Getting paid to tell lies: Mystery Shopping as a frugal hack

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.
    1. Seeking new specs? I've seen vision-care shops that reimburse $100.
    1. Got kids? Take them to the water park or a pizza joint on someone else's dime.
    1. 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.
    1. 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.
    1. Too broke to date? Invite that special someone to a night at the casino.
    1. 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.
    1. Want to treat a friend? Take him out for a glass of wine.
    1. 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.
  1. 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.

More about...Frugality, Side Hustles

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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

I’ve always wondered about secret shopping, and have been curious to try it myself.

I think I would have a problem with lying though. I’m a pretty honest person, and I don’t think I would be able to tell an employee that I had two dogs when I’ve only walked a few dogs in my lifetime.

Also, you didn’t mention any compensation. Is the only benefit the free stuff? Or do you actually get paid as well?

Wanda
Wanda
5 years ago

It’s not so much lying as playing a part. You are playing the part of a real shopper.

Charlene
Charlene
1 year ago

You aren’t mandated to take a shop, so you do not have to choose a shop that doesn’t apply to you.
I’ve done many shops and have done them honestly. It is just a little money, so I’m not in it for that, it’s just a fun little project for me right now.

Marsha
Marsha
9 years ago

She said the compensation was usually between $10 and $35 in addition to the free stuff (but restaurants it was usually just the free meal), and that she made $95 reviewing a bank.

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

I presume they reimburse you for expenses after the mystery shopping occurs. How much do you generally have to “front” ahead of time for purchases? I could see things like hotels and steakhouses being pretty pricey, if you don’t get reimbursed promptly.

Don Bode
Don Bode
5 years ago
Reply to  Nancy L.

Using your own money could be a concern for a newbie secret shopper. There are a couple of redeeming factors that you might have overlooked or were not aware of. When our company posts an assignment as available, (1) the maximal reimbursement amount is listed as well as the (2) fee paid to the shopper to conduct the assignment. Armed with this information, there are two considerations that will ease you into the business. One: use a credit card when possible for the purchase (being sure to pay the card charge as soon as you receive payment from the shopper… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
9 years ago

Great post, although I would have liked to have read more about the “scam” aspect. The “More on that later” turned out to be just 3 sentences about not supplying your bank account, credit card, or social. People should know that there is a VERY common “mystery shopper” scam that involves recruiting people to “mystery shop” a wire transfer store. They take all your information, send you official looking forms and everything. They ask you to visit a particular Western Union and wire $x,000 to a particular individual (“Keep your receipt, don’t worry, you’ll be reimbursed”), and write up a… Read more »

Nick
Nick
9 years ago

I worked in retail during college and I remember thinking that using “mystery shoppers” was a very sneaky and underhanded thing for an employer to do. As an employee it basically says to me “we don’t trust you to actually do what you’re supposed to be doing, so instead of being better managers, we are going to spy on you.” Not a very good way to build a trusting employee-employer relationship. The time and effort they spend on this would be better put to use providing incentives and other perks that help keep their employees happy – which also keeps… Read more »

Don Bode
Don Bode
5 years ago
Reply to  Nick

First of all I feel I must apologize for my competition who goes into the retail establishment/restaurant/etc. looking for the good, the bad and even the ugly. Yet, in their defense, as retail service companies, we get continual requests to provide a service that looks for negative situations(rude service, theft, etc.).

At the Consumer Research Group, our practicing mission is to catch people in the act of dazzling their Customers with exemplary service and provide reward and recognition for their efforts! We believe this positive approach is a primary factor in our 22 years of servicing the Retail Business sector.

Jason
Jason
9 years ago

I heard about this a year ago and signed up with a company and promptly forgot about it. About a month ago I got an email about doing a shop at a restaurant. I was surprised at *how specific* you have to be about things. And you can’t use subjective words to describe things. It took about 3.5 hours to do the writeup. In the end, I got a free* lunch with a friend in a restaurant I like and will go back to. It’s a fun gig, but it’s probably not worth the low per-hour pay to make a… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

I’ve seen a few free movies out of it, but I just don’t have enough free time to mystery shop. When I retire, maybe I would do more just for entertainment.

Michael
Michael
9 years ago

I second Nancy L’s question #3:

I presume they reimburse you for expenses after the mystery shopping occurs. How much do you generally have to “front” ahead of time for purchases? I could see things like hotels and steakhouses being pretty pricey, if you don’t get reimbursed promptly.

Daria
Daria
9 years ago

I did mystery shopping for retail stores. Most times they required me to buy something that they weren’t reimbursing me for. I was allowed to return it, but I had to wait a minimum of 30-60 minutes before I could say that I changed my mind. I would use that time to sit in my car and make notes because I then had to go home and type up the visit on their survey site. Then I had to scan my receipts and email them in. The hourly wage was way below minimum wage when you considered the time to… Read more »

James
James
5 years ago
Reply to  Daria

If you don’t mind me asking whom did you work for?
I am having trouble find a legit source to shop for that actually reimburse your funds.
Thanks for ur time.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  James

I’d recommend starting with the two sources noted in the article, Volition.com and the Mystery Shopping Providers Association.
Good luck!

Liz
Liz
9 years ago

I’ve been mystery shopping for 10 years or so. It’s not just reporting on an employee, though. It’s things like “there is no coat/purse hook on the stall door in the women’s restroom” and “the restaurant was cold — several customers were overheard complaining that it was too cold to sit and eat.” Both semi-real examples of things I have reported over the years. There are questions about garbage cans being emptied and windows cleaned, as well as were you greeted politely within xx seconds of entering the store and did the person who waited on you give you their… Read more »

First Gen American
First Gen American
9 years ago

Retail stores used to use them all the time. I was mystery shopped twice when I worked in the mall.

sjw
sjw
9 years ago

Kevin @4 – this lead to an amusing conversation I had. Apparently when legitimate wire companies want to do a mystery shop, the companies that manage mystery shopping projects are unwilling to take the study.

Liz
Liz
9 years ago

I would just warn newbies to make sure a shop seems “doable” before you sign up. I once did one where I had to make a reservation for dinner – at a casual brewpub that did not, as a rule, take reservations. Since reservations were a requirement of the assignment, we made them – and then the reimbursement was refused because the reservation had outed us as shoppers!

Use your common sense, was the lesson there.

Rachel
Rachel
9 years ago

I have been mystery shopping for about 10 years now. I started when I was in college to get to eat at nicer restaurants. I really enjoy doing the shops. I do a variety of shops. As for getting paid for the shops, almost all of them require you to pay for your meal and then after you submit your receipts and your approved report, you are reimbursed 6-8 weeks later. I signed up at each mystery shopping company’s website and kept track of which company I applied with to make sure that I was approved. I also kept a… Read more »

JusFrugal
JusFrugal
9 years ago

Just one point to make, like with any additional ‘income’ you may earn make sure you keep detailed records. You won’t be taxed on what you receive for your reimbursed items, but any payment you make mystery shopping IS taxable and you need to report it… the company paying you certainly will! Always put 30% of your earning aside just in case you have to pay Uncle Sam, since most companies treat you as an independent contractor and do not take taxes out of your paycheck.

Sasha
Sasha
9 years ago

@#5: Nick

The information secret shoppers provide show the customer’s point of view of the things management has already implemented. For instance, if the word from on high is that CSRs should tell the customer where an item is vs. walking them to the item and asking if they need anything else, a secret shopper can say they had a hard time finding the item, etc. It’s not “spying”. It’s evaluation. From what I understand, secret shopping only provides data to make the customer experience better and helps the employee provide the service that keeps ’em coming back.

Jenn
Jenn
9 years ago

My husband and I mystery shopped a chain of wireless phone stores for about 5 years, and I have to agree with the other shoppers above. It is WAY more work to write up the reports than this article makes it seem. It is NOT like writing a review for Yelp. You have to be very specific – I had a checklist with 75 things on it I had to check off then write a paragraph on each one. Try just REMEMBERING 75 things! I used to spend a total of 3-4 hours on a shop, including the time spent… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

“Or marveling at $27 underpants.”

But I always buy the $27 (not bikini) designer underpants.

Teresa A
Teresa A
9 years ago

I was a mystery shopper for a couple of years. I made a few bucks, enjoyed a few free overnight hotel stays. The thing to point our here is that you are paid rather poorly for what is expected (lengthy, extremely detailed reports) and while you are getting a free meal or hotel stay, you are very limited, and you ARE working the entire time. Free goods at a retail shop usually means $3.00 to $5.00 compensation to buy something in a store that doesn’t have anything for $3.00 to $5.00 bucks. Atleast not anything you want or need. There… Read more »

billie
billie
9 years ago

I do occasional work as a secret shopper for a consumer publication. My advice is to keep records of everything. I don’t know about other companies, but the one I do work for seems to forget to pay me once in a while. Then I have to keep hassling them to send the check (no direct deposit). Honestly, I’m wondering if it’s even worth it (as I’m waiting now for a job I did months ago).

Cindy
Cindy
9 years ago

I also have been mystery shopping for about 6 years (Liz, your write-up would be very similar to mine!). Point is you will not get rich doing mystery shopping. I make it a point to schedule something when I know I’ll be in the area (like visiting a travel center) since I’ll be there anyway, or when my annual eye appt is due (for me and my family). Yes, some of the shops are for reimbursement, but some are not. For example, the eye exam will pay a set amount, regardless of what I spend, and since my insurance pays… Read more »

Morgan
Morgan
9 years ago

I’ve been on both ends of the secret shopper spectrum (some days I’d use my lunch break from the retail store I worked at to go shop another retail store). My first few shops took a long time to write out, but once you get used to the format and the types of things to look out for (even in different types of shops), the process goes much more quickly. The few extra bucks I made here and there helped me pay off debt, but now I only do shops if there’s a substantial bonus – $10 is just not… Read more »

Ace
Ace
9 years ago

I’m a long-time mystery shopper as well. Most of the shops I’ve done are fairly simple–McDonalds, Arby’s, etc. You typically get paid $7.50 plus the cost of the value meal, just for reporting if the place was clean and if the cashier suggested this month’s promo. I’ve also done shops at gas stations (how’s $10 of free gas?) and at some higher end spots. One of my favorites was dinner for me and a guest at Bennihana’s, with a reimbursed budget up to $98. The best shops are things you do anyway. I found a shopping company that has Kroger… Read more »

Ace
Ace
9 years ago

Another follow-up post: Volition.com is a great resource. It’s basically a directory of mystery shopping companies. Companies I’ve had a good experience with include Service Intelligence, MarketForce, MSI, National Shopping Service, SecretShopper.com, and Shoppers Critique International. Many companies specialize in local or regional clients–not everyone can have McDonalds. What this means is that you may sign up and find that there are never any listings in your area. If that happens, just try another company. Also, shops are typically released the first part of the month. That means that if you sign up and log in on the 20th, you… Read more »

Briana @ GBR
Briana @ GBR
9 years ago

I’ve been looking for a way to get into mystery shopping, so thanks for posting your trusted sources. Hopefully it can be a side gig I can get into in 2011 🙂

Joe M
Joe M
9 years ago

Is your time really only worth $5 per hour?

ali
ali
9 years ago

When I worked retail sometimes we’d get a heads up that secret shoppers might be coming through in the next month (or so) and to be sharp about everything.

@ Nick it’s really not telling on anyone, it’s an evaluation method to find out if everyone in the store is doing what they should. And to find out if there are problems that shoppers see that people inside the company might not.

Sometimes corporate can’t know if things are going smoothly in stores and need outside eyes.

Ace
Ace
9 years ago

@ Joe M – No. Most shops are not worth the money standing alone (but some are). However, if you can combine a shop with something you’re doing anyway, it’s definitely worth it. I do an occasional McDonalds shop. I need to eat lunch anyway–may as well get paid for it. Same with the grocery shops I do.

Other times I get to do something I’ll enjoy but usually don’t budget money for. I’ve eaten out a few times at Outback Steakhouse, for example, thanks to mystery shopping picking up the bill.

Ace
Ace
9 years ago

Following up on Nick’s comment: Not every mystery shop program is the same. I once did a series of shops for a sub sandwich chain. They sent me a $10 Visa gift card and a small “congratulations” certificate. I went to the restaurant to order a sandwich, and if the employee did three pre-set things (mention the special, upsell, and thank), I was to pull out the certificate and gift card on the spot and present it to the employee. That was a fun one. It make the employee’s night and in my opinion was a great incentive program.

Mike B.
Mike B.
9 years ago

Agreed — it’s not worthwhile as a primary job if you have a real income option. I shopped on the side while I was in grad school — the extra ~$80/month was a nice boost to a college student’s income, not to mention free lunches. (Particularly the ones that require both dine-in and drive-through — eat lunch in the restaurant, take your notes and run another errand or two, then get dinner at the drive-through and stick it in the fridge!) I generally shopped fast food and occasional gas stations, office supply stores, etc. I stopped once I graduated and… Read more »

Andy Hough
Andy Hough
9 years ago

I do mystery shopping for extra income. It isn’t too much money but I only do the shops I like or that have big bonuses. Most of the shops aren’t worth doing at the starting rate. It would be a difficult to make a living at it.

I did do a movie shop this weekend that paid $130 but it was over two days and took a lot of time.

Cindy
Cindy
9 years ago

Mystery shopping….I love it! Yes, I will never get rich doing this. but, it’s something to do in my “spare time”. I enjoy picking up the restaurant shops and smaller retail shops. I have yet to do a hotel shop but am hoping for this in 2011. I’ve only had problems getting paid for an apartment shop I performed. It took over a year for the company to pay me. Needless to say I perform no shops for that company now. I especially enjoy the internet and telephone shops. I can sit in my pj’s and get paid to surf… Read more »

Bill
Bill
9 years ago

#6 is Too broke to date? Invite that special someone to a night at the casino.

It sounds like a good comedy bit.

Milehimama
Milehimama
9 years ago

This is the only way we eat pizza nowadays. It’s not money for nothing – I have to fill out a report, detailing if the person answering the phone told me about a promo, what the weather was like, if the delivery guy thanked me for my business. All of my mystery shops have required digital photos, so (for me) a digital camera is a requirement, as is a printer to print out the forms that need to be in the pictures. The pizza is a good gig- you wait for it to come to you and make much more… Read more »

Thad
Thad
9 years ago

Did restaurant visits in the UK while I lived there and it was pretty nice. But, here in the USA, I question the economics of them … Are you keeping track of your additional expenses? Gas? Use of vehicle? Public Transit? For instance, here in the DC area, if I did what I did in Oxford, it could cost me anywhere from $5 to $25 to pay for metro or parking. Yesterday, went into the District with my mom and the Metro alone cost us nearly $9 per person to get in, get around, and get home. Also, in the… Read more »

Sydney
Sydney
9 years ago

Mystery shopping is something I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time or energy to invest. While this obviously won’t work for everyone, it is a good thing. Mystery shopping helps keep sales associates and store on their toes and gives shoppers a chance to earn something back.

Brandon
Brandon
9 years ago

I did this for years and it was good some gigs and bad for others. Sometimes you have to take the bad gigs for the month to get the good ones. The best ones at the time I was doing it was the Target shops. You received $50 for evaluating whether or not a employee asked you for help and how long it took for them to do it. Then when they did ask, you gave them a $50 voucher they could redeem with their manager. If the register employee asked if “you would like to save 15% on your… Read more »

Chris
Chris
9 years ago

I think the previous comment says a lot. If you have to drive all over town, buy a bunch of junk you otherwise wouldn’t, and make only about $15, is it really worth your time? Especially when there is about a 99% chance the company that is soliciting you IS a scam, the benefits are simply not worth the cost. I have never met in real life anyone that was paid to shop, however, I have met quite a few people that have lost a ton of money from these schemes.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago

#38 Chris: “I have never met in real life anyone that was paid to shop, however, I have met quite a few people that have lost a ton of money from these schemes.” Well, I’ve never met anyone who was paid to play professional baseball — but that doesn’t mean such people don’t exist. My daughter and I have both been paid to shop, and that we did not have to buy junk we wouldn’t otherwise have bought. In fact, we have gotten things we WOULD have bought anyway, such as free oil changes or downtown parking. We’ve gone out… Read more »

Mike- Saving Money Today
Mike- Saving Money Today
9 years ago

My wife signed up to be a mystery shopper but she never got past the “testing” phase with nothing but fast food and other things she wasn’t interested in.

sara
sara
9 years ago

I’m interested in learning more about becomeing a mystery shopper. Do I have to provide my social security # to the companies? What personal information do they need?

Charlie F
Charlie F
9 years ago

Sara, yes, they require your SSN. They require all the information you’d find on a W-2 or 1099. I did mystery shopping for a little bit a couple years ago when I was in college. I think a lot of the opportunities have to do with what location you’re in. Now, that I’m in Flint, there aren’t any opportunities that I’ve seen on the sites I’m signed up on. When I was attending CMU, though, there were a few, but it was mostly Cigarette shops, where I’d go and attempt to buy cigarettes without a driver’s license to see if… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago

@Sara #41: They will need SSN info to pay you. However, do *NOT* respond to e-mail offers for mystery shopping. There’s one going around right now (which I referenced) that is a pure scam. If one of these con artists gets your SSN and your bank info, you’re sunk.
Go through the two places noted in the article — Volition.com or the Mystery Shopping Providers Association — to find legitimate companies.

Gloria
Gloria
9 years ago

My first job, at sixteen, was at a national fast food chain in Southern California and the employees (including myself) were always fearful of a mystery shopper coming in.

I’m not sure if the company used a third-party, but we would get copies of the mystery shopper write-up and the manager would reprimand an employee if there was a “bad” review…no wonder we were all fearful.

We would get a new review every couple of months and the company/franchise took them very seriously. So I can see why they would want a detailed review from mystery shoppers.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago

@Gloria: These reports are extremely detailed, but all the questions correspond to company policies that supervisors (allegedly) teach to employees. Things like, “Did your beverage glass ever become less than half-full?” or “Were you greeted within 30 seconds of arrival?”
It used to annoy me when I would order a burger and fries at McDonald’s and the employee would say, “Would you like to add a hot apple pie to that order?” Now I realize that they’re just doing what they’ve been told to do: Up-sell. I’m sure it’s no fun for them.

Charlie F
Charlie F
9 years ago

@Donna, you’re right. That’s what we did (back when I worked at McD’s). It just becomes routine. When I worked there I was mystery shopped twice. It’s really interesting to see feedback on what you did during the shop. I got a 100% both times. 🙂

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago

@Charlie F #46: My daughter worked at a movie theater as a teen. One night she was “shopped” and later her supervisor told her she’d be given an extra $5 or $10 (I forget which) in her paycheck that week because she had done everything right.
This was in 1995 dollars, of course, so it meant a little more then than it would now.

Charlie F
Charlie F
9 years ago

That’s a great incentive for employees to do the right thing every time. It’s really hard to tell who’s a shopper and who isn’t (unless you’ve been one yourself).

L Dutt
L Dutt
9 years ago

I respectfully disagree that a life can not be etched from mystery shopping. I think it may depend on where you live. In a large city I made 800.00 plus a month, not including free eye exams, 100.00 off of glasses, exotic dinners at a VA resport area, free oil changes and free ice cream. (yum) One company called me every month to check if their products were in date. I made a ton of cash on that assignment. I think it is like anything else. Slow to start, people need to know they can count on you. Well written… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
7 years ago

I did this for a few years and my conclusion is that it is a total waste of time and effort. You will work for less than minimum wage when you calculate it. ( and if you are doing what your supposed to pay taxes on it too) You will have these companies owing you money for months so you could eat for free? Just use a radio station discount, Groupon or Living Social if you want to eat out for less.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
7 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Sorry your experience wasn’t great. Mystery shopping doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for many.

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