The Better Business Bureau ranks mystery shopping scams among its top 10 scams of the year nearly every year since 2008. The Federal Trade Commission has put out a warning to consumers as well.
However, legitimate mystery shopping opportunities do exist. They don't pay the thousands of dollars per trip that the fraudulent ones promise, but mystery shopping can be fun and put a little bit of money in your pocket.
How do they work? Typically shoppers fill out an application with a mystery shopping company. Many times a digital camera is required and sometimes a criminal background check as well. Shoppers then wait for assignments, which are often very specific and detailed. Once you complete the shopping trip and file the required reports, you are paid a small amount of money (often less than $20).
Here are three popular Mystery Shopping Companies that have A+ ratings from the Better Business Bureau.
TrendSource.com pays around $10 per shopping trip. Shoppers are called field agents and often must visit a retailer at a very specific time and date. Typical jobs pay around $10.
MarketForce.com operates in a similar fashion. Shoppers typically get a free fast food or casual restaurant meal for free plus a payment of around $10.
NationalShoppingService.com pays an average of $15 per shopping trip. The company's clients include retailers, banks and hotels.
Be very, very careful of email solicitations that look similar to these three companies but are not!
How to tell if a company is suspect? In a popular fraudulent operation, the shopper is mailed a check for several thousand dollars. The shopper is asked to spend a small fraction of the money in a retail store, then wire the balance back to the fraudulent shopping company which is often a post office box. By the time the original phony check bounces, the consumer has already mailed back the balance from his or her own personal checking account. The Federal Trade Commission says many phony mystery shopper companies are based outside of the United States. Most legitimate mystery shopping firms do not require any money up front.
To to learn more about reputable mystery shopping companies go online to Mysteryshop.org, which is a trade association for the industry.