Photo: Photo by ckturistando via Unsplash

These days, it can cost a small fortune for families to go anywhere. Entertainment and recreation can really add up.

When I left my career to stay at home after our second child was born, I was worried that we would not be able to afford to go anywhere fun. I had visions of being confined to our home and I stressed about how I would entertain two young children. I wondered how I would keep my sanity trying to keep us busy on such a tight budget.

Then, I discovered mystery shopping. I could not believe there were companies out there that would pay me to bring my kids to places we wanted to go!  I could get reimbursed for taking my children to amusement parks, movies, trampoline parks, museums and restaurants. With certain assignments I could even earn a little extra cash too.  Suddenly we were free to adventure without strain on our budget.

It sounded too good to be true and you know what they say about that. There are many legitimate companies. Unfortunately, there are many scams in the mystery shopping world. Here are some tips to help you avoid fraudulent companies:

1. Never pay money upfront. If a company asks you to pay money or buy a membership first, that should be a red flag. Legitimate companies will ask for you to submit an application. After you have been accepted as a shopper, all of the job listings are free.

2. Make sure the company is listed on the MSPA website: The Mystery Shopping Provider Association

3. Never respond to unsolicited emails offering you jobs as a secret shopper. Apply only at the websites you have confirmed are on the MSPA Website.

4. Legitimate companies will never ask you to deposit a check, make a wire transfer or forward gift cards in order to apply.

It may sound perfect, but there are some things to consider before you get started:

  • You must be a good writer. Many companies will have you submit a writing sample as part of your application. Take this seriously. Review and edit your work to make sure it is free of grammatical and spelling errors.
  • You must be able to follow very detailed and sometimes confusing instructions. Each shop is different, and the client is looking for specific criteria about their business. You may have to read the instructions several times before your shop.
  • An editor will be reviewing your work. Be prepared to have some corrections or additional information requested. Your report goes directly to the client. It must be top quality and exactly what they are looking for. Don’t be offended if you are requested to make changes.

The editor knows exactly what her client is looking for. The better your report, the better relationship the secret shopping company will have with their client. If you submit top quality and well detailed reports, you will build a good reputation with the company. Each company has their own system to evaluate you as a shopper. Some use a badge system, others use a score or rating.

  • If you do not conduct the shop exactly the way the instructions detail, you may not get paid for your work. If you conduct your shop on a different date or time than you are scheduled or if you fail to evaluate all of the areas detailed in the instructions, you may not get compensated.
  • Payment can take a while. Some companies take up to 60 days to make payment. The use of Paypal helps get payment to shoppers a little quicker. If you have the option for electronic payment, it is worth it to get that set up.

Not all secret shopping companies are created equal. Some I have really enjoyed working for and others I have moved on from fairly quickly. Once you identify your favorite companies, stick with them. I rate companies by the type of jobs they offer, how well they pay or reimburse and ease of their website report submitting process.

So you are excited to get started, and have gone to the MSPA website only to find hundreds of companies to choose from. It is overwhelming, I know. To help you out, here is my top recommended company to get you started.

360 Intel: By far my favorite company to work for. They offer a great selection of really fun jobs ranging from retail to restaurants and all types of entertainment in between. The website is easy to navigate and the report writing process is simplified for the shopper. What else I love? 360 Intel has made working with them a breeze with the use of an app. This all in one app can be used to search for open jobs, accept job assignments and keep track of completed shops.  The app makes is even easier to find jobs that a right for you, including phone and website evaluations. You really cannot find a better place to start than here.

If you feel the need to look any further than that, below are a few other trusted companies that also focus on entertainment and hospitality.

1. A Closer Look: A Closer look is also a well established company offering a great selection of jobs. Assignments you can expect to find include restaurants, hotels, movies, bowling and other entertainment. The report writing process is made easy with their user friendly submitting process.

2. Amusement Advantage: This one offers some big ticket jobs such as amusement parks, aquariums, arcades and museums. However, be prepared for very lengthy, involved instructions and report writing. Your final report will be graded based on a score of 100. The report submission site is not as user friendly as others, and the reports are extremely involved. In the end I still think it is worth picking up a few jobs from here, since you can essentially spend the day at an amusement park with your family for a fraction of the cost.

3. IntelliShop:  One of the top rated mystery shopping companies out there, Intellishop offers jobs in retail, food service, auto sales, health care, sporting goods and much more. They also offer a good amount of phone and website shops as well.

If you have always wanted to try our mystery shopping, give it a shot. It is a lot of fun. No matter what your schedule is, there are assignments available that will work for you.