Susan Tompor: Get clued in on mystery shopping before you commit

Melanie Duquesnel, president & CEO of the BBB, talks to Susan Tompor about the dangers of mystery shopping scams.
April 22, 2014

One day this winter the temperature was 11 degrees and Misty Maidens went driving to do some mystery shopping at gas stations in northern Michigan.

Glamorous? Hardly. Lucrative? Well, it depends on your definition.

Maidens, 40, said she’s not a cold-weather person but the last-minute audits were worth her time at $18 to $25 each. Normally, such trips might be $5 or $6.

“It takes a lot to get my butt out in the cold,” said Maidens, who lives in Copemish, outside of Traverse City.

Many stay-at-home moms and younger retirees might see mystery shopping — where you sign up to rate services or products at a store or other location — as a cool way to raise extra cash. And it can be.

But the specific assignments often involve detailed instructions; maybe even questions such as, what was the valet wearing? You may need to shop during certain hours. Deadlines can be tight; some forms must be submitted within 12 hours of a visit. As you buy items to be reimbursed, it’s wise to remember it could take 30 days or so to see that money.

Worse yet, consumer advocates warn that some mystery shopping trips can turn into a way to lose cash. The Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on deceptive practices and continues to warn of scams.

One big clue that you’re heading for a rip off: Does someone want to charge you for training and then hit you with a monthly fee?

“We don’t charge mystery shoppers to get work,” said Lindsey Dahl, director of operations for Grand Rapids-based Shoppers’ View, which provides quality assurance services for bankers, retailers and others nationwide.

But the FTC warned that some companies had charged consumers $2.95 for training and included one week’s trial. The consumers later had to pay $49.95 a month for a list of potential audits.

Would you break even and find $50 of work each month? Not likely.

The FTC noted that people complained that there were few, if any, jobs in their area. Some people who tried to get out of the program were still charged $49.95 a month, not knowing they were also enrolled in a second “opportunity” supposedly for running their own Web store.

Mystery shoppers who have worked with legitimate companies say they’d never pay up front to get word of an assignment. At best, some say, mystery shopping can be a part-time way to make extra money, not a full-time job.

Chene Koppitz, 40, of Oak Park has been mystery shopping for about 12 years and said much of it has involved being reimbursed for things such as an oil change or buying snacks at a movie.

She’d never pay up front to find a mystery shopping task.

Koppitz has never been ripped off but once she lost out on about $5 on a task where she had to phone various insurance companies for information. Someone didn’t get back to her in time and she was paid slightly less than expected.

Where do mystery shoppers find work? Some sign up at Or some become members of the mystery shopping industry’s association, Mystery Shopping Providers Association North America. See jobs at

Maidens said it works best for her to take on an assignment, if she’s going to be in the area anyway.

Even a mystery shopping assignment where one is reimbursed for a stay at a casino hotel or fancy dinner isn’t nonstop luxury.

Koppitz said she’s faced roughly 30 pages of details to address when she’s had high-end shopping assignments. “Sometimes, the detail is mind-numbing, even to me,” said Koppitz, who works as a writing consultant at the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus.

If someone out of the blue is promising you $100 or $200 for one mystery shopping trip, it’s a scam. Ignore claims you’d make big profits easily.

Most legitimate companies use PayPal accounts to reimburse or pay mystery shoppers. Never take a check up front.

The Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan has warned about a company called Galaxy Elite or Galaxy Distribution that sent checks up front for thousands of dollars for a so-called Consumer Research Program.

The consumer is asked to deposit the big check and then wire money back to a third party. The remainder of the balance would be their pay.

Or maybe using a similar method, someone is told they need to cash the up front check to evaluate a Western Union outlet. Yet the checks consumers receive up front are fake.

“Unfortunately, it can take days or even more than a week for a bank to become aware a cashed check was fake,” the BBB said in a statement.

One tip: Never wire money.

Say you get two checks totaling $1,900. Even if you “keep” $300 and wire the rest, you’d be out $1,900 because the bank would later determine that the cashiers checks were bad.

The real mystery, of course, is how the scammers still get away with such nonsense. But con artists know how our minds work. And if you like to shop, well, who wouldn’t mind being paid to do it?