Lindsay Damon, mystery shopper, by Jason Hornick
It’s not often that going shopping means earning, not spending, money. But that’s what happens when shopping is your job.

Mystery shoppers are independent contractors who anonymously visit restaurants, retail shops and banks to report on their conditions and customer service.

“The best mystery shopping program is one that tries to re-create the typical customer at that business,” says Marc Ciagne, managing director at Person to Person Quality, a 17-year-old mystery shopping firm in Fairfax whose clients are mostly service-oriented, such as eateries and insurance companies. “For a restaurant client, we may ask [shoppers] to call and make a reservation and have dinner and evaluate the quality of service they received throughout the meal.”

Here’s how it all works: Businesses hire mystery shopping firms to send shoppers on specific missions and relay their findings. Shoppers sign up with a company, browse available assignments and choose one to do. Once you pick a gig, you’re committing to going to a location, making observations and then filling out an online report about the place, usually within 24 hours of the visit.

The main draw of the job is flexibility — work as much or as little as you like and on your own schedule, Ciagne says. Headed to Tysons Corner Center next weekend? See what’s needed in the area, for example.

Like the places they visit, shoppers are a varied lot.

“Our mystery shoppers are really anybody who wants to make a little extra money,” says Ciagne, whose firm pays about $10 to $20 per hour. “They tend to be a lot of single professionals who have a little bit of extra time on their hands and would like to supplement their income, stay-at-home spouses, or retired or semi-retired people.”

Person to Person Quality provides no training, just detailed assignment instructions, but shoppers can get certified through the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Certification is not required and won’t guarantee more or higher-paying work, but it speaks to an added level of professionalism, according to the association.

Falaq Moore, 41, is a student and mother of three who started mystery shopping in May to earn some extra cash. “I’d heard of it before, but I was a little leery of it like most people,” she says. “I didn’t know what parts of it were a scam, and I didn’t know what to trust.”

She took a chance and now works with 15 companies, including Ciagne’s. Moore makes $600 to $800 per month — although she clocked in at $1,200 after one particularly busy stretch — by doing three to five assignments per weekday and one or two on weekends.

“I really like it because I know it is something that is making a difference in the services we receive when we go to places as customers,” she says.

Lindsay Damon, 26, joined Person to Person Quality when she moved to D.C. two years ago. “I thought it was a great way to see places in the city that I would not normally go to,” says Damon, who earns $50 to $150 for mystery shopping about two or three times per month. “It’s a great way to earn extra money, which is fantastic. And I really like being able to eat at restaurants and be paid for it, so it’s basically like a free meal.”

Before you rush to sign on, get your expectations straight, Ciagne says. “It’s really something you’d do to supplement your income, not replace your income,” and don’t expect to mystery-shop cruises, five-star hotels and golf courses all the time.
Damon wholly agrees. “Do your research and figure out what kind of company offers the kind of jobs that you are looking for,” says the school social worker. “Once you accept an assignment, you’re obligated to complete it. Otherwise, it will look bad and you won’t get any other assignments.”

Skip the Scams With These Tips
If you’re interested in getting a cut, make sure a company is legit before you get started.

“The most obvious signs of a scam is if someone offers to send a check or actually sends a check to a shopper in advance of their actually doing work,” says John Swinburn, MSPA’s executive director. “Any time a shopper is asked to spend their own money to be a mystery shopper or get shopping assignments, that is either a scam or certainly not worth spending money on, because this information is freely available elsewhere.”

Also, be careful if a company approaches you and asks for personal information, he adds. The Federal Trade Commission offers more tips:

» Do not pay an application fee. Legitimate businesses do not charge them.
» Watch out for companies that sell certifications. They’re not necessary to get jobs.
» Check it out with the FTC or your local Better Business Bureau.

Add to Your Cart
If you’re looking to mystery-shop, in short, shop around. For a full list of MSPA member companies, go to their website. Here are some options:

» AboutFace: Aboutfacecorp.com, 877-770-8585
» BestMark International: Bestmark.com, 800-969-8477
» Beyond Hello: Beyondhello.com, 800-321-2588
» Market Force: Marketforce.com, 303-402-6920
» Michelson & Associates: Michelson.com, 770-642-2223
» Person to Person Quality: Persontopersonquality.com, 703-836-1517
» Ritter Associates: Ritterassociates.com, 877-284-9785
» TrendSource: Trendsource.com, 619-718-7467

Written by Express contributor Stephanie Kanowitz
Photo by Jason Hornick