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Becoming a Mystery Shopper

women with shopping bags

You’ve probably seen the signs or ads which promise that you can make hundreds of dollars every month by shopping and going out to eat. And you’ve probably though it was too good to be true.

Well, those advertisements are likely a little over-the-top and just designed to get you to sign up for some overpriced list which you can find yourself with a little searching online. But Mystery Shopping is a very legitimate source of income and in many area, the jobs are plentiful and the pay is good.

Erin recently emailed me about her experiences with Mystery Shopping:

I heard about the idea of “mystery shopping” a few years ago, when my husband was in between coming home from a tour in Afghanistan, finding a temporary job, and returning to Active Duty Military. We needed a little extra cash, and this seemed to work well with my schedule.

At that time, I only had my son, but I’ve continued to do these shops with my second child. There are some very simple shops that pay $5 and $10, all the way up to more complex shops that pay out up to $200!

I also have taken on jobs that have compensated me for meals that my family and I have eaten. I get paid very quickly and I have never had any
problems with any of the sites I’ve used. A few of them are:

Mystery Shoppers Provider Association
Beyond Hello
Kern Scheduling
National Shopping Service
Trend Source

Again, these are all real businesses. I have done jobs for every single one of these companies and have been paid for all of my work. -Erin

When I first began mystery shopping, I signed up for all of the legitimate mystery shopping companies I could find. I opened up a separate email account which was dedicated to mystery shopping emails and used that when I signed up. It took me hours to sign up with all of the companies and it was quite time-consuming.

If you’ll thoroughly fill out all the applications and have patience, you’ll likely begin to see quite a number of job opportunities sent to you. Many times, these jobs are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, so you’ll want to check your email for job openings a few times each day and be quick to respond to any which you are interested in.

Most mystery shopping jobs pay between $7-$15 and include some sort of reimbursement as well. I have done lots of fast food shops, casual dining, high-end restaurants, gas stations, beauty supply stores, pet stores, and even a bowling alley, to name a few. I found restaurant shops to be my favorite as they usually not only reimbursed for a meal for myself and my husband, but they also usually paid at least an extra $10 for the work involved. It was very worth it to me to get a nice free dinner date with my husband plus some cash — all for about 30 minutes of extra work!

One very important caution: DO NOT PAY TO MYSTERY SHOP! Legitimate jobs or companies do not require that you pay a fee to join or be accepted as a mystery shopper. There are many scam companies out there charging fees for lists or supposed job opportunities which are nothing that you cannot find yourself by applying to the companies listed above.

A good mystery shopper is someone who is attentive to detail and thorough in everything they do. In addition, it is very important you keep accurate records and follow instructions carefully.

Mystery shopping is a lot of work–especially in the beginning when you are first learning the ropes–but it can be a fun and rewarding experience which also can help supplement your income.

If you’re looking for even more recommendations for legitimate mystery shopping companies, check out this Facebook post with great info from readers who are experienced mystery shoppers!

Have you been a mystery shopper before? If so, I’d love to hear your tips and advice for someone who is considering dipping their toes into the world of mystery shopping.

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  • Jeremy says:

    I’ve done mystery shopping before at restaurants and loved it. I would do it in college at Ham’s and Sagebrush and would always have enough to take a friend. We’d both eat for free, and I’d get an extra $10. I never had any problem getting paid and honestly I got more offers than I had time for. I kept getting sent to the same places, but it gave me a chance to try all the menu options at a profit. If you are just thinking about trying it out, definitely do it. It’s incredibly easy and it’s fun taking your friends/family out for free.

  • Great article! We have done mystery shopping as well. We posted an article last year about how to make money by mystery shopping, along with the companies we use and have been paid by here:

  • Thanks for the wonderful article. I have been a mystery shopper for over 9 years. You can make a decent second income doing this, or just ad a little money to your budget. I have done some of both over the years. Some years made almost $10,000 and worked a lot, and other years only $3,000, but it really helps when your in a pinch. Some shops are odd and you will need to buy stuff you might not need or want, but I always stock up for Christmas or Birthday presents this way. Great way to get reimbursed some money on your grocries, gas, and household supplies. One word of warning, if you can’t type it will be not worth your time for most. That is unless you have time to learn and will learn fast. SOme shops are simply not worth your time, (drive 20 miles to buy 2 gallons of gas and get paid $5.00 plus the gas. Then go home upload 7 pictures and enter the report.) Things like this seem good at first, but if it takes you 1 1/2 hours is it really worth your time? Know if I am driving by the place anyway, I would take it, but to drive there just for the shop it would be a pass for me.
    Over the years I have helped over 20 people get started, none are still shopping today! It takes a special person and money to put out for most shops as well. It can take from 2 weeks to 3 months to get your money back and paid. Not a get rich quick type of thing. As you said NEVER PAY TO GET ON A LIST OR BE HIRED BY A COMPANY. THEY ARE THE FRAUDS!!

  • Tammy Fine says:

    We make a minimum of $500 a month Mystery shopping and Merchandising mostly through marketforce.

    Good stuff!

  • Taryn says:

    Can you give an example of what a mystery shop would entail? I’m completely clueless. Do you just go shopping and then rate your experience? More details would be fabulous.

  • Erin says:

    I got on Beyond Hello and in the registration process they are asking for a SS#. Did you have to do this and is if safe?

  • Jenna says:

    I have worked for some mystery shopping companies successfully, but have found many of them to be way to much work for the time.

    Here are a few warnings I would give:
    -Do not work for any company that requires your Social Security number to be submitted online. I was the victim of a pricey identify theft scam due to this, even though it was a legitimate company.
    -Factor in your gas cost for jobs. MS companies do not pay for gas or mileage, so you can end up losing money by travelling too far.
    -Be aware that you will have be put up money upfront for almost every shop. For instance, if you have a restaurant shop, you can end up spending $50, and average time for payment is 1-2 months.
    -Be extremely cautious about the shop details. If you do not complete jobs exactly to company specifications, you will not be paid or reimbursed. Several of my friends have ended up losing money because of this. They would put out the money for the dinner, then not be paid because they forgot order dessert, or get the manager’s name, etc.
    Good luck!

  • deanna says:

    I actually did my first mystery shop yesterday through GfK Mystery Shop ! It was for a large DELIVERED pizza. They reimbursed for the pizza, the tip and paid $3 for performing the shop.

  • I’ve only done it for a grocery store in my area. They made phone calls to the neighborhood shortly after the store was in business. They did a survey every 3-4 months, and I would need to answer the survey over the phone (I had to write down my shopping experience while I was there and look for specific things). I got a $5 gift certificate to that grocery store each time.

    They haven’t had any surveys for a long time, but while they did, it was really nice!

  • ms 13 says:

    the one question i have is that often mystery shopping and online survey companies (such as pinecone) ask that you pre-qualify – which is a lot of time considering for some reason i dont actually qualify for the survey! do any of you have the same issues?

  • Verity says:

    My sister was a mystery shopper for a few years when she quit her full time job to stay home with her two girls. In addition to local jobs, she would look for jobs available while traveling, visiting grandparents and such. Her favorites were the pizza delivery places-she could actually earn money and feed the whole family for free (she had to order 2 large pizzas for each job and was reimbursed in addition to her job fee.)

  • Caren says:

    I’ve done a fair amount of mystery shopping over the past five years, but I now limit myself to the more lucrative shops. My favorite shops are through Beyond Hello. They do primarily optical shops. I have done shops at Pearl Vision, Lenscrafters, Sears Optical, etc. I get a great deal on eye exams and glasses for my children and me. Anyone with questons can email me a cmbugay (at) yahoo (dot) com.

  • Jen says:

    I have done several mystery shops and I enjoy it. Crystal, your comments, as well as Erin’s, are spot-on. It is important to be VERY CAREFUL to follow all of the directions closely- often you will need to buy an item that fits a certain criteria, or submit your report by midnight the same day (for example), and if you don’t follow their directions you risk not getting paid. But don’t let that scare you! Just be extra careful the first few times until you get the hang of it. I took some shops that were local grocery stores where my only compensation was reimbursement for the $10 or $15 in groceries I bought- I could buy anything I want- that was fine by me 🙂 Another note on the Mystery Shoppers Providers Association (MSPA)- it’s a great site for helping you find legitimate companies, but you do NOT have to join their group (it costs money) to get mystery shops. I did not join and I get plenty of work.

  • tina b says:

    I currently do mystery shopping every few months. The company I shop through only has a few companies in the area that they work with, and the only one I “qualify” for is a restaurant, so I can only shop there once every three months as a mystery shopper. But, it’s a very yummy restaurant, and my husband and I get to eat for free when we go! 🙂

    My question for you (or anyone else) would be with regard to working for multiple companies…I’ve signed up with a few in the past, but they always require that you ONLY shop with them, otherwise they say it’s a conflict of interest. I wish I could shop more often and in different places, but I don’t want to break the rules :/

    Thanks for posting about this!!

  • CJ SIME says:

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. I have been trying to find legit companies and trying to get into MS for a while. Thank you for this post!

  • Christy says:

    Our family does mystery shops for eyewear. Six members of our family wears glasses, so it has been a BIG help. The mystery shops help us to cover some of the costs. We use Beyond Hello for the shops.

  • Erin says:

    In the registration process on Beyond Hello it is asking for my SS#. Is this normal?

  • Alissabeth says:

    This is interesting information. Do you advise starting up on this with the pending legislation actions?

  • Missy says:

    Is it okay to give my social security number when applying? Is that normal?

  • zina says:

    I have been doing this for over two years now. I love it and appreciate the pay. even if it’s a little if you keep it up you can make some nice cash. It is not the money that I love the most, It is the reimbursement. I love getting free grocery that I will have to buy anyway. I love getting free gas that I will have to buy anyway. Try to sign up with as many companies as you can. I go to school full time and this is the best thing to do to get some cash. I can fit 2 to 3 shops a day in my time. I generate about $400 to $500 each month + the reimbursement…… ( A lot).
    You need to be patient. I started with $10-$60 a month but I kept signing up with many companies everytime I found one. I will never quit MS even after I get my degree in engineering. It is so much fun.

  • Jim says:

    The way my wife and I love food, this could be VERY dangerous 🙂

    Hmm…the idea of giving my SS# does give me pause…

  • Dan says:

    For posters asking about giving the SSN, I would definitely advise against it.
    Like the earlier poster, I too had a problem with identity theft online. The only place I had posted my SSN was giving it to a couple of mystery shopping companies, even on “secure” sites.
    As for the companies listed, I’ve had a good experience with National Shopping Service.
    I would not recommend MarketForce, also known as ShopnChek. I completed several shops for them successfully. Then I did one fast food, completely according to the instructions. The fast food chain got a bad report (the place was dirty with slow service), so they challenged my shop. Market Force took the companies’ side, even though there was no proof. I was not paid for the shop. That means, I was out the cost of 2 meals, plus my gas cost, plus the fee that I was counting on.
    I think the biggest problem with mystery shopping is that you have to put out your own money in advance. Every company I have seen makes ME pay for the food or merchandise then wait to be reimbursed. The problem is, if your shop is not accepted, you not only lose your fee, you are not reimbursed. You can really lose money this way.
    Thanks for the info.

  • zina says:

    You have to submitt your SS after you make $600 with a company or more. You have to pay taxes on this income, this is the only way they keep track.

  • Becky says:

    I have done MS for several years, but have slowed down the last couple of years because I am just too busy at home with my kids. We enjoy the restaurant shops because they equal free meals plus pay. I think I may just try to add some shops back into my schedule…
    Just make sure that you read the directions thoroughly before doing the shop and pay attn. to details, names, time, etc.

  • Carrie says:

    I signed up with a shopping company and first did a shop where I had to return the merchandise after buying it — I did not feel that was worth the $12-$18 it paid.

    However, the same company sent me to a toy store where I could spend $20 and keep the toy, plus the $14 payment. That was great! Since then I have shopped the same store about four times and always been able to get a great child’s birthday or Xmas gift.

    Thanks for listing all these companies in one place — I had to do a lot of research to find a legit company when I was looking for one.

  • Jen says:

    I thought they had to have your SS# for tax purposes. Is that true?? Crystal, I have to say again….I LOVE YOUR SITE! Thanks for doing this series as any little bit of income is such a help right now. Thank you for all you do!!

  • They need your SSN for tax purposes! You have to report that income.

    That said, be careful. I write for a freelance company and was leery at first but a friend who also writes for them assured me they were legit.

  • Michelle says:

    You can opt to defer giving your SS#. Once you elect to do a job you would have to provide it in order to be paid. It is the equivalent of your tax identification number, and all companies are required to report what they pay their consultants to the IRS with tax identification numbers.

  • Alaine says:

    I have done mystery shopping for a few different companies in the past… it was great when I was a student, but now working fulltime it is not worth it to me. Most shops will pay $7-15, and considering the time it takes to complete the shop and fill out the sometimes extensive reports, it is just not worth it to me anymore. BUT I did have some really great shops… even some that just reimbursed for meals were great. Unlike others, I’ve used Shop N Chek and never had any problems with them – they had a lot of shops in my area – but they don’t pay as much as some others do. Finding a company that has a lot of shops in your area can take some time – check out the message boards on Volition and you might be able to find out which ones have a lot of shops in your area. My favorite shops were for Dave & Busters and Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. McDonalds and Staples also had some pretty easy shops, although the pay was lower. The Starbucks shops are insane though! Way too much work! As with others, I’d also not give my SSN out. I don’t remember ever having to do that. Good luck!

  • Michelle says:

    Hmmm… GFK mystery shoppers requires a SSN…

  • Challice says:

    Unfortunetly, i am in a town where I would have to make a 2 hour trip to mystery shop. Its kind of dissapointing but I have a good friend some states away that has found this a very resourceful job without being a “job”. 😀

  • Regina says:

    I tried to sign up for a few of these today but almost all of them required my SSN. They all look like legit companies, but I’m REALLY paranoid about identity theft. It doesn’t seem work the risk.

    So what you’re saying is that at some point, with all of these companies, you WILL be required to submit your SSN online???

    This sounds like SUCH an awesome opportunity, it’s just not worth the risk if that is the case. Bummer. 🙁

  • Chris Rayment says:

    I’ve been merchandising and mystery shopping for two years. I work for 30 different companies and I’ve been grossing about $28k-$30k/yr.

    I’ve used all the companies you’ve listed and tons more. I’ve never been cheated and I’m always paid when they tell me.

    It’s a great job! 🙂

  • Christina says:

    I work as a bank teller & I will comment on the concerns of identity theft. What we mainly see is NOT identity theft, but we do see customers bringing in checks that say “mystery shopping” on the memo line. These checks are for high dollar amounts, usually in the three-thousand dollar range. They are accompanied by a letter that usually looks legit. The letter will instruct the customer to deposit the funds into his/her account & then send a portion of the funds (usually around half) by wire back to the company. Sadly, thousands of people fall prey to this & the checks they deposit are returned unpaid because they are counterfeit. The customer’s account is therefore put into the negative (usually because the customers are not very affluent to begin with) & the scam artists make out with the cash that was wired to them. Many people end up with their accounts being charged-off & reported to the credit agencies because they are so in the hole that they cannot climb out. These people have usually not given out any of their personal information, such as SSNs, so their identities are not stolen. They do lose out, though. I’d keep in mind that real mystery shopping is going to pay low rates of return. And, just like with the fake lottery winnings scams…If you didn’t sign up for it, you didn’t earn it/win it. OK, PSA over. 🙂

  • Lois says:

    I did mystery shopping for a year about 2 years ago. For me, it was not worth it, simply because I was not fast at entering the data into the computer afterward and they usually have a short turn-around because they don’t want you forgetting. It was also a real challenge to remember everything I had to watch for in the store/restaurant without getting caught doing it and without showing my notes. But I am not as young as most of you are.

    My husband would love it if I still did the restaurant ones, though! I almost lost my pay from one shop because I forgot to calculate the time in 24 hour-time at one point. Also, the stop watch would trip me up. I’d punch it twice thinking I was punching it once in my pocket. There was an element to it of adventure that I liked. But my brain is too old–and that part was too much stress.

    I did enter my SSN online many times. But I only used companies that were recommended by MSPA or my friend. The ones I shopped for (all of whom paid me) were Service Advantage, Secret Shopper, ShopNChek, Retail Eyes, Beyond Hello, NSS, and Service Intelligence. There were many others that I never actually got to shop for.

    If you have time and a quick brain (it wasn’t the typing, mind you–I can do that fast), go for it.

  • Alissabeth says:

    I think the dollar amount of 500 or 600 requires a social security number so they an mail you a 1099 to file taxes. One of the sites allowed me to defer using my SSN until that amount. If you make this much, iyou will be owing taxes, because it is my understanding most don’t take out any taxes for you.

  • Alissabeth says:

    Sorry about the spelling errors!!

  • Sara says:

    Beyond Hello and GFK are legit, and while I question entering my SSN anywhere, particularly online, as long as you see the “https” in the browser web address line and you were referred to the company by the MSPA, I personally have never had a problem.

    I shop for dozens of companies and over the past 4.5 years have learned which companies/types of shops are worth my time and effort. Grocery stores- yes, fine dining restaurants with loooooong essays required- eeeehhhh. Some companies also have better staff than others, and that plays a big role too.

  • This is a real job, making real money, so yes you would have to provide a SS#. It is like working anywhere else, this is the way they show the IRS who made what and what they paid. If you go and apply for a job anywhere else they ask for this, even temp agencies. Just make sure they are MSPA and you should be just fine. But then again there is a risk at anything in life, so the less people that apply the better my odds are of getting the work and being paid higher when they have trouble finding people to work. The reason most people have never heard of this or tried this is because us shoppers don’t go advertising for people to take our jobs. Only my closest friends and family know what I do. The more shoppers out there the less the companies have to pay us to get the work done.

  • Patti says:

    You may want to Mystery Shop for a local business, especially if you happen to know the owner. I have a friend who is paid to visit a local dry cleaner that has multiple locations in our town. She gets her clothes dry cleaned for free and a small reinbursement. She does not go through a national company to do this.

  • Jenn says:

    I have a blog with a few companies I have worked for on it. I have not posted lately because I took a break due to some major illness in the family, but I am going to be returning soon.

  • Sherri Jernigan says:

    I was a mystery shopper for over 5 years, worked for over 20 companies, and thoroughly enjoyed the adventure! Yes, it takes a special type of person — a good eye for detail and a good memory. It takes a while to get started — apply, apply, apply. It is much more organized now and, unfortunately, many companies want you to be “certified” (paid by you). However, there are some companies who still accept uncertified shoppers. You are not paid/reimbursed for at least a month after a successfully completed shop. So, this is not a quick or easy way to make money. Was it fun? YES! You will have to take the small shops first — $5.00 shop pay, buy a burger or gas, and get reimbursed. So there can be out-of-pocket expenses (upfront). However, as you gain experience and do a good, thorough job, more lucrative shops will come your way. This means good pay, purchases you can keep and are reimbursed for, free meals, hotel stays, etc. As someone else said, you have to be able to type and in most instances write a detailed report — good english and spelling.

    To the person who asked about Beyond Hello, it is a GREAT company!!! Hi Gary!!!

  • Nancy says:

    I just started mystery shopping this summer when I quit my full-time job to become a SAHM. It’s a lot of work, but I get $200-$300 per month. I’m picky about the jobs I accept–I will only do ones that are 5 miles away or less. It is delayed gratification, as many companies don’t pay until the next month. However, I LOVE the flexibility.

  • I have done little ones, either I have not found the big ones here yet or they don’t use them in my smaller town, but the ones I have done, have been fun, although most of them do not pay alot. Sometimes though if you do not take them right away, eventually they offer you a bonus, like for the ones where I had to drive 10-15 miles, when you get an $20, it makes it worth it.
    I think I did use my SSN#, but I have never had a problem, but I am careful for which ones I have signed up for.

  • Megan says:

    Just a quick note about taxes: please remember that you need to report ALL earnings to the IRS. Whether your mystery shopping earnings are $25 or $625 you need to report these earnings at the end of the year. I called the IRS and asked about this directly; it is all taxable income. The only exception is reimbursement shops. You don’t need to report the $5 you spent at McDonald’s and were reimbursed for. I’ve been mystery shopping for nearly a year and we love it. My husband and I have fun going “under cover” to get a free meal. We focus on reimbursement dinner shops (some fine dining too – something we’d never be able to afford as graduate students!) and grocery shops. Thanks for the great post!

  • I’ve done a lot of mystery shopping before, and have made some pretty good money from it. It recently helped pay for a trip to Nashville for a convention I wanted to attend. I think the most important thing for people to note who are mystery shoppers is they really have to pay attention to even the smallest details, it can be very time consuming and you really need to be someone who will meet commitments.

  • Lauren says:

    My husband and I have been mystery shoppers for the past five years or so. I am in medical school, and he is a full-time teacher and graduate student, so we only do “dinner shops” now. We have mystery shopped hotels, Target, grocery stores, gas stations, and electronics stores in the past. Since we love to eat out anyway, it is great to get several free meals a month. We have worked our way up to shopping high-end restaurants and regularly enjoy $150 dinners for free. For those restaurants, it is important to note that the reports can sometimes take two or more hours to complete, but it is worth it to us. I would estimate that we usually get about $500-$600 of free meals a month.

  • Renee says:

    Banks were always my favorite mystery shops. Quick, easy,decent pay and standard items to look for. I often found it possible to group a few together to make the travel time more economomical. It also saved time to have standard paragraphs in Word to paste into my forms. I tweaked them as needed, of course, but found a general description of storefront glass, landscaping, litter control to change only slightly most of the time, so being able to paste and tweak was a real timesaver.

  • Julie says:

    Crystal can you do an updated post on Mystery Shopping websites? Some links posted aren’t working and it’s been 10 years since you posted this article!
    Thanks much appreciated!

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