When I returned from my last deployment to my previous civilian job, my income took a big hit.
For roughly 10 months, I’d enjoyed active-duty pay on reduced living expenses, free healthcare, a housing allowance and hazard pay.
To make ends meet, I picked up a couple of side-hustles. One of these was “secret shopping.”
I did some research and made accounts for several companies. Within days I started earning extra money to perform evaluations and audits after I clocked out of the newsroom.
Mystery shopping can be a fun, flexible side gig for college students, military spouses and single service members who have extra time on their hands.
Here’s what you need to know if you’d like to try out secret shopping.
What is a Mystery Shopper?
Mystery shoppers and secret shoppers are independent contractors that evaluate products, stores, restaurants, companies or employees.
Assignments vary by company. Usually, the job involves posing as a potential customer, so it requires a bit of acting skill. Shopping jobs don’t always require you to make a purchase, but if they do, you’ll get reimbursed for part or all of it when you get paid.
As a secret shopper, I test drove cars, ordered delivery, looked at mattresses, ate at restaurants, tried out fitness chains, toured apartment complexes and even played at an arcade for a few hours.
In areas with a lot of tourism and entertainment attractions, some companies will even pay or reimburse you to take your family to amusement parks.
A few secret shopper services also offer “revealed audit” opportunities. During revealed audits, the place or people you’re evaluating already know what you’re up to because you told them (often ahead of time and then again when you arrive to perform the audit). Usually, these are compliance audits, though you can find well-paid safety inspection opportunities with the right training under your belt.
Revealed audits take a bit longer than customer experience shopping jobs, but they pay better too.
Some assignments only require a quick phone call, but they don’t pay very well on their own. You can rack up a little extra spending money if you do enough of them.
Is Secret Shopping a Scam?
Yes and No. There are a lot of secret shopping scams out there, but there are plenty of legitimate secret shopping companies too.
Make sure the company you’re planning to work for has been verified by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA).
Here are some more tips from the Federal Trade Commission on rooting out secret shopping scams.
- Do a Google search of the company with the words “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”
- Steer clear of companies that ask you to pay them, send gift cards or wire money. Don’t pay for company certifications, directories or job guarantees. “No real job opportunity, including mystery shopping, involves paying for the job,” the FTC said.
- Don’t participate in any job that asks you to deposit checks into your bank account and send money back to a company. Scammers use fake checks to steal from hopeful secret shoppers. When the checks bounce you won’t get those dollars back.
How to Find Secret Shopper Jobs
The best way to find real secret shopping gigs is to browse the MSPA’s international directory of secret shopper service providers.
You can search by location to see what’s near you, but I found this wasn’t always accurate.
I found a lot more opportunities by clicking on categories like “grocery” or “fitness” and going to the websites for the services that popped up.
Some companies will show where they operate on their website. Others may require you to apply to see what’s available in your area.
Fortunately, applying to be a secret shopper is quick and easy. I applied to several services to see what was available near me and never spent more than 10 minutes on an application. If you join one service and it doesn’t have jobs near you, leaving that service is usually as simple as deleting your account.
Secret Shopper Requirements
Here are some basics you might need to become a secret shopper.
- Smartphone. A smartphone is the bare minimum requirement for most companies. You’ll use this to take photos and field assignment opportunities. You may also need to interact with a special app, depending on the company you’re working for.
- Wheels. You’ll need a way to get around. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need a car of your own. If you’ve got access to reliable public transportation you can still do the job, especially in large cities.
- Computer. Some companies will let you fill out evaluation forms in an app, but many require it on pdf or on paper. You’ll probably need a computer with the ability to print and scan evaluation forms and receipts.
- Paypal. A few companies pay by check or direct deposit to a traditional bank, but many use digital fund transfer services like Paypal. If that’s the case, the company will ask for your PayPal username during the application process.
If you get really into secret shopping, you may find higher-paid opportunities that require special equipment like hidden cameras or other recording devices. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing these unless you’ve already got an eye on a few contracts that require special equipment.
How Much Does a Secret Shopper Make?
Secret shopping compensation varies by assignment and the area you’re working in.
In most areas, it’s definitely a side gig, but it has its perks (like free food).
Where I live, phone assignments paid about $5 each. Apartment tours paid $30 to $50. Restaurants usually paid $10 to $30, not counting reimbursement for food. Vehicle test drives paid about $30 each. Evaluations for stores and banks paid $15 to $40 each. Revealed audits paid $60 to $100.
Some companies, like MarketForce, will bargain rates if it’s an assignment they really need to get someone on. Once, a scheduler tripled a rate to convince me to drive 15 miles to a Sonic drive-in on the other side of town).
Best Mystery Shopper Companies
Here are the best mystery shopping companies I came across while working as a secret shopper. I picked these for the job variety and broad work area within the United States. If you’re OCONUS, you may find others that are better.
- Confero: Confero is a great mystery shopping service for military members and spouses because it has a lot assignments that are specifically for people with access to a military base. Confero evaluates and audits Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) and Marine Corps Exchange (MCX) stores. It also handles evaluations for retail stores and restaruants at airports. So, if you work at an airport or just travel a lot, Confero would could get you a lot of work.
- MarketForce: MarketForce was a favorite of mine because I could bargain for higher rates when schedulers reached out about jobs they needed covered. Most MarketForce assignments can be done with their smartphone app, though you may have to print off your instruction sheets from a regular computer. If you live near a theater and want to get paid to see movies, MarketForce also employs secret shoppers for merchandising and theatre services. Such jobs include stocking pamphlets, changing out advertisements and taking headcounts inside the theater.
- A Closer Look: This service is on the list because it’s got a lot of unique work available across the country. Really – if you turn on e-mail notifications, they’ll pretty much blow up your inbox with work in your area. Where I live, A Closer Look’s jobs included arcade and entertainment visits, furniture and home improvement stores and grocery stores (those usually got picked up fast though).
- iSecretShop: iSecretShop really shouldn’t be on this list because it’s not a single company. iSecretShop is aninteractive job board for a collection of mystery shopping companies. The iSecretShop platform shows available jobs near you (or any location you want to search, if you’re traveling) from MSPA-verified companies, like 360intel and Jancyn. It also has a social forum where you can ask questions and compare experiences with other shoppers. One thing to note about iSecretShop is that they aren’t the ones who will pay you – your compensation comes from the company that advertised the gig. You’ll still get paid, but sometimes it takes a while.
- BestMark: I’ve never personally worked with BestMark because they don’t have much work in my area. However, they’re one of the largest MSPA-accredited mystery shopping services and I hear good things from folks who do work with them. BestMark will pay you to do traditional mystery shopping, customer interviews and compliance audits. They have a lot of opportunities at airports retail stores and restauruants. So if you’re a frequent flyer, check it out. You might be able to make some money on your next layover.
Do you work for a mystery shopping company that’s not on the list? Leave it in the comments below!