Advertisements for secret shopper jobs seem to be everywhere these days, from employment boards to unsolicited texts and email messages. While mystery shopping may be an easy part-time source of income, the industry has more than its share of scams and shady employers.
Is it worth it to become a secret shopper? If you do your research and choose a fair and legitimate company, working as a mystery shopper can be an easy way to make extra money.
What Is Mystery Shopping?
Mystery shopping began in the 1940s when companies hired people to determine if a store or bank employees were acting ethically.
Today, businesses hire mystery shoppers to find out how customers and sales clerks (or customer service reps over the phone) interact. You may also be asked to gauge how easy-to-use websites are for clients.
All types of businesses need people for mystery shopper jobs. They include clothing stores, fine-dining restaurants, hair salons, home improvement centers, fitness centers, amusement parks and fast-food restaurants. Business owners want to know if employees are performing their jobs correctly, and they may also want to discover how to improve work procedures. Mystery customers help companies find out how to improve their services.
The best mystery shopping companies may hire you to do one or more of the following tasks:
You provide information to determine if a store, restaurant or company discriminates against shoppers of a particular race, ethnicity, age group or religion.
You attend a conference, concert or other events and provide the mystery shopping company with a critique of the overall experience.
You book an airline ticket or buy a product online and provide information about the experience. (Ease of navigation, clear instructions, website forms, email response time, etc.)
Purchase and Return
You return an item for return or exchange and evaluate the experience.
You call a company or order a product or ask for information and report back on the experience.
You fill out a questionnaire about your past shopping experience.
According to JobMonkey, the most successful shoppers have the following qualifications:
- Enjoy working with people
- Flexible work hours
- Ability to complete reports promptly
- Excellent communication skills
You’ll also need “acting” ability to portray a shopper interested in a certain item/service.
How Much Can You Earn?
Mystery shopping earnings vary, depending on the company you work for and the type and length of the assignment. Earnings from this line of work can provide you with a decent supplemental income, but it won’t pay all your bills.
Online or telephone secret shopping offers housebound or disabled people a great way to add to their income.
Secret shopping assignments are quite easy, and anyone can do them. You'll get free products or services in addition to a cash payment. The freebies range from a free restaurant meal to free gasoline from a service station.
An assignment, or “shop” as it's called in the industry, can pay as little as five dollars. You can earn a good supplemental income if you find accessible, consistent shops. For many people, the perks, such as free meals, oil changes or cruises, offer more of an incentive to get into this line of work than the small cash payments.
Some people have earned as much as $14,000 a year from mystery shopping, but this is an exception, not the norm. You’d need to register with several legitimate companies and spend a lot of time traveling to and from shops to earn that much money. Few people have the time or inclination to do that.
Secret Shopping In-Store vs. Phone
Independent callers can make calls to businesses and ask questions about services and prices. These shops pay per call, and you can earn up to $2 a call depending on the assignment.
In-store shopping requires you to travel to and from a store, which can take a lot of time (and gas money or bus fare) depending on where you live. You can earn money by in-store shopping if you live near a shopping mall or retail district.
Phone or online shops may be better for you if you live in a secluded area far from malls or stores. In-store shops or restaurant shops offer perks like free meals or even products in some cases. A free meal or free day at a health club may be worth the drive, even if the shop lacks a substantial cash incentive.
Many companies reimburse you for restaurant meals, and the upfront cost, along with driving to and from the restaurant (and parking costs, if applicable) can be too pricey for some shoppers.
You may need to spend more time documenting your experience with in-store shops. Take this into consideration if you’re the impatient type.
Payment can be delayed on more complicated in-person shops, and this may be a factor if you need to be paid right away.
Best Mystery Shopping Companies
Below, you’ll see a round-up of the best mystery shopping companies out there right now.
Best Mark’s clients include Fortune 500 companies and Global 500 companies. They belong to the Mystery Shopper Provider Association (MSPA) and offer scam alerts on their website. The company, founded in 1986, has over 500,000 field workers.
Reviews of Best Mark from present and former workers vary, from scathing to positive. Several people mentioned receiving a scam email purported to be from Best Mark. Avoid scams by registering directly with the company on their website. It may be likely that some of the bad reviews are based on experiences with scammers, no the real Best Mark.
Best Mark has been accredited with the Better Business Bureau since 2010.
Market Force belongs to the MSPA, Better Business Bureau, and received the MSPA North America Shoppers' Choice Award in 2016. They serve over 350 clients and have offices in the U.S., Canada, UK, France, and Spain.
With over 100,000 shops a month, Market Force offers plenty of work for independent contractors. The company offers retail, restaurant, hospitality, grocery, gas station and retail banking assignments.
You can register as a theater checker or CFA (Certified Field Associate) and watch movies for free while checking the customer service offered at theaters.
The Colorado-based company received two positive and four negative reviews from contractors on the BBB website.
Based in Carey, North Carolina, Confero Inc. has been in business since 1986. They offer phone, web, video and in-store shops, customer exit interviews and performance consulting.
You’ll have plenty of industries to choose from if you work for Confero. The company serves retail, banking, health/medical, automotive, restaurants, supermarkets and entertainment.
Confero pays via PayPal or direct deposit only and does not issue paper checks. Some clients require prospective shoppers take a test to qualify for the assignment. You can register to be a Confero shopper here.
There has been only one complaint about Confero on the Better Business Bureau website, and the company pays twice a month. Some contractors have had a problem with slow or no payment. Confero, like several other companies, has been a victim of the check in advance scam.
A Closer Look
A Closer Look offers secret shops in restaurants, retail, hotel, health and wellness, transportation and home improvement. The company has been in business for over 20 years and prides itself on having contractors who work for an average of 8.5 years.
This market research/ undercover shopping service tests all prospective applicants before allowing them to do their first shop. Testing ensures that contractors have excellent writing, verbal and comprehension skills. Apply for work at A Closer Look, and once your application is approved, you can do your first shop.
Contractors lacking MSPA certification need to complete lesser assignments before becoming eligible for higher-paying shops.
Reviewers praise ACL as one of the top-secret shopping companies. Aside from occasional late payment, contractors have no major complaints.
Intelli-Shop provides web, brick-and-mortar and phone mystery customers for businesses. This research company serves over 60 industries, including legal, home goods, food service, retail, museums, clothing and government agencies. Intelli-Shop can be a good fit for you if you like variety in your shops.
Fill out the shopper application, and you can start looking for assignments on the company’s job board. You’ll get better shops if you have Gold or Silver MSPA certification, or if you have Hero Citations for shops well done.
The Intelli-Shop website has a TalkShop blog and forum for shoppers to learn more about assignments.
Accredited by the Better Business Bureau in 2001, Intelli-Shop has an A rating with 3.46 out of 5-star rating.
GAPbuster, also known as GBW, is headquartered in Australia with 400,000 shoppers and auditors worldwide. The company, founded in 1994, serves the automotive, retail, grocery, telecom, entertainment and banking industries.
The GBW website has an alert regarding scammers who pose as company representatives and send emails to unsuspecting individuals. Ignore emails that come from domains other than gbwsolutions.com.
GBW pays monthly. Apply for an independent contractor position as a shopper and completing the orientation and training modules.
Reviews from contractors show that GBW sometimes brands completed shops invalid for no real reason (according to the reviewer) and that they pay late or not at all. Many of the negative reviews are from non-U.S. shoppers.
Experience Exchange (In-Touch Insight)
Experience Exchange (In-Touch Insight) has been listed as one of the top-secret shopping companies on several review websites. But there is not a lot of information available online regarding the company.
The company, founded in 1992, provides shops and research for multi-location businesses. It has offices in Chicago, Charlotte, Ottawa and Montreal. Industries covered include retail, convenience stores, and restaurants.
Log into the company’s website after your application has been approved to look for assignments.
The company received a B- rating from the Better Business Bureau and lacks BBB accreditation.
A secret shopping service in Arvada, Colorado, Amusement Advantage has been providing guest experience solutions since 1996. Clients include Celebration Station, Water World, and New England Aquarium. As the name implies, Amusement Advantage focuses on amusement parks, zoos, aquariums, bowling centers and similar establishments.
Apply online only, and beware of scammers sending fraudulent emails and posing as company employees. The company pays via PayPal in 21-28 days and values shoppers who are MSPA-certified.
The Better Business Bureau gives Amusement Advantage an A plus rating, with one negative review.
GFK Mystery Shopping
GFK offers mystery shops in the U.S, U.K., and Ireland. The U.S. headquarters are located in New York City. The company performs shops and research for the retail, automotive, entertainment, health and financial services industry.
You can sign up as a shopper here. The GFK website lacks much information about contractor qualifications, payment or other information on the general site. You need to register as a shopper to learn details about payment and work requirements.
GFK receives mixed reviews. Some contractors enjoy the assignments but say shops may be sporadic. Others claim completed reports are labeled “Invalid” and unpaid even when done correctly.
Offering online, onsite and over-the phone evaluations, this MSPA member company offers shopping apps and has Better Business Bureau accreditation.
This mystery customer service organization, founded over 25 years ago, serves most industries that need employee or service evaluation.
Possible shopping contractors can connect with the company via this link to apply for work.
Unlike many other companies, payment is by check. Most assignments pay between $12 and $25. You may be reimbursed for a meal as pay for restaurant assignments. You must submit all shops online.
This legitimate Minneapolis-based company offers information on avoiding scams. Online and text scammers have sent emails and texts to unsuspecting contractors posing as company reps.
Second to None
Second to None offers market research and mystery customers in the retail, government, education, e-commerce, restaurant, financial service and healthcare fields. Founded in 1989, Second to None provides secret customers to help clients refine the shopping or dining experience for “real” customers. The company also offers compliance audits, customer surveys, and employee feedback.
Fill out a brief shopper application to be added to the company’s database.
Participants on one shopping forum complained about late payments and lack of jobs near their region. Although Better Business Bureau accredited since 2009, the company’s BBB page has no reviews.
Mystery Shopper Scams to Avoid
Unscrupulous individuals or organizations spoof legitimate companies or pose as secret shopping companies to rip off independent contractors seeking legitimate work.
Scams come in the form of unsolicited texts or emails offering work. Many recipients fall prey to fake correspondence because they recognize the name of the company. Always check the address of the email sender to make sure it comes from a legitimate company domain, and not from a .edu or foreign email address.
Unscrupulous promoters may use internet or newspaper ads that request a fee for information about performing as a mystery customer for companies. All the information you need is readily available for free on the web.
No legitimate company will charge you for information about the industry, company lists or ask for an application fee.
Other scams involve evaluating a money transfer service. You’ll receive a check, and be instructed to deposit it in a bank account and then withdraw the amount in cash.
You'll then be told to send the money to a third party. Any assignment of this nature is a scam. The check is a fake, and you'll be responsible for paying back the bank. A legitimate secret shopping business will never send you a check before you complete a shop.
Be wary of any company that requires you to do any of the following:
- Charge a fee to apply for or access jobs
- Sell lists or information on how to become a mystery shopper
- Ask you to deposit a check and wire money to someone else
- Guarantee a job immediately
Find a legitimate job in the field by:
- Look at online sites for tips on how to find secret shopping companies
- Check review sites and forums for information about legitimate companies and scams
- Real companies will never ask for fees
The MSPA website has a list of legitimate companies that belong to their organization. Check out these companies first to find work.
The MSPA has legitimate certification programs, and you will need to pay a fee for these certificates. However, you can apply for shopping companies and complete shops without a certificate.
Some companies will offer better assignments to you if you have an MSPA certificate, but you can also land better assignments without a certificate by completing lower-paying assignments.
Use common sense if you receive an unsolicited email or text regarding a shopping company. Ignore the correspondence if it has grammatical and spelling errors, as many scam emails do.
Find shops by applying on legitimate company websites. Avoid ads, even ones on job boards. Many job boards don’t have time to check for scam posts. Go directly to the source for the best shops.