The Mysterious World of Mystery Shopping

Mystery shopping – what even is it? Are all mystery shopper positions scams? How do I get a real job in the field? When it comes to being a mystery shopper, also called secret shopper or customer service evaluator, most people have nothing but questions. Mystery shoppers are hired to go “undercover” and evaluate the quality of service in stores, then report their findings. Tales of mystery shopping scams have been floating around the web for more than 10 years, and new variations pop up every so often. In the last few months, multiple consumers in Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern Coastal California’s service area have reported mystery shopping scams to BBB Scam Tracker.

Although many hear “mystery shopper” and immediately think scam, not all positions are fraudulent. Mystery shopping is a legitimate industry, but a huge target for scams to thrive due to its nature: little experience is needed and one can work from home. In fact, there is a Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America (MSPA-NA) – an Accredited Business. Their website hosts a database of assignments, member companies that they have evaluated and claim are legitimate and can be trusted, and information about the industry and how to enter it.

If you’re interested in becoming a mystery shopper, the MSPA website is a good place to start. However, it’s important to still be extremely cautious. Even if you think you’re working with a MSPA-member company, you may be a phishing target. Scammers can easily impersonate legitimate businesses, and a recent iteration of the mystery shopping scam actually involved impersonation of the MSPA itself. Those who want to be mystery shoppers should be aware of the risks, do their research, and really dig deep to ensure positions are legitimate and businesses are trustworthy.

A lot of people haven’t heard of mystery shopping, but when they receive an offer through mail or email for a very high-paying position that requires no experience, they’re intrigued. Unsolicited offers are almost undoubtedly scams, and if one responds, the same situation typically plays out: the victim receives a package with instructions and a check for a large amount of money; the letter instructs the victim to deposit the check, complete an assignment and report their findings. It then directs them to deduct a portion of the money from the check as their payment and wire transfer the rest to a specific bank account. Eventually the fraudulent check will bounce, and the victim is left with less money than when they started.

BBB always warns people to be extremely cautious when responding to unsolicited emails and texts about high-paying job offers, especially if they’re work-from-home. Here are some other tips to avoid falling for a mystery shopper scam or other employment scam:

  • Never pay up front. You’ll never be asked to pay to do a job – don’t pay in advance for training materials or anything else.
  • Ask to speak on the phone. If communicating through email or text, ask to speak to the recruiter over the phone. If they avoid doing so, consider it a red flag.
  • Look for consistency. Make sure all the company names, addresses, and contact information are consistent throughout communications, and that spelling and grammar are correct and professional. Scammers create fake or impersonate real businesses, so make sure who you’re talking to is really who they claim to be.
  • Look out for key phrases. “Teleworking Ok”, “Immediate Start”, and “No Experience Needed” are all red-flag phrases designed to lure in as many people as possible.
  • Ask a lot of questions. Don’t rely on the contact information given to you by the recruiter, look up the “employer” separately to verify it’s who you’re really talking to. Check out their official website and contact them directly.
  • Don’t believe guarantees or claims of lucrative pay. Offers that guarantee assignments or high monthly salaries are often scams. Mystery shopping is usually done part-time and doesn’t provide a large income.
  • Be wary of checks. Fraudulent checks often look real, so be suspicious if a business asks you to use check money to pay for assignments. Remember to never wire money to a person or business you know little about. Once it’s gone it’s almost impossible to recover.

As always, look up a businesses on to see its BBB Rating, complaint history, and more. If you fall victim to any sort of scam, report it to the FTC and BBB Scam Tracker.


Pearl is the Communications Specialist for Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern Coastal California (BBB Oakland). She works to advance BBB’s vision of an ethical marketplace where buyers and sellers trust each other by being proactive in the community and developing relationships with business and consumer groups. Pearl represents BBB at events throughout the Bay Area to educate a wide variety of people. Pearl also manages BBB Oakland’s social media channels.

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Posted in Consumer Tips
2 comments on “The Mysterious World of Mystery Shopping
  1. Derek Dewitt says:

    I didn’t know what a mystery shopper was until stumbling upon it online. Like you said, it’s important to ask a lot of questions to avoid fraud and theft. Knowing who you work for, communicating, and staying cautious is a great way to stay safe in the field. Thanks for the helpful tips!

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