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Is Mystery Shopping a Scam?

Updated on November 17, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I write about employment issues, ways to earn money and how to get best value when spending it.

Some of These People Are Secret Shoppers

Oxford Street, London, UK
Oxford Street, London, UK | Source

What is Mystery Shopping?

Secret shoppers are used by companies to get unbiased feedback on their goods or services. Real customers are quick to complain when there is a problem, but are less vocal when they receive excellent service. Using mystery shoppers to report on their experience is one way for management to get a more rounded view of what is actually happening in-store.

Shopping research is usually carried out by a specialist firm on behalf of a retail client. It is the market research company that recruits you to a team of secret shoppers or field agents. You may never know who the final client is. Often you are carrying out market research on competitor stores rather than on a client’s own.

Anyone can be a mystery shopper. It all depends what aspect of their business a company is seeking to measure. For example, they may want to test how disability-aware their staff are. They would therefore recruit people with a genuine disability. A disabled person could comment on how helpful staff are and how accessible the premises are for those with a disability.

Some Warning Signs of Secret Shopper Scams

Avoid Scam Mystery Shopping Jobs

The Golden Rules
1. Never pay to register with a company.
2. If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.
3. Do not wire money. Ever. (Even if they have sent you a check).

1. Never Pay to Join a Mystery Shopper Job Register

Genuine market research companies will never ask you for a fee. A common scam is for you to be asked to send a small amount, say $30 to $50, for “guaranteed” field agent opportunities. You send the money off and then you either hear nothing further, or you are sent a list of companies which you could have accessed for nothing online. The scammer benefits from tens of 1,000s of people returning these small amounts. He rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars and then simply disappears.

I cannot emphasize this enough. You should never pay to be a mystery shopper. The money should flow to you, not away from you.

Applying to become a secret shopper is just like any other job application. A legitimate research company will ask you to complete an application form. You will be need to pass some theory and practical tests. These can include a practice mystery shop in the real world. These tests enable them to assess your observational and writing skills. The best paid mystery shopper jobs are able to recruit the most talented people.

Are You a Mystery Shopper?

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2. Does it Sound Too Good to Be True?

You will see lots of ads for field agents and mystery shopping roles. Beware! Many of these are placed by scammers and con-artistes. They prey on people’s desire for flexible working hours or on those who need to earn some extra money. Reputable market research companies rarely place adverts as they have a steady stream of applicants contacting them direct via their websites.

There is a regular scam where a company promises to send you a large check in advance of a secret shopper job “to cover expenses”. You pay the check into your account, but then have to send some money back to them to pay “a transfer charge” or similar. The scam is the check bounces. The money you sent has already left your account and the recipient cannot be traced. You are left out of pocket and liable for additional bank fees if your account is now overdrawn.

The video below describes how people fall for this con. Remember the old adage; if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The Mystery Shopper Check Scam

3. Do Not Wire Money

Another scam is where you are offered a secret shopper job supposedly to test a money transfer service. You are sent a check which you are instructed to pay into your personal account so that you can withdraw cash against it. You are then told to wire the cash to a third party using a reputable service like Western Union or MoneyGram.

There is no secret shopper job. The check is a dud and will bounce. By the time your bank tells you this, the cash you have wired is long gone and cannot be recalled. The con artiste has triumphed again.

A Secret Shopper Has to Blend Into Their Surroundings


Why Be a Secret Shopper?

Pros: Some of the benefits of being a mystery shopper are as follows.

  • You may be paid a fee to visit shops and restaurants and also be reimbursed for the items you buy.
  • You have the flexibility to work as few or as many hours as you like.
  • You may be offered expensive goodies like free gym memberships or a free holiday.

Cons: The downside is that more people want to do this kind of work than there are genuine opportunities available.

  • Fees and expenses paid are reducing as more people compete for the work.
  • The paperwork you must complete after each visit can take longer than the visit itself.
  • As you are self-employed you must keep receipts and record income and expenditure for your tax return.
  • There is no guarantee of steady work, or indeed, of any work.

How to Find Legitimate Secret Shopper Jobs

Don't do business with mystery shopping promoters who:

• Advertise for mystery shoppers in a newspaper’s ‘help wanted’ section or by email.

• Require that you pay for “certification.”

• Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.

• Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities.

• Sell directories of companies that hire mystery shoppers.

• Ask you to deposit a check and wire some or all of the money to someone.

— The Federal Trade Commison

Further Information

Mystery shopping is not a scam, provided you work for a reputable company. Be alert to the fact that the jobs are by their nature, ‘secret’, so it is easy for scammers to hoodwink you.

In the US, if you think you’ve seen a mystery shopping scam, file a complaint with The Federal Trade Commission.

In the UK, report suspicious secret shopper scams to your local Council’s Trading Standards Department.


Submit a Comment

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 4 months ago from The Caribbean

    Thanks for the information and the scam warnings. I did mystery shopping and got two assignments before I grew tired of waiting. It may be more fun in areas where assignments are plenty.

  • Fullerman5000 profile image

    Ryan Fuller 4 months ago from Louisiana, USA

    Working and managing several years in retail I always seemed to get a great report when they did mystery shopping. But I always hated the fact that they did this. Because one experience should not rate an entire operation.

  • Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

    Beth Eaglescliffe 4 months ago from UK

    Hi Jodah, I agree, mystery shopping can be fun and sometimes pays well. Sadly more people are chasing fewer opportunities and this leaves the field wide open for scammers.

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 4 months ago from Queensland Australia

    Hi, Beth, I used to work as a mystery shopper and quite enjoyed it for awhile. It paid ok or I received free meals etc, but when I moved to a new location all the assignments involved just one or two stores. I felt the staff were getting to know I gave it up. There are however a lot that are scams.