Mystery Shopping Scams and How to Avoid Them

mystery shopping

Many people believe that all mystery shopping is a scam. This is because of the way mystery shopping has been misrepresented by those performing the scams. Often it’s been set up as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme, or a way to “get cash quick”; people are told they can make a comfortable living off of mystery shopping, which isn’t necessarily a lie but when something looks too good to be true, it often is.

Mystery shopping scams have detrimental impacts on both mystery shoppers and mystery shopping companies, both of whom are simply trying to make an honest living the world of market research.

Types of Mystery Scams

On the whole, there are a variety of different scams, but all of them aim at one thing: stealing money from unsuspecting people.

The most common scam is the ‘fake cheque’ one. This one has been discussed on many occasions, and while there are many warnings about how it works it still occurs today.

Briefly, this scam functions as follows:

  1. You express interest in what you believe to be a legitimate company’s recruitment drive for new mystery shoppers.
  2. A ‘you’ve been selected’ congratulatory letter arrives in the mail, accompanied by a cheque that for all intents and purposes looks very real.
  3. The letter goes on to instruct you to cash the cheque, and then send money via wire transfer to a specific account elsewhere, usually overseas.
  4. They add further pressure, but telling you to do so within 48 hours or the offer expires and generously tell you that whatever percentage is left in the cheque is yours to keep.

Awesome! Free money! Right?


The catch here is that the cheque is fake and you’ve wired money you didn’t have to another account. If you’re extremely unlucky and lack the ability to properly explain what’s happened, you may also be liable for cashing in a fraudulent cheque.

That particular scam comes in all shapes and sizes, but at the core always remains the same.

All in all, not a fun experience, least of all because of the financial impact. Unfortunately, where there is an opportunity to exploit people, scammers are there to take advantage.

It would be easy to apply a blanket rule and say: “all mystery shopping jobs are scams”, but this simply isn’t true. There are plenty of legitimate companies out there providing honest opportunities, and it’s important to recognize what a scam looks like.

What does legitimate mystery shopping look like?

Real mystery shopping is designed to analyze certain elements of an industry, and one of the best definitions comes from Wikipedia:

“Mystery shopping or a mystery consumer or secret shopper, is a tool used externally by market research companies, watchdog organizations, or internally by companies themselves to measure quality of service, or compliance with regulation, or to gather specific information about products and services.”

Earlier this year, I wrote about how mystery shopping really works, giving a basic explanation of how it’s accomplished and what might be involved.

How to tell legitimate mystery shopping companies and mystery shopping scams apart:

As a rule of thumb, it’s good to keep the following pointers in mind and avoid companies that:

  • Require that you pay for “certification.”
  • Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.
  • Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities.
  • Sell directories of companies that hire mystery shoppers.
  • Ask you to deposit a check and wire some or all of the money to someone.

Mystery Shopper Scams, The Federal Trade Commission

Not all companies that employ any or all of these tactics are necessarily scams, but err on the side of caution and understand what a genuine mystery shopping company looks like.

Most legitimate companies recruit their shoppers directly from their website, or through legitimate channels such as their social media accounts – only very rarely will they use newspaper ads or direct emails.

In addition, legitimate mystery shopping companies don’t require you to pay a registration or certification fee; they simply ask you to sign up to their platforms so they can keep you apprised of any open visits.

Further, they have a screening process: just because you’ve signed up doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically get a visit. Most companies will use a type of test, to make sure that your language skills are up to scratch – after all, you’ll be recording data for them, it helps if everyone knows what you’re saying – and I know that here at AQ, we also require our shoppers to complete a questionnaire that proves a competent understanding of the visit manual (the guideline that tells you how exactly to complete the shop in question). Any company that guarantees you work straight off the bat, is likely to be a scam.

Legitimate mystery shopping companies won’t charge you to access their shop boards; this beats the point for them after all, they recruited you to fill their shops, why make it so difficult for you to do so easily? Nor will they ask you to deposit cheques or wire money. At most, there’ll be a restaurant shop in which you pay for your meal and get a reimbursement up to a certain amount.

Another good thing to remember is that most mystery shops don’t pay heaps. Depending on the type of shop, you may get $5 to $20. Most mystery shoppers do their visits beside their day jobs to earn a little extra cash.

Can you make a living as a mystery shopper? Yes, I suppose it’s possible, but you’d have to be very motivated and very patient. I imagine that a dedicated mystery shopper would be able to make ends meet, if that was all they did, but on the whole, I wouldn’t suggest it be used that way. For further illustration, I stumbled across this article on Forbes that explains how it’s been done successfully, and an article on I’ve Tried That where it was less successful.

How to check if an opportunity is legitimate?

The biggest rule of thumb you can remember is that companies use mystery shoppers as a tool to gather research data. No company is going to pay you $2,000 (for example) simply to cash a cheque and wire $3k to Australia, it’s not a realistic business plan. It’s it’s one thing you can really trust, is that business won’t send themselves broke.

If you’ve no mind for business management then just remember this:

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Another good thing to do is check if the company is listed on the MSPA (Mystery Shopping Providers Association) website. Not all legitimate companies are members, but it’s a good place to start!

And if you’re in doubt at any point, then don’t sign up. Scammers are creative and often it can be tricky to tell one way or the other; if you think something doesn’t look right and you can’t get a clear answer anywhere then it’s probably a good idea to steer clear. Remember, a real mystery shopping company will be easy to find and be listed in legitimate databases, and you can get in touch with them to ask, whether by phone or by email from their website.

Only doom and gloom then?

Hardly, just like you could swim in the ocean your entire life and never experience a shark attack, anyone can enjoy mystery shopping. If you keep your wits about you you’ll never have to experience the frustrations and financial repercussions from a mystery shopping scam. Mystery shopping is a great way to earn extra money doing what you love.

For more information about AQ’s mystery shopping program, or to sign up for our shops, visit

If you’re a business looking to see how mystery shopping can help you improve your customer service and sales, please Get In Touch!

3 replies
  1. Alexa Vollmar
    Alexa Vollmar says:

    Hi Meghann!
    Apologies for the late response.
    You can always look up if the company is listed in MSPA (Mystery Shopping Providers Association) to be on the safe side. Another tip to watch out for is never to pay a fee to be registered in a mystery shopping database.
    The following link provides further information what to watch out for to avoid scam:

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