Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Truth About Mystery Shopping in Las Vegas

Have you ever wondered if mystery shopping was a legitimate job? I recently found out the truth about mystery shopping, and the answers were surprising.

Since I’m a freelance writer, I look through the online job boards frequently. A couple of months ago, I was scanning the postings when I saw an ad for mystery shoppers (also known as secret shoppers). My son, who was hanging out in my office, saw it too. "It would be great to get paid to shop," he said.

"What the heck," I said. "Let's see what they have to say."

The job posting didn't ask for anything fishy. They didn't want my social security number or any kind of payment, so I sent them an e-mail asking for more information.

Now, I know that online job listings are loaded with scams. That's why I don't spend too much time looking for work on Internet job boards. I evaluate ads based on three points:

  • Is there a business or website name? No name often indicates a scam.
  • How bad is the grammar and spelling? All uppercase text, numerous misspellings, and outrageously bad grammar are not good signs.
  • What wage are they offering? Wages that are ridiculously high are usually scam bait.
The only point in the ad that raised any of these warning signs was the lack of a business name. When I got an immediate response to my email, something else caught my attention: the payment for a mystery shop was over $100. That seemed very high, so I started doing some research. And in an  email back, I asked for the business' name, address, and website.

My research turned up some interesting facts. Did you know that Nevada's mystery shopping regulations are the strictest in the United States?  If you want to become a secret shopper in Las Vegas, you must be a licensed private investigator or the qualified employee of a licensed PI. You have to have a special permit to legally perform mystery shops in Nevada. Legitimate mystery shopping companies in Nevada are very upfront about these requirements. Fines for illegal mystery shopping start at $2,500 and go up.

And that tempting $100-per-shop wage? The Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America posts legitimate secret shopper jobs—most of which pay $25 per shop or less.

My son was crushed to hear the results of my investigation.

The person at the other end of my emails—I'll call him Mr. X—had already sent me the details of my first "assignment," which required me to cash money orders and wire the funds out of the country. In response to my questions about his business, he invented a really bad fake business name and told me their website was down. I emailed him that I was no longer interested in his mystery shopper job.

Mr. X didn't take this news well. His next email was peppered with threats about breach of contract.

I wrote back to tell him the regulations about mystery shopping in Nevada. And that his money-order-cashing scheme was an old and well-known scam. And not to contact me again.

Two days later, two money orders arrived at my house. The next step in my mystery shopper experiment: a drive to Metro.

Metro referred me to IC3, an online complaint center that works best if you have actually been victimized. I wasn't a victim of anything, so I had no luck with them. A little more digging turned up Consumer Fraud Reporting, which lists several agencies you can contact about Internet fraud and scams. Anything sent through the mail can be reported to the United States Postal Inspector, which was where I wound up… although nothing ever happened. I received an automated phone call to let me know they had my information, and that was it.  

I suspect Mr. X is still out there, looking for uninformed and desperate people.  

Have you ever responded to a mystery shopper ad? Or do you do legitimate mystery shopping? Either way, I'd love to hear about your experience. 
Photo courtesy of Helga Weber


Emily S. said...

Very interesting post! I can't believe he would write you back and threaten breach of contract, and that he then sent you money orders!... I wonder how many people fall for these schemes.

TH Meeks said...

I think a lot of people are really desperate for extra income these days, and that's what people like Mr. X are counting on. I think he probably thought the temptation of seeing those big, juicy amounts on the money orders would work better than threatening me. But he was wrong.

nina marsh said...

I just to do it for a while when i was a student. I would not say its proper earner but i helped me out with my travel expenses

TH Meeks said...

Nine, I've known a couple of people who were legit mystery shoppers. It always sounded like fun to me & a good way to pick up extra cash. Maybe it's because one of my high school jobs was retail security. :)

BestMark said...

BestMark is currently looking for already certified mystery shoppers for Nevada because we have a lot of shops across the state that need to be filled each month. If you are interested and certified as a private investigator please fill out the free online application to become a mystery shopper here: http://shop.bestmark.com/

PamInCa said...

The Independent Mystery Shoppers' Coalition will gladly help anyone interested in working in our industry get started at no cost simply by emailing us at info@imscinfo.com. There are 1.5 million mystery shoppers in the United States at any given time.

There are less than two handfuls of mystery shopping companies that can legally shop in the state of Nevada due to the regulations set forth by the PILB board.

There is a huge demand for great mystery shoppers in the state of Nevada and the IMSC would love to help those interested find the great companies to work for and answer any questions they might have.

We will be holding our next conference in Las Vegas at the Tropicana this November. Again, feel free to reach out to us if we can be of assistance.

PamInCa said...

The Independent Mystery Shoppers' Coalition will gladly help anyone interested in our industry get started for free. Simply email us at info@imscinfo.com and request information.

There are 1.5 million mystery shoppers at any given time in the United States alone.

Nevada has a huge need for great mystery shoppers and since there are less than two handfuls of companies who can legally perform mystery shopping in Nevada, you want to make sure you know who to turn to.

We will be holding our next conference at the Tropicana this November and the majority of the Nevada companies will be present.

Again, feel free to reach out to us via email and we will send you free information on how to get started.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lady you've saved me soooo much time! You and your work are appreciated!!

TH Meeks said...

You're very welcome! Glad I could help. :)

Ebony Lawrence said...

Hi so what if someone cash these money orders or checks and don't know what's going on what happens

TH Meeks said...

@Ebony, great question. You are left holding the bag for the amount of the money order. The bank that cashed the order will come after you.

Here's a Snopes post about how these & other similar scams work:

Anonymous said...

I was a mystery shopper. The amount of money you make is not worth your time, if you are looking for extra income. Mystery shopping is more of a hobby. If you shop restaurants, you get a free meal, but those shops are very detailed. You need to time the service, check the bathrooms, etc. And not let anyone catch on that you are mystery shopping. Retail shopping is simpler, but you only have a small $10 allowance to spend. So either you spend your own money and look at the $10 as a discount, or you end up buying a lot of socks. Retail shops will probably also ask you to purchase something and then return it immediately. Then there are jobs where you shop banks, and pay day loan kind of businesses. With the banks you deposit or withdraw from their business account. With pay day companies, they could ask you to purchase a money order or file out a form for a loan, but not go through with the loan. I didn't care for that one, and I was working through a trusted company. And the biggest part of Mystery Shopping is filling out the online shopping forms. If you don't like writing, or consider it one of your skills, Mystery Shopping is not for you. The forms require a lot of details. And if you don't write fast, they are time consuming. Just know that the bigger the shop, meaning more interesting and/or more money you are paid or spend at the shop, the longer and more detailed the forms. Overall, it was an interesting job and if I were retired with nothing else to do, I'd do it again for fun. :)

TH Meeks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TH Meeks said...

@Anonymous, you're spot-on when you say it's really more of a hobby. Thanks for the description!

Anonymous said...

I've done secret shopper work. It has never made me money in a way that I would consider it a job. I would get reimbursed for the amount I spent and then some token amount for writing up my observations and answering their questionnaires. Many of them were restaurant secret shops that would pay for a friend and I to go out to eat. Pretty nice, huh? Well, after getting home I would end up spending about 2 hours completing the paperwork to get reimbursed. Not worth my time. The companies I worked for were legitimate.

Greener said...

Does it pay a little better in Nevada because you have to be licensed? If So I already have my pi card and I owned a franchised restaurant that used secret shoppers.

TH Meeks said...

@Greener, I recommend checking with some of the legitimate agencies to see what they're paying. One thing to remember is that you have to be licensed in NV, so if you're coming from out of state, you'll still have to go through licensing here. The PILB people are the people to talk to about that.

I just posted an update to this story that includes a link to one of the legitimate Las Vegas mystery shopper agencies:


Teasergg said...

Wow. Learn something new everyday. Crazy scams.

Anonymous said...

I mystery shopper years ago and found (back than) it was a nice part time job. Get rich? Hardly, but stay busy and make some money? Yes. Very doable.