PayPal or direct deposit into a bank account. Often, they only pay once or twice per month. As your payment won’t be processed until after your questionnaire is complete and approved, you may be waiting on your check for a few weeks.
When you conduct a mystery shop, you generally get to keep whatever food or merchandise you purchase. And who doesn’t like free stuff?!
This is a fabulous perk of mystery shopping and often compensates for shopper’s fees that can be less-than-stellar.
Mystery shopping is a great life hack to get many things you’d buy anyway for free. I’ve gotten oil changes, socks, restaurant meals, groceries, gasoline, gifts, and taken my kids to the zoo — all for free thanks to mystery shopping.
Most mystery shopping companies pay in cash for shopper’s fees, but a few pay in gift cards instead. (Shopkick and Mobee are two examples.) The upside to this is that you can save up the gift card balance for big purchases that don’t fall into your regular budget, such as Christmas gifts and large-ticket items like a new computer.
Sometimes, shop schedulers have a hard time filling certain jobs. The assignment might be boring or time-consuming (like getting your taxes done). It might be in a remote location. Or it may be a situation where the original shopper canceled, and now the agency is up against a deadline.
In these cases, agencies sometimes offer special bonuses to entice shoppers to complete the assignment. Bonuses are a nice extra boost to the cash you can earn as a mystery shopper.
Where to Find Jobs
Multiple secret shopper agencies post jobs on these boards, and they’re updated daily. In fact, you can usually apply for the shop directly from the job board. You can search by zip code or city, and it will pull up a list of shops available. You can sort by how close they are to you, how much they pay, or how recently they were posted.
iSecretShop is another popular job board, which offers both a desktop site as well as an app.
Agencies I’ve Worked For
There are dozens of mystery shopping agencies out there, though some are better than others. Here are a few of my favorite companies that I have personally mystery shopped for (in alphabetical order). All are 100% legit, paying companies.
This company is my personal favorite. They focus on amusement locations like zoos, theme parks, aquariums, water parks, and bowling alleys.
As a mom with kids, this has been a terrific way to take my family on a fun outing for free (or almost free).
Most shops allow you to bring children if you have another adult with you — a rarity among secret shopping companies. Of course, unless you go solo, you probably won’t make much profit on these shops. The main benefit is being able to have a great time on someone else’s dime.
This is one of the best companies when it comes to high-paying jobs. They focus on credit card companies and banks, so you should have good credit that can withstand a hard pull if you plan to go shop for them. However, they pay handsomely for the trouble, with rates as high as $100 per assignment!
BARE offers a few shops that are more involved but have a good work-per-dollar ratio. Some of their better shops include store audits and testing center jobs, where you pretend to be sitting for an exam like the GRE or MCAT. They also offer lower-end shops, like car washes and electronics stores.
These shops are the crème de la crème of mystery shopping, with assignments at high-end hotels and restaurants around the world.
Want to be reimbursed for a three-night stay in the Caribbean? You’ll need substantial experience as a secret shopper to get accepted for these assignments, and competition is fierce.
However, Coyle does also offer phone shops for reservations at restaurants and hotels that you can do from anywhere, so this is a good way to get your foot in the door.
Note that when submitting your application to Coyle, you’ll be required to provide two writing samples: one that describes the best customer service experience that you’ve ever had, and one that describes the worst.
This organization offers a range of jobs, from restaurants to gas stations. They also do some merchandising shops, where you’ll check a company’s advertising or literature to make sure it’s current. Their focus is on the midwestern United States, but they do offer shops in other areas. They pay the standard $10 to $20 for most jobs.
Assignments from Intellishop are plentiful and varied. Payment typically ranges between $5 and $20, and they often offer bonuses for shops that are in remote areas or are close to the deadline. This is a good company to sign up for if you want consistent access to a large number of available assignments.
Another big player in the industry, SeeLevelHX offers restaurant and showroom shops for things like power sports and upscale hardware, as well as several other categories.
There are literally dozens of companies that offer mystery shopping opportunities. Each company has a specific client, customer and geographic focus, so do some research before signing up to make sure the agency offers jobs in your area that you qualify for.
And remember, there’s no rule that you can only work for one; if you want to stay busy you’ll need to sign up with multiple companies.
Although it is by no means comprehensive, here’s a list of the major players in the mystery shopping world to get you started.
- AboutFace: Has an A+ rating with the BBB, but shoppers have noted issues with customer service.
- Ace Mystery Shopping: A small mystery shopping company with a heavy restaurant focus.
- A Closer Look: A legit, long-standing company. There have been some complaints about low or missed pay since a recent change in executive management.
- ACPVIEW: A mystery shopping firm that offers standard shops, as well as call center evaluation shops and public transit shops.
- BestMark: Has an A+ rating with the BBB.
- BVA: A French mystery shopping firm, but with some jobs in the United States. Some American users have noted poor translation of the website and the language barrier of the scheduling staff to be issues.
- Confero: Works with big-name brands like AMC, Capital One, Coca-Cola and Jiffy Lube. A long-standing company with consistent leadership.
- Ipsos (formerly GfK): Offers cell phone, electronics and retail audits.
- Shopper Force: A major market player, Shopper Force (also known as Market Force) offers fast food, dine-in, airport, and gas station shops. Some shops have a “make an offer” button, essentially allowing you to bid on jobs.
- Mercantile Systems: Dine-in restaurant, storage facility and hair salon jobs.
- Perception Strategies: Focuses on shops evaluating healthcare facilities.
- Pinnacle: Focuses on the financial industry.
- Quest for Best: Accredited with BBB, but their website is very old and clunky.
- RBG: A leader in video mystery shops. They offer other shops in restaurants and banks.
- Second to None: Founding member of the MSPA. A good, well-established company.
- Secret Shopper: Offers a mobile app for assignment reporting. Also offers some international shops.
- Shoppers’ View: A legitimate agency with a variety of shops in many states.
- Sinclair Customer Metrics: Offers gas station, convenience store, grocery, bank and fast food shops.
- The Shadow Agency: Has a strong presence in the southern United States. They show a national map of their available shops on their Facebook page.
- The Source: Offers traditional mystery shops, as well as a variety of other customer evaluation projects (audits, exit interviews, and shop-alongs).
- Yardi Matrix: Actually hires you as a seasonal W-2 employee to conduct rental surveys. The pay is around minimum wage.
Mystery Shopping Apps
Some mystery shopping agencies have moved to an app-only platform. Using an app provides a streamlined system to accept shops and upload all the information and photos quickly.
- Field Agent: A shopping app that allows you to do small jobs for a few bucks. Has mixed reviews on Yelp and BBB.
- Gigwalk: Pays you anywhere from $3 to $100 to perform “gigs” at specific stores. Jobs can be a bit spread out if you’re not in a major metropolitan area.
- Shopkick: You’ll earn “kicks” that can be redeemed for gift cards by going to stores, scanning product bar codes, purchasing select items and submitting receipts. Shopkick is a hybrid of a cash-back app and mystery shopping.
- Merchandiser by Survey.com: Choose from product reset, merchandising, product demos, and audit tasks to make extra cash.
- Mobee: Similar to Shopkick, Mobee is a shopping app that offers “missions” as well as rewards for online purchases. Redeem points in cash or gift cards.
Mystery Shopping Job FAQs
As a mystery shopper, you have no control over what jobs are available in your area, how profitable they are, and whether or not you fit the demographics necessary to complete the assignment. Because the dollar-per-hour payout is pretty low, mystery shopping can’t replace even a modest full-time income.
Yes! A mystery shopper job is ideal for students, retirees, stay-at-home parents, or anyone else with a little spare time who wants to make extra cash and get free stuff. The amount you can make will vary based on how much time you put in and your geographic location. Metropolitan areas usually have more shops available.
As noted earlier in the article, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association is the primary professional organization for mystery shopping agencies and their employees. Most MSPA memberships are therefore aimed at professionals in the industry (such as managers, schedulers and salespeople), not independent mystery shoppers. MSPA does offer an independent contractor membership for $30, but the value this provides seems marginal at best. However, you must be a member of MSPA prior to becoming certified.
You don’t need an MSPA certification to get a mystery shopper job. Some high-end shops may give preference to those with MSPA certification, but becoming certified is completely optional and probably not worth the money. Find out more about the costs and coursework to become MSPA certified here.
Some Final Thoughts on Mystery Shopping
If you’re looking for a convenient side hustle you can start with little upfront cash, extra time, or specialized knowledge, a mystery shopping job is a good bet. Signing up is easy, and all you need is a smartphone and a PayPal account to get started.
You’ll never quit your 9-to-5 to become a full-time mystery shopper, but if you factor in the perks of reimbursement, free stuff and shopper fees, it can be a great strategy to make and save a few extra bucks.
If you’re on a tight budget, mystery shopping can also grant you the occasional guilt-free splurge by allowing you to make money eating out or going to the movies.
With dozens of secret shopping agencies offering shops across the country, chances are there are opportunities in your area. If you could use some extra cash, sign up with the mystery shopping agency near you and get started.