These secret shoppers are stay-at-home parents, retirees, teachers and other professionals hired to help companies keep an eye on everything from product quality to cleanliness and friendly service. They provide insight and evaluate employee performance for companies in all sorts of industries. They work full or part time, with pay as much as $25 an hour or more.
"Mystery shoppers are the guardians of brands," says Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology: The Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. "They provide instant feedback from the consumer frontlines. One small observation that means nothing to a mystery shopper could cause a major overhaul of the strategy and product lineup of a powerful Fortune 100 company."
See also: Great at-home jobs
But before you take the plunge, be sure you're dealing with a legitimate firm and not a scamster. Regulators warn of unsolicited texts and emails offering mystery shopping jobs that don't exist. The schemes often require that you pay money upfront — a sure sign of fraud — or fraudsters send a bogus check to cover expenses with instructions to deposit it and wire some of the money back. Walmart, for instance, posts a warning of such scams on its website, stating that it doesn't use mystery shoppers.
Despite that, many major U.S. retailers use some form of mystery shopping, with companies spending more than $600 million annually on the service, says Ellyn Fill, vice president of Market Force, a mystery shopping company based in Colorado with more than 600,000 shoppers worldwide.
Those who do it are attracted to the job for a variety of reasons, including the intrigue.
"Mystery shopping is kind of a cross between being an actor, an undercover FBI agent and a childhood tattletale," says Pam Freedman, a former mystery shopper from McLean, Va. "You get to do something completely different from your everyday life and get paid for it. It's also a chance to treat friends without denting your wallet, as most of the dining and drinking assignments require a partner."
After being laid off from a long-time career in public relations, Holly Hartz was hired as a mystery shopper with StellaService, which evaluates customer service at online retailers.
"It was a great conversation starter at parties when people asked me what I did. I was learning new skills and helping consumers make more informed decisions about which sites to shop with great customer service," she says. Hartz's skills led to a quick promotion to full-time manager of mystery shoppers in the San Francisco bay area, a position she now holds.
Dale Blosser quit his day job in 1991 to become a full-time secret shopper so he could make a living doing what he enjoys — traveling, staying at great hotels and resorts, and dining on good food and fine wines. He has evaluated everything from McDonald's to Nordstrom, from vacuum cleaner stores to topless bars, airport security, parking lot attendants and retirement centers, as well as top resorts.
Blosser now runs his own business as a professional hotel guest. Most of his clients are three-, four-, and five-star hotels, restaurants and resorts.
"Being a hotel guest is a sophisticated profession," he says. "Mystery guests must be very well-traveled and have discriminating tastes. Our fees exceed $1,000 and sometimes are much higher."
Blosser is frequently asked to evaluate nearby competitive hotels to discover rates, policies, amenities, strengths and weaknesses. He also is tasked with integrity tests to uncover internal theft.
Mystery shopping, though, has downsides. It's not a traditional job, so income can fluctuate from month to month, and some companies take as long as 60 days to pay you, says Tim Murphy, a secret shopper in southern Oregon.
Almost all mystery-shopping companies are managed online, so this work best fits people who check email and are comfortable using an online system.
"What's great is that once registered, shoppers will receive emails automatically based upon the ZIP code they specify on their profile," says Mary Furrie, who owns a national mystery shopping company based in Rochester, Ill.
Demand is high for a diverse pool of quality shoppers and new assignments come out daily, says Dan Denston, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, or MSPA.
To avoid being scammed, it pays to know the signs of legitimate shopping companies from those that aren't.
Companies on the up-and-up don't charge a fee to apply. Generally, once you are under contract with a company, you will be asked personal information such as bank deposit details. Never pay to register as a mystery shopper or give any credit card information.
Payment is remitted after the assignment is complete. No legitimate company will send you a check out of nowhere and ask you to cash it. If you are approached by a company, it is likely not legitimate, Denston says.
"One of the challenges that the industry faces is that so many of the scams originate outside the U.S.," he says. His association works with regulators and the Better Business Bureau when it becomes aware of scams, he says.
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