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