Mystery Shopper: Scam or Your Newest Gig?


If you are like millions of people who either need or want a “second gig” to boost their bank balance, you have a lot more options than you might realize. As my readers know, I am probably one of the world’s most enthusiastic advocates of affiliate marketing. It is just the smartest, easiest way to turn your interest or passion into a steady stream of consistent, passive income. Yet, it is definitely not the only way to earn extra cash.

There is also the role of “mystery shopper”. This is something that is…well, mysterious to many. Whenever I bring it up in conversation, people typically look a bit cockeyed at me and ask, “Just what do mystery shoppers do?”

Fair question! So, let’s take a few minutes to understand this “gig” and why it deserves a far better reputation than it has.

What Do Mystery Shoppers Do?

According to the Federal Trade Commission, mystery shopping is when “retailers hire companies to evaluate the quality of service in their stores; they often use mystery shoppers to get the information. They instruct a mystery shopper to make a particular purchase in a store or restaurant, and then report on the experience. Typically, the shopper is reimbursed and can keep the product or service. Sometimes the shopper receives a small payment, as well.”

However, it isn’t actually just limited to retailers doing the hiring. There are also market research firms and “watchdog organizations” that want someone to report to them on such issues as overall quality of service, compliance with specific regulations, or just a “field operative” who can give specific answers to questions about targeted services or products.

With that said, it is easy to see that mystery shopping should always be viewed as a sort of part-time gig or way of earning a bit of extra cash. Now, you might assume that it is the avid shoppers who are more likely to find it profitable, but that is not necessarily so. As one experienced mystery shopper writes, “it’s a respectable gig for someone with some time, ambition, and a desire to do something different.”

Does that sound like you? If so, let’s take a look at how to get a secret shopper job.

Of course, before doing that, we need to address the title of this article, i.e. “scam or your newest gig?” Why? Because there are many mystery shopper scams that almost anyone can fall prey to if they are not aware of the usual warning signs.

What are those signs? If you want to work for the legitimate secret shopper companies, take the FTC’s advice and:

  • Skip the companies that ask you to pay to do the work – even if it is labeled as a registration fee with a website or program. This is a bit warning sign that a scam is involved.
  • Never do any mystery shopping for money transfer or wire services. This is just a simple way to get you to send money without any hope for reimbursement or by sending you a fake check that never clears.
  • Avoid any firms that advertise in newspapers or via email communications.
  • Discount any and all firms that offer to sell you directories of companies looking for mystery shoppers.

Do these easy steps and you can ensure that you work strictly with legitimate secret shopper companies. If you do uncover a scam, you should know how to report mystery shopper scams. The simplest is to contact the FTC directly at their complaint department.

Now, let’s focus on just how to get a secret shopper job and earn some regular cash.

How to Get a Secret Shopper Job

Knowing how to avoid scammers can make it easier to find the best mystery shopping companies, or at least the most legitimate secret shopper companies out there. Keep in mind that it is a part-time gig AND that you have to accept that you first need to learn the proverbial ropes before you can start to take in the most in earnings.

While you might even earn less than minimum wage to start, keep in mind what one representative of the MSPA Americas said, “The work is generally very easy…in many cases you’re rewarded with freebies ranging from restaurant meals to oil changes.”

There are also “millions of people around the country that do various types of mystery shopping…. Retail and restaurant chains, service providers, and even cruise lines and airlines are among the many kinds of enterprises that pay mystery shoppers.”

So, expect to work your way up by taking lower paying “gigs” and building your skills and credentials. This lets you learn which companies pay best and which types of jobs you prefer, but it can be tough to accept when you want to earn a decent second income.

However, I would agree with these words of advice: “If you’re OK with starting out doing $8 gigs for ordering a fast food meal, then chances are great that you can begin right away. The higher paying shops, however, are usually reserved for those with experience.” So, get that initial experience under your belt and earn the few odd dollars while doing it. The goal, after all, is to build the skills to count on this as an easy way to take in extra cash.

Keep in mind that working for the best mystery shop companies also means that you are incredibly detail oriented, good at following instructions to the letter and never taking shortcuts. Most legitimate secret shopper companies ask you to provide them with a lot of very specific details. For example, one expert said that “companies expect a lot of detail, down to the temperature of the coffee you ordered and exactly how many minutes you waited before being greeted by an employee.”

Yet, that is actually a mild example! Consider that you might have to remember names of staff, what they wore, what they said, what food tasted like, how loud the music played, and so much more. So, use those first lower paying gigs to really hone your skills.

Also remember two major factors:

  • You don’t earn money unless you spend it – Most mystery shoppers have to cover their own expenses. This can include travel, food purchases and even the purchase of the item to be reviewed. For the most part, you don’t get reimbursed for 30 to 90 days, and not all expenses are covered. If you have a problem with any of that, you will find yourself less successful in the field.
  • Payment can depend upon performance – Though it is meant to be freelance, your performance is still a big part of your compensation. No, no one stands looking over your shoulder, but if you cannot track the names of your service staff, you forget to leave the tip required, you indicate you are a secret shopper or otherwise fail to perform as indicated, you may not be reimbursed at all.

And if you don’t want to wait to be doing an actual gig before mastering the skills needed, the MSPA can provide you with certification. This sort of certification is never required by an employer, but it is an ideal way to get the kind of training and basic understanding needed to do well right from the start. They have a “silver status” option that is a sort of pass right to the front of the line with many of the best mystery shop companies. They might even reserve the highest paying gigs for those with this credential.

Of course, you need to actually identify the best mystery shop companies in the first place, and we’ve cut out a lot of the legwork for you. Currently, the best firms include:

Best Mark


Market Force


Each of these firms requires you to first apply and then start choosing the mystery shopping jobs you would like to tackle. The way you are paid varies by the company, but most give you basic instructions about the job and how to submit the data needed. You will then be paid by check or even direct deposit.

Keep in mind that you can also earn mystery shopper pay for work that is not even mystery shopping. After all, a lot of the best mystery shop companies now have gigs that don’t ask you to do any shopping of any kind. From oddball tasks like assessment of headstone cleaning to evaluations of merchandising, you might find any number of mystery shopper friendly assignments on the job boards from the firms above.

And What About That Pay?

Okay, so now we have to take some time to consider the details about mystery shopper pay from the most legitimate secret shopper companies. As we’ve already considered, you need to be able to float your out of pocket expenses until you are reimbursed. You also have to read the job description closely to understand just what is (or is not) reimbursed.

After all, some shops only give you a partial reimbursement on the item or service, and typically any tips are not part of your compensation. That means you need to deduct that from the amount of flat rate pay listed to get an accurate picture. Remember too that you are in charge of your taxes as the legitimate secret shopper companies never set aside payroll expenses or view you as an actual employee.

Also remember that the shop itself may not be all that is required. In fact, it is rare that the task is simply to do the shop because you typically need to report to the company for which the gig was done. Expect 30 minutes or more of your time “post shop” to complete and submit the proper reports.

With that in mind, you can expect to earn anywhere between $5 and $25 for your gigs, but as you progress up the ladder, you can expect to earn a lot more.

Naturally, if you are in an urban area, it is likely that there will be a large number of shops and opportunities. Rural locations are less likely to have the need for mystery shoppers, but the best mystery shop companies do have opportunities almost everywhere, so don’t skip it even if you are an hour or more from the nearest mall.

Remember too that working for legitimate secret shopper companies is a highly competitive issue. You have to check in regularly if you want the best gigs – and especially if you are in an area saturated with shopping sites and fellow mystery shoppers. And don’t forget that the more gigs you do, the more appealing you are to potential employers. As I said, register and get certified with the MSPA for the strongest odds.

Now, not a lot of people discuss the relationship between your mystery shopper pay and your communication and writing skills, but there is one. The best mystery shop companies respond well to those who communicate clearly in their reports and who can follow the instructions to the letter. If a report is flawed or incorrect, you may see your pay or reimbursement disappear. So, if you are someone who already struggles with reading instructions or writing well, take time now to sharpen those skills. Not only will it ensure you get ongoing work, but by improving these areas, you shorten the amount of time needed to complete jobs – ensuring you make the most from each shop.

Getting Started as a Mystery Shopper

You now have all you need to get started as a mystery shopper. Take the time to get certified and learn the basics. Then, register with the best mystery shop companies and start with simple gigs. You will be surprised at how fun and easy it can be, and soon you could be earning a steady stream of regular income in your spare time. You can work mystery shops into lunch hours, as you run errands during your free time or weekends, and much more.


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