Making Extra Cash: Mystery Shopping!

All week I’m posting about fun and unique ways to earn extra cash!
(I’ve posted about Selling on eBay, Focus Groups, and Mock Juries so far!)
Everything I’m posting are things I personally do to make money…I can assure you if I post a link to something, it’s a legit site.

Today I’m posting about the main way I make extra money: mystery shopping!

I’ve been mystery shopping for over 10 years, but I’ll tell you…there are a lot of scams out there!  Because most companies ask for your social security number for taxes (shoppers are independent contractors and must file taxes accordingly), it’s really easy to fall for a non-legit company.

The other issue with mystery shopping is that for the most part, you have to spend money to make money.  Unlike focus groups and mock juries, you do need to have a little bit of disposable income, because you often are required to make a specific purchase and won’t be reimbursed and/or paid for up to two months later, it can be tough.  (Right now you’re saying “up to two months later?!?…see below for more info).

So because integrity and confidentiality is basically the heart of mystery shopping, I can’t tell you which companies hire which mystery shopping firms, but I’ll tell you which firms I work for the most and the types of shops I tend to take on.

Of the companies I list below, I generally do shops for IPSOS, Reality Check, and Market Force.  All of the mystery shopping firms I list are ones I have done work for and I can assure you are legit, real firms.

The types of shops available include a lot of restaurants (both fast food and casual dining), retail stores, valet parking, gas stations, apartment complexes, movie theaters, car washes, car services, car dealerships, casinos, hotels, and…um…how do I put this without breaking my confidentiality agreement…government mail entities?

Okay so almost all mystery shopping assignments are very, very specific and they’ll have a billion questions for you to answer.  The good news is when you take on the assignment, you can download a document with the questions and all the details of your assignment.

MOST of the firms have very exhaustive questions.  Exhaustive is a carefully chosen word because it’s actually exhausting.  Most firms require a certain number of sentences with detail for each question.  And it’s a LOT of detail.  For instance, they may ask you to elaborate on what the clerk first said to you when you arrived.  How long can I stretch out “The clerk greeted me.”?  But they are looking for something like “The clerk behind the counter looked up, made eye contact, and smiled.  She greeted me warmly, saying “Hello, welcome to ____!  Please let me know if I can help you!”

I’m at the point now where I have done most of the types of shops and I can be a little more choosy with what ones I want to apply for and I tend to go with (shocker!) the ones that pay the best, have the least amount of writing questions (multiple choice questions are my best friend!), and match up with the kinds of purchases I was already making.

Here are the list of mystery shopping firms I have worked with and can vouch for the legitimacy of:

HS Brands International

Market Force Information

Mystery Shoppers
Reality Based Groups

Reality Check

quick note: iSecretShop is a website that advertises and books gigs for shoppers for smaller mystery shopping firms.  Everything they advertise is legit, though.

Here are some tips if you’re interested in mystery shopping:

Make a Separate Email Account!
You will definitely want to create a separate email account for this work.  You will be BOMBARDED with emails from the firms you sign up with, especially as they near their deadlines.  You don’t want to opt out of emails, though, or send them directly to trash, because sometimes when they near deadlines they have the ability to sweeten the pot a bit and offer you a bonus stipend for taking the job.  Plus, they’ll use that email address to send you the important emails, too: confirmation the job was assigned to you, confirmation when they receive your report, confirmation it was approved, and confirmation they have sent you payment.  You don’t want to miss those emails, but it’s not worth getting 20-30 a day in your primary account!  I’d create a bonus email address on a free email site like and only use it for mystery shopping and other side gigs!

Keep a Journal! 
It will benefit you to keep some sort of log, whether electronic or traditional, of your gigs, that lists the date, the firm it’s through, and other important info.  You can keep track of when you receive payment (to make sure you do) and how much money you receive (for tax purposes).  As I said above, sometimes your payment will come a couple months later.  Why?!  The report you submit is checked by the firm and then sent on to the company that hired them/you.  They’ll review it, and they’ll need to approve it.  They have the right to check the security footage to confirm the details, and/or the employee in question may opt to argue the details (that’s never happened to me as far as I know), but for good reason they don’t approve your payment right away.  Most of the firms pay on a cycle, like payroll, so if once your payment is approved it’ll actually be cut to you on the next cycle date.  For the most part you’ll get the money the next month, but now you can see why keeping a log for this is so important.

Be Good at It!
You’ll be rated for each shop you complete on a scale of 1-10.  Some of the more desirable and lucrative shops (movie theaters, casinos, hotels) are usually only open to people with high marks.  You may need to do some less lucrative shops in order to “put in your time” as you get used to mystery shopping and how it works.  When I first started, it was so difficult to do that it wasn’t super enjoyable.  We’d be out to dinner and I’d be looking at my stopwatch the whole time and going over the notes.  Now that I’m better at it, and have done the same shops over again, I am familiar with the questions and can enjoy my date night and turn in a quality report simultaneously.  You may have to kiss a few frogs before you meet a prince!  It’s also important, very important, that you turn in reports on time, follow the directions exactly, check your spelling, etc.  Sloppiness and flakiness are not a great thing in this business. (Are they in any business?!?)

Use Your Phone!
Mystery shopping was way harder before cell phones, because you really have to be super discreet and not expose yourself as a shopper.  If you brought out a little notebook during your shop, you’d give yourself a way in an instant.  But everyone is on their phones all the time now so it’s not unusual at all to be looking at yours for instructions, typing details in the Notes app, and using the Stopwatch app for timing.  Even taking discreet pictures is useful and sometimes even requested by the shop details.  Obviously don’t write ALL the details during the shop, but jot down enough notes that your memory will be jogged when you return to your car in the parking lot and can actually write down the notes in your journal (another good reason for a journal).  I recommend writing down as much as you can right away so you don’t forget little details like what the clerk was wearing, names of clerks, etc.

Work the System!
Now that I’m a little more seasoned at shopping and can pick and choose my gigs, I tend to pick ones that I can benefit extra from.
Here are some examples:
If I need to buy something anyways (a retail item, a service to my car, etc.)
If there’s anything I can buy and save to give someone as a gift someday.
If there’s anything I can buy and resell on eBay (remember Sunday’s post!).
If it’s a shop at a…um…government postal entity, I’ll ship something I’ve sold on eBay.
If it’s a restaurant Chris and I both like and we can turn it into date night.
If we’re headed into downtown and going to need to pay for parking, I’ll check the available jobs and see if there’s a valet parking shop anywhere near where we’re going.  The hospital where Anthony was born had a pretty regularly recurring valet shop and it was so nice to valet for free AND get paid for it! 🙂
ETC ETC ETC!  You see where I’m going.  You can get creative to maximize your profits!

Keep Your Receipts!
As I said before, you are an independent contractor and will need to pay taxes on your income.  The receipts, and your journal I mentioned it above, will help you rectify how much you’ve been paid, plus how much of that money is actually reimbursement and how much is payment.  Most firms will specify on your check stub how much of the total is payment and how much is reimbursement, but not all of them do and you will need to keep your own records for this, plus your receipts as proof.  I promise, it will not be so complicated for you to need an accountant: it’s just one additional line item on your taxes and TurboTax will walk you through it, but you will want to hold a percentage of your earnings back for when tax time comes around!  I think it’s 20-30% but that’s a guess.

Keep Me Posted!

Seriously, I would love to hear if anyone tries any of these!!! And once you are signed up to shop with a firm, please let me know and then you and I can talk over email about which of the shops the firm offers are good, which are bad, tips, etc! Please use the Contact form to let me know!

That’s all I have to say today, but there’s a lot more information to share!
I’m thinking of doing a special week in January devoted just to the ins-and-outs of mystery shopping, but I’m not sure exactly what information people would want to know beyond what I’ve already shared.  If that’s something you’d be interested in as a reader, will you please leave a comment on Facebook or fill out the Contact page with any questions or suggestions you may have?  It’d be really appreciated!

There are three days of the week left for the money-making posts!
Check back tomorrow for another fun post!

Filed under: Local/Seattle Area, Making Money, December 2017