Don’t let a mystery shopper scam send your cart careening down the financial disaster aisle.

3 minute read

Looking for a side hustle to offset the rising costs of inflation? If so, you’ve probably come across ads for “secret” or “mystery” shoppers. At first glance, taking a job as a secret shopper sounds like a fun and easy way to earn extra cash.

Mystery shoppers typically accept assignments for an hourly or project rate. Secret shoppers pose as everyday customers, purchasing products at retail and grocery stores or patronizing food establishments. Then they report back to the hiring company with a review of the product,  food quality or dining experience, along with customer service and the sales process.

The average secret shopper pay is about $22 an hour, according to Indeed. However, you’ll also see ads that promise hundreds of dollars a week or thousands of dollars a month.

While you may be able to eke out enough money for gas or a few groceries as a mystery shopper on a part-time basis, the companies posting those high-paying secret shopper job ads or contacting you via email or text are likely making promises they can’t keep.

“If this sounds too good to be true, it very well could be,” says the Better Business Bureau (BBB) “Many mystery shopper opportunities are scams.”

If you still think a side hustle as a secret shopper might be for you, here’s the rundown on mystery shopper scams and how to avoid them.

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How do mystery shopper scams work?

Mystery shopper scams frequently appear as unsolicited emails or as ads on job boards. The first red flag of a secret shopper scam is that anyone who applies gets hired right away without an interview. Then the company typically mails you a check to cover purchases while shopping undercover. However, helping you earn money isn’t really what the company has in mind.

“Unfortunately, the check is a fake,” says the BBB. “It will bounce, and you’ll be left footing the full bill and the bank fees associated with it.”

In another version of this scam, the mystery shopper business sends a large amount of money and asks you to buy gift cards with the funds and “keep the rest” as pay. One mystery scam victim reported the following experience to the BBB Scam Tracker:

“I saw a job posting on LinkedIn for a secret shopper position. I applied and shortly afterwards received a check in the mail. The check was for $2,470 and the business wanted me to go to local stores, purchase gift cards with $2,000, and keep the rest as pay. I was supposed to scratch off the security covers and send pictures.”

In another scam, con artists offer secret shopper assignments but tell you that you must pay a “registration fee” to access them.

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How to avoid secret shopper scams

To make sure your secret shopper experience doesn’t end up on the clearance rack of bad life choices, the BBB recommends taking these steps.

1. Research the company

Before applying for any secret shopper job, look up the company online, checking for “scam” and “reviews” in the search terms. If the company is a rip-off, there’s a good chance that mystery shopper job victims have plenty to say about being scammed.

Also make sure the company has legitimate contact information, especially a number that you can call to speak with a real person.

Find out: Know These 5 Red Flags of a Fake Website

2. Check the mystery shopper database

You can find legitimate mystery shopper providers listed at the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA). Scammers sometimes impersonate real companies, so keep an eye out for other warning signs that the secret shopper job may be a scam, says the BBB.

Find out: 7 Red Flags That Paid Survey May Be a Scam

3. Run from companies that hire on the spot

“Real businesses will want to get to know you before they hire you. If a company reaches out to you out of the blue with a guaranteed position in their company, it’s probably a scam,” warns the BBB.

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4. Beware of pre-shopping money demands

Legitimate mystery shopper providers generally don’t send you money before you even get started on secret shopper assignments. And they definitely don’t ask you to return money they’ve already paid.

If a mystery shopper company asks you to wire money or send prepaid gift cards, don’t do it. “Once you’ve wired money or sent the gift card information, there is no way to get your money back,” says the BBB.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

Published by Debt.com, LLC