This post is from new GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Living With Less personal finance column for MSN Money, and writes about frugality and intentional living at Surviving And Thriving.

Two persistent rumors about mystery shopping:

  • It’s a scam.
  • It’s not a scam — and you can get rich doing it!

Allow me to set these rumors to rest:

  • Mystery shopping is not a scam. (Well, sometimes it is. More on that later.)
  • You won’t get rich, but you can make a little extra — plus get free stuff.
  • You should never pay for mystery shopping info.

My daughter Abby has been doing “shops” for a decade, and I’ve done them off and on for six years. We’ve gotten free steaks, hotel rooms, oil changes, booze, pet food, lodging, nights at a casino, rental cars, and molten chocolate cake.

Not that it’s all frou-frou stuff: Shops exist for things like vision exams, oil changes, vitamins, pet checkups, bone-density testing. You could get paid to drink microbrews, test-drive a sports car, visit an amusement park, or shop for groceries.

As a mystery shopper, you’re paid to be the eyes and ears of a restaurant, a specialty store, a hotel. That means legwork. You have to fill out multi-page reports (and if you do it wrong, they won’t pay you).

But the more shops you do, the better you get at it — and the more likely that shop providers will call and offer you first pick.

Don’t ever pay for it
Recently I received e-mails from two different companies asking me to mystery-shop. Both told me to “register” with my bank-account, credit-card and Social Security numbers. Riiiight.

Two legitimate sources for mystery shopping are Volition.com and an industry group called the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Both have lists of companies that offer jobs by region.

Don’t expect to be sent to a pricey steakhouse right off the bat. You’ll have to take lower-end gigs (fast food, coffee shop) to prove yourself. In fact, you may even have to do a make-believe “sample shop” to prove you can write in the style they request.

About that style: “The waiter was really good” doesn’t mean much. What made him good? Did he offer to start you off with something to drink? Did he check back during your meal to make sure everything was OK? Did he tell you the tofu is made in-house?

A specific list of things to watch for will be provided to you. Very specific, as in “Did your glass ever become less than half-full?” or “Did the rental car agent offer you the satellite radio option?”

You may be asked to follow a script, i.e., become a good liar. For example, my daughter was told to go to a pet-food store and say she had two dogs. At the time, she didn’t own so much as a goldfish.

At times you’ll be sent to places normally out of your league. Once, Abby was sent to a pricey-chic clothing store and allowed up to $30 worth of purchases in addition to the shop payment. The only two things she could get were a keychain or a pair of $27 bikini underpants (honest!).

10 reasons that mystery shopping is a frugal hack

  1. Unemployed or underemployed? Sign up for as many restaurant shops as you can.
  2. Seeking new specs? I’ve seen vision-care shops that reimburse $100.
  3. Got kids? Take them to the water park or a pizza joint on someone else’s dime.
  4. Hotel shops are a mini-staycation. The pool, the room service (you will probably be required to order it), the novelty of having a telephone in the bathroom…OK, so I’m easily amused. You might be, too.
  5. Parents aging? Look for shops of retirement homes/assisted living facilities. If nothing else, this might give you an idea of where not to put Mom and Dad.
  6. Too broke to date? Invite that special someone to a night at the casino.
  7. Living the car-free life? Use auto-rental shops to visit a friend who lives two towns over. Go to the pet-food warehouse and buy giant sacks of kibble. Hit the warehouse club for six months’ worth of toilet paper.
  8. Want to treat a friend? Take him out for a glass of wine.
  9. Need to send money to a relative, either as a gift or repayment of a loan? Watch for shops that pay you to get money orders.
  10. Want to go downtown? Find one or two parking-garage shops. This means not just parking reimbursement but an extra $10 or $20 toward whatever you want to do. (A frugal culture hack, maybe?)

What’s in it for you?
For most restaurant shops, the fee is small or even nonexistent — you’re generally in it for the free lunch. For others, the pay range is generally $10 to $35 plus product reimbursement.

However, I’ve earned as much as $95 for a banking assignment that took several visits. Some shops have bonuses because they’re due immediately (another shopper flaked out, leaving the provider in the lurch).

Three things you’ll need:

  • A separate e-mail account. The notifications can pile up pretty quickly. Check it regularly because the popular shops go fast.
  • A watch that times in minutes and seconds.
  • A PayPal account. Some companies reimburse only electronically.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? It is and it isn’t. How many times have you raved to your pals about a great restaurant or groused about a crummy one? This time you’ll be doing it in writing. It’s like Yelp, except that you get paid (or at least fed) to do it.

If you’re strapped for cash but still love the mall, then mystery shopping gives you a little money to feed your hobby. The temptation to keep spending might be strong, however, so consider choosing assignments that don’t have anything to do with your weaknesses (sports cars, nickel slots, really cute shoes).

Nobody gets rich doing this. But it’s a way a little cash to do things you might want to do anyway, such as having lunch out or wandering through a nice store. Or marveling at $27 underpants.

GRS is committed to helping our readers save and achieve their financial goals. Savings interest rates may be low, but that is all the more reason to shop for the best rate. Find the highest savings interest rates and CD rates from Synchrony Bank, Ally Bank, GE Capital Bank, and more.