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The secrets of mystery shopping

The secrets of mystery shopping

Published: 08/11/2011 by Broward Family Life staff

» Family Finances

Consumer advocates warn against come-ons for jobs as “mystery” or “secret” shoppers.


Do you love to shop? If so, you may be tempted by unsolicited emails or newspaper ads that claim you can earn a living as a secret or mystery shopper by dining at elegant restaurants, shopping at pricey stores, or checking into luxurious hotels. But, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), marketers who promise lucrative jobs as mystery shoppers often do not deliver bona fide opportunities.

What is mystery shopping?

Some retailers hire marketing research companies to evaluate the quality of service in their stores; these companies use mystery shoppers to get information anonymously. They assign a mystery shopper to make a particular purchase in a store or restaurant, for example, and then report on the experience. Typically, the shopper is reimbursed, and can keep the product or service. Many professionals in the field consider mystery shopping a part-time activity, at best. And, they add, opportunities generally are posted online by marketing research or merchandising companies.

What are the scams?

Fraudulent mystery shopping promoters are using newspaper ads and emails to create the impression that they’re a gateway to lucrative jobs with reputable companies. These solicitations usually promote a website where consumers can “register” to become mystery shoppers — after they pay a fee for information about a certification program, a directory of mystery shopping companies, or a guarantee of a mystery shopping job.

The truth is that it is unnecessary to pay money to anyone to get into the mystery shopper business. The shopping certification offered in advertising or unsolicited email is almost always worthless. A list of companies that hire mystery shoppers is available for free, and legitimate mystery shopper jobs are on the Internet for no charge. Consumers who try to get a refund from promoters of mystery shopping jobs usually are out of luck. Either the business doesn’t return the phone calls, or if it does, it’s to try another pitch.

In another version of the scam, consumers are “hired” to be mystery shoppers and told that their first assignment is to evaluate a money transfer service, like Western Union or MoneyGram. The shopper receives a check with instructions to deposit it in a personal bank account, withdraw the amount in cash, and wire it to a third party. By law, banks must make the funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks. Individuals are responsible for the checks they deposit, so if a check turns out to be a fake, they are responsible for paying the bank back. Never deposit a check from a stranger, especially if they ask you to wire money.

The facts of mystery shopping

Don’t get taken. Becoming a legitimate mystery shopper for a legitimate company doesn’t cost anything. Here’s how:

• Do your homework. Check libraries, bookstores, or online sites for tips on how to find legitimate companies hiring mystery shoppers.

• Search the Internet for reviews and comments about mystery shopping companies that are accepting applications online.

• Don’t pay a fee to become a mystery shopper. Legitimate companies don’t charge people to work for them — they pay people to work for them.

• Never wire money as part of a mystery shopping assignment.

You can visit the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website at to search a database of assignments and learn how to apply. The MSPA offers certification programs for a fee, but you don’t need “certification” to look — or apply — for assignments in its database.

If you think you have encountered a mystery shopping scam, file a complaint with the Florida Department of Consumer Affairs ( html) the Florida Attorney General’s Office (, or the FTC ( or 1-877-FTC-HELP).

This article was prepared by the Federal Trade commission in an effort to protect consumers from fradulent, deceptive and unfair business practices. For more information, see