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Bright Ideas · Saving Money · The Lowdown on Mystery Shopping Gigs

The Lowdown on Mystery Shopping Gigs

I recently read an article in Woman’s World Magazine all about unique mystery shopping oppportunities. Mystery shopping is something that has always intrigued me but I’ve never really taken the time to sit down and read much about it! The article really piqued my curiosity so I did some online digging to get the low-down on mystery shopping. I feel like I got a handle on how it all works and I’m planning to sign-up for a few different companies and do some “shops” as they’re called in the mystery shopping world.

It sounds like a fun way to make a few extra dollars and get some free products and experiences along the way, but there are some things you need to know to get started.

Getting Started 

Head to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website to find reputable mystery shopping companies. Volition.com  also has some great forums for mystery shopping where you can learn more about the best companies to work for and connect with other shoppers. Here are a few companies I’ve read great things about:

Sinclair Customer Metrics
Customer Service Experts
Consumer Impressions
Second to None
Amusement Advantage
Bare International 


You don’t have to complete any special training or pay for certification to sign-up to be a mystery shopper. However, I did read a few articles that said getting at least an Intro to Mystery Shopping Certification from the MSPA (for $15) could help you get more assignments. Some companies will also ask you to complete a free certification specific to their company to make sure you understand their guidelines for completing assignments.

Be sure to sign up for a few different companies to ensure you find the best opportunities. Also consider setting up a separate email account for personal shopping notifications. They can pile up quickly and you might not want your regular email account bombarded  with messages. Check that email account frequently for new shopping opportunities. The good ones usually get snatched up quickly!

If you already work in retail don’t rule out mystery shopping! Retail workers can still be mystery shoppers. Just be sure to disclose your job information when applying for mystery shopping gigs. You obviously won’t be given assignments at a store you already work for.

Reality Check  

There are a lot of misconceptions and rumors around mystery shopping so let’s clear some of those up.

  • Mystery shopping is not a get rich quick kind of business. Your first assignments will not pay very much. Higher paying gigs are generally reserved for those with experience. Even after you gain more experience you may not make more than $8-$10 an hour. Although it is difficult to make a full-time salary as a mystery shopper but it can be a great supplement to a full-time job for those with flexible schedules. It’s also a great way to reduce the cost of items, trips, experiences etc. that you were already planning on paying for.
  • Mystery shopping is hard work. Every assignment requires you to watch out for, and keep track of different details. So don’t expect a leisurely experience when completing mystery shopping assignments. Some companies won’t pay you if you don’t complete the assignment correctly, so make sure you pay attention to the particulars. Companies will generally require that you submit a report after completing the initial shopping experience. The quality of a report can affect how many jobs you get in the future.
  • Mystery shopping jobs can be a bit awkward. I read about an experience someone had with a job at a high-end restaurant. They were required to record tiny details about the experience without the wait staff seeing them write things down! The company suggested they go to the bathroom multiple times to record their observations. You may also have to follow a script, which essentially means telling some lies about yourself and your background. Cut down on the awkwardness by only signing up for assignments that you feel comfortable with!
  • Mystery shopping isn’t just for clothing stores! I read about lots of different opportunities throughout my research. From restaurants to amusements parks, golf courses, doctor’s offices, hotels, banks, car dealerships, salons, movie theaters, pet groomers and more. There really is something for everyone!

Money Matters 

As I mentioned above, mystery shopping isn’t necessarily a way to make a lot of money but can be a great supplemental income. When it comes to money and mystery shopping there are a few other things you need to know.

  • Most mystery shopping companies don’t mail you cash before completing an assignment. That means you have to pay for goods and services up front and then wait for reimbursement, which can take between 30 and 90 days. A great self-imposed rule I read about is to not complete any new assignments until you’ve been paid or reimbursed for the ones you’ve already completed.
  • Be aware that many times companies won’t reimburse you for gas, credit card fees, or the cost of a tip. Always keep that in mind when choosing which assignments to take. To get the most bang for your buck, look for opportunities to complete multiple jobs in one trip.
  • Mystery shoppers are considered independent contractors so you will be responsible for paying taxes on any income you earn. Remember that independent contractors can deduct legitimate job expenses from their taxes. That means you need to keep all of your receipts in case you get audited.
  • For tax purposes, mystery shopping companies will ask of your social security number when you sign-up. That’s why it is extra important that you know you are registering with a legitimate business! If you do a lot of freelance work, and don’t feel comfortable giving out your SSN you may want to sign-up for an EIN. An EIN is an IRS-issued number for businesses that can go on W-9s instead of your SSN.
  • As a general rule: the longer an assignment goes unfilled the more money companies will offer in return for that job. If you don’t initially want to do an assignment because of a low fee, keep an eye out for the fee to go up. You may also want to consider simply asking for more money from the assignment scheduler or for bonuses when you have to drive very far.
  • Many companies only reimburse through PayPal, so make sure you have an account set-up before applying for assignments.
  • Check to see if any of the companies you sign up with offer referral bonuses when new shoppers use you as a reference.
  • Most mystery shopping jobs won’t allow you to bring your children along. So keep in mind the cost/inconvenience of hiring a babysitter when considering mystery shopping if you have kids.

Do’s and Don’ts for Avoiding Scam Artists 

There are lots of mystery shopping scam artists out there! Here are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission to avoid working for those types of companies:

  • Don’t ever pay to be a mystery shopper. Legitimate mystery shopping companies will pay you to do market research, not the other way around. You will never need to pay for a certification program, a directory of mystery shopping companies, or for the guarantee of a mystery shopping job.
  • Do your research! Read online reviews and comments before getting involved with any mystery shopping company. Look at multiple sources since companies often pay for fake positive reviews.
  • Don’t ever take assignments wiring money. Apparently, some companies will tell you that your first mystery shopping assignment is with a money transfer service like Western Union. They will give you a check to deposit in your own bank account, ask you to withdraw the amount in cash, and then have you wire a money to a third party. Unfortunately, the check they give you is fake and you will be responsible for paying the bank back when the fraud is discovered!
  • Do visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website. They have a database of mystery shopping assignments and instructions on how to apply for them. You do not need to complete the paid MSPA certification to look at, apply for, or complete mystery shopping assignments.
  • Don’t work for companies who advertise in the newspapers’ ‘help wanted’ section, on Craigslist, or by email. Most legitimate companies will be listed on the MSPA website.
  • Do file complaints with the FTC or your state Attorney General if you suspect a mystery shopping scam. Do you part to keep shady companies from hurting others. Don’t leave it up to someone else to report the scam.


I found tons of great resources on the web to learn about mystery shopping! Here are a few of my favorites:

The Ultimate Mystery Shopping Guide
Secrets of  Secret Shopper
8 Truths From a Mystery Shopper You Must Read Before You Get Started
Is Mystery Shopping Really Worth the Effort?

Would you ever consider becoming a mystery shopper?

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