The idea of “being my own boss” is appealing to many people. Whether you’re a mother, a student, senior citizen, or just someone who likes to have control over her working life, the notion that you can have flexible hours and an income directly tied to your own money making ideas is attractive. Unfortunately, the self-employment / work-at-home field is filled with people who make their money by scamming others. Mystery shopping is no exception.
First, remember: mystery shopping itself is not a scam! Every day, thousands of people visit stores, restaurants, hotels, apartment complexes, and other businesses and get paid to shop by filing detailed reports on the quality of their experience. Companies use this information to improve their customer service. Mystery shopping is not a highly-compensated job; most people earn a little extra money and some “treats,” such as free restaurant meals. Getting started is fairly straightforward. However, to do so, you may need to dodge a minefield of scams. Here’s how to spot them…
1. Be Skeptical
Ironically, one of the reasons why scammers continue to be successful is that, most people are fundamentally honest. They would never try to take someone else’s money under false pretenses, and so they can’t imagine anyone would do this to them. But they will. Always view mystery shopping advertisements, and other money making ideas, particularly if they are unsolicited, with a jaundiced eye and investigate them using the following hints.
2. Don’t Get Greedy
We hate to break it to you, but you are not going to make thousands just by visiting a few shops and spending an hour or two on the computer per month. By and large, mystery shopping pays only small amounts for each shop, sometimes as little as $5. To make any real money (perhaps $1,000 per month) as a mystery shopper, you need to do lots of shops, cover a lot of ground, work in a large urban area, and put in the time and effort to build your reputation as a reliable source. Often you’ll need to play a role, or use hidden audio or video equipment. This is hard, time-consuming work. Anyone who tells you differently is very likely a scammer.
3. Never Pay to Play
In this, the most common type of mystery shopping scam, you’ll be asked to pay money up front to add your name and resume information to a list of shoppers. Other scammers may ask you to purchase training materials, agency lists, retail lists, or other money making ideas which you could easily find on the internet for free. Sometimes, you’ll actually receive a (usually worthless) product. Most often, they take your money (or worse, your credit information) and run. The files of the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and every Attorney General’s office in the country are bursting with complaints made by people who ponied up money, thinking they were going to get a job. Make this your cardinal rule: Never pay to play!
4. You Can’t Take it to the Bank!
In this scam you, the victim, are sent a packet of supposed mystery shopping materials and your first assignment: to take the enclosed cashier’s check to a bank, cash it, and wire the funds to the supplied address. To make sure you don’t think too much about this, you’re given a firm, quick deadline and told that future employment is contingent on your prompt action. In another version, you’re given a cashier’s check and told to use it to “secret shop” Walmart’s “MoneyGram” system by wiring the money to a fictional relative in another country. In both cases, the cashier’s check is a forgery and you end up being held liable when it fails to clear, while the scammer still collects the money you unwittingly sent. Make it your policy to never cash a check or wire money if the sender or recipient is unknown or unfamiliar to you. And if you do receive an offer like this through the mail, contact your bank and the local authorities. You won’t be the only one, and by alerting community officials, you may spare a less savvy person financial heartache.
5. Check the Contacts
Most scammers are clever enough to make their contact materials look professional. Look closely for suspicious hints, such as poor English, bad photo quality, and unrealistic claims. Search for the company online; if you find no web presence, it’s a bad sign. Make sure that the contact information on your material is identical to that on the website. Never be afraid to actually use the contact information on the website; a legitimate company wants to hear from you, and if their name is being used for a scam, they’ll want to know.
6. Do Your Research
The internet is an invaluable resource for chasing down mystery shopping fraud. Whenever you consider working with a mystery shopping or scheduling agency, search for it online and in mystery shopping forums. What is its reputation? What have others experienced? Does it appear in lawsuits, news stories, or Snopes? Be aware that scam companies change their names repeatedly, so if you’re not finding anything, ask for advice from experienced members on mystery shopper forums. Still unsure? Go with your gut and refuse the offer- money making ideas should never cost you more than what you’re willing to give.
7. The Government is Your Friend
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Protection Agency in your area, and your state’s Attorney General make it their business to locate and prosecute scammers. If you have a question about a particular business, believe you have been contacted by a scammer, or have actually fallen for a scam, contact them.
8. … And so is the BBB
Remember, anyone can stick a bogus BBB badge on his website. To truly check out a company’s status with the Better Business Bureau, call your local office, as well as the office in the company’s own community. Staff there should be able to tell you if complaints have been filed against it. However, finding no complaints is not a guarantee that a business is legitimate. Remember, scammers change their company names constantly in an effort to stay ahead of the law; it’s possible that they have no claims because none have yet been filed.
9. Ask Your Mom… No, Seiously…
Or your spouse, big sister, best friend, or Great-Aunt Patty. Sometimes, we want something so badly that we’re blind to its dangers. You may really need the money in that cashier’s check. You may wonder if the offer you received in your e-mail or saw in the paper isn’t a hint from God. Do yourself a favor and first consult someone whose judgment you trust. They want the best for you and, because they’re not emotionally invested, they’re more likely to pick up on warning signs which you’re unable to see.
10. Go to the Source
Finally, realize that, if you really want to pursue mystery shopping, there is a professional organization you can turn to. The Mystery Shopping Providers’ Association (MSPA) website contains a list of hundreds of reputable shopping and scheduling companies for you to choose from, as well as a certification program and job boards. Of course, you should research any company you’d like to work for, using the methods we’ve discussed. But you’re much better off going with a company listed here than with one who recruits shoppers via signs on telephone poles.
It can be hard to detect a scam especially with the wealth of money making ideas online; that’s why there are so many of them. But when it comes to mystery shopping, you are now well-armed. Be cautious, do your research, follow your gut and you can stay safe as you begin your mystery shopping career.