Becoming a mystery shopper is often included in lists of ways to make extra money.
But how does mystery shopping work?
Can you really get paid to shop and test products or services?
How do you find legit mystery shopping gigs?
How much can you realistically earn as a mystery shopper?
I had the same questions — and in this post, I’ll answer them all. I even got to make some money as a mystery shopper myself!
If you love shopping or testing products, becoming a mystery shopper will be a natural side hustle for you.
What Do Mystery Shoppers Do?
Mystery shoppers get paid to provide feedback on products, services, and experiences.
Your mystery shopping job may take you to stores, restaurants, or even hotels. Sworn to secrecy, you’ll create a report on items like:
- Product displays and inventory levels
- Staff behavior
- Staff knowledge
- Food taste
- Customer service
- And more
Often, you’ll be taking pictures of product displays and packaging.
A couple of my mystery shopping jobs even involved buying a product, taking it home, and providing my feedback. (I got reimbursed for the purchase costs.)
Why Do Companies Pay Mystery Shoppers?
Companies hire freelance mystery shoppers to get firsthand reports of how their brand is being represented at the retail level.
Headquarters could be thousands of miles away, and mystery shoppers serve as eyes and ears on the ground. Are the company’s corporate ideals and strategies making down to the frontline employees?
Your feedback as a mystery shopper directly impacts training, branding, and merchandising decisions.
One thing that was surprising to me, was that mystery shopping is still super popular, even in the age of Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other crowdsourced user review platforms.
According to Forbes, brands spend an estimated $1.5 billion a year on mystery shoppers!
Let’s explore how you can get a piece of that pie.
How to Become a Mystery Shopper?
Becoming a mystery shopper is pretty easy. You’ll need to register with one or more mystery shopping services (listed below), or a mystery shopping app.
The requirements are typically:
- Being at least 18 years old (21 for alcohol-related mystery shopping gigs)
- Being eligible to work in your specific location
- Having reliable transportation
- Having a workable smartphone
Once you sign up, you can look for available jobs nearby.
After applying for a shopping gig — if selected — you’ll be provided with all the instructions for the task.
The Best Mystery Shopping Companies to Work For
These companies specialize in providing secret shopping jobs. We chose these based on their:
- reputation and history
- shopper feedback
- payout rates
- industry associations
The best mystery shopping companies are free to join, though some may offer an optional paid membership tier.
1. MSPA Americas
The Mystery Shopping Professionals Association is a good starting point for your mystery shopping side hustle.
When you join as a free independent contractor, you’ll get access to their Opportunity Board, where member companies post their mystery shopping gigs.
The $35 a year Plus membership includes additional benefits, including:
- A listing in the MSPA independent contractor database (so providers can find you)
- Access to the MSPA Americas Members-Only Facebook Group
- Complimentary Intro to Mystery Shopping course
- and more
When I searched the Opportunity Board, there weren’t many mystery shopping gigs nearby, but membership in this industry association shows you’re serious about your mystery shopping side hustle.
With over 1 million members, iSecretShop is one of the largest mystery shopping companies in the world.
Once you create your account, you’ll receive email and optional push notifications for mystery shopping gigs you may qualify for.
3. Field Agent
Field Agent is one of my favorite money-making apps. The app connects you with paying mystery shopping gigs, including:
- Buy and trys: purchase and test a product
- Shelf audits: locate a product on the shelf and take pictures
- Employee knowledge tests: pose as a customer and ask a few questions
Over the last 10 years, they’ve paid out over $20 million dollars to mystery shoppers!
In my Field Agent review, I found that you can make $3 to $10 per task, with most tasks only taking a few minutes.
At press time, Field Agent was rated 4.7-stars in the App Store with over 11,000 reviews.
4. Market Force
Market Force works with a variety of companies ranging from food restaurants and coffee shops to movie theatres.
They have an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, and have been a long-time MSPA member.
Use their app to complete tasks on the go and earn some extra cash. You can make $3 to $10 per assigned task based on its complexity and the time required.
Market Force pays monthly via direct deposit.
5. BARE International
For decades, BARE International has been matching mystery shoppers with local assignments. In total, they’ve helped facilitate over 250,000 evaluations!
BARE evaluators call the work fun, fair, and flexible.
Another MSPA Elite member is CXE.
To join as a mystery shopper, you need to submit an application that includes a sample narrative of a recent shopping experience.
CXE is looking for your skill in storytelling, as well as proper punctuation and grammar. This barrier to entry likely means fewer shoppers complete the application, possibly translating into less competition for the mystery shopping gigs on this platform.
BestMark has been a mystery shopping mainstay since 1986, and they have a very good reputation with a Better Business Bureau rating of A+.
They’re members of the MSPA as well, which marks their legitimacy.
Most BestMark tasks last 30-60 minutes, and pay $10 to $20 each.
After completing your free application, you can look for available tasks online. There’s no experience required, but you should be detail-oriented and a strong written communicator. BestMark also provides some basic training to set you up for success as a mystery shopper.
They pay their shoppers twice a month through PayPal, direct deposit, check, or gift cards.
8. Elite CXS
Earn an average of $22.67 an hour with Elite CXS. The service is free to join and you just might be matched up with mystery shopping gigs for some of the world’s biggest brands.
Elite CXS counts GM, Starbucks, Burger King, T-Mobile, and more on their client roster:
9. Secret Shopper
Established in 1990, Secret Shopper is another long-running mystery shopping company and a charter member of the MSPA. Secret Shopper has mystery shopping tasks in-person, online, and over the phone.
The service is free to join and usually pays $10 to $15 per task.
They’ll also reimburse you if you need to make a purchase for the task. (Just make sure to keep the receipt for proof of purchase.)
The most common complaint? That the super-detailed reports take too much time to fill out.
IntelliShop counts Disney, Jack in the Box, and Kia among their mystery shopping clients.
Once you register with them and become a mystery shopper, you’ll start receiving mystery shopping job opportunities via email.
You can choose the jobs you like and earn $10-20 an hour for your work. They pay via PayPal after 30 days of completing the job.
After each job, you also get a rating for your work. More thorough reports leads to earning better ratings, which can lead to higher-paying mystery shopping gigs.
One word of caution: being detail-oriented is a must. On Glassdoor, reviewers claim the company will refuse payment if you don’t follow the instructions exactly.
How Much Can You Make as a Mystery Shopper?
According to ZipRecruiter, mystery shoppers can $24/hour or $4,200/month if you get regular work.
In this video, I connected with Jenn Trinidad, a mystery shopper in Hawaii. She reported earning up to $2,000 a month as a part-time mystery shopper.
Mystery shopping jobs are generally paid through PayPal, Tipalti, or direct deposit. A few companies also pay by check on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.
Mystery shoppers are almost always considered independent contractors — not employees. That means you’ll likely receive a 1099 for your earnings, if you earn over $600 in a calendar year.
On the plus side, it also means you can deduct relevant expenses (like mileage) related to your mystery shopping work.
Common Mystery Shopping Scams to Avoid
Remember your mom’s advice: if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is?
Well, for many people, the idea of getting paid to shop can start to raise some eyebrows. And while mystery shopping is a legitimate way to earn extra money, there are some common scams and red flags to be on the lookout for.
1. Having to Pay to View Job Listings
Don’t pay upfront to join a mystery shopping company. Aside from the MSPA industry organization, all the options listed above are free to join.
Legit mystery shopping companies make their money from brands and corporations — not individual mystery shoppers.
2. The Check Deposit Scam
According to Jenn, one of the most popular scams is getting a check in the mail — supposedly to help mystery shop a bank.
The accompanying letter will instruct you to go to the bank and deposit a portion of it into a specific account. The balance — it will say — is yours to keep.
“The check is obviously going to bounce because it is a scam,” Jenn explained. “No mystery shop company will pay you up front, they will always have you do the shop first.”
3. The Gift Card Scam
Jenn described another mystery shopping scam where you’ll be instructed to go buy gift cards from the store. Then, you’re supposed to mail the gift cards to a specific address.
“Mystery shop companies will never do that,” Jenn said. It’s a scam and you’ll never get paid for the shop or reimbursed for the money you spent on the gift cards.
4. Not Knowing Your Payment Upfront
For each mystery shopping job, you should know:
- Roughly what work is involved
- How much you’ll earn
That way you can make an estimate of the hourly rate and decide if it’s worth your while. Avoid the gigs that don’t show you the rate upfront.
These scams are prevalent enough, the FTC has even published some guidelines and warnings for them.
Again, protect yourself by working through an established mystery shop company — ideally an MSPA member organization.
How to Make More Money as a Mystery Shopper
Like most side hustles, there are a few best practices to make the most of your mystery shopping efforts.
Complete Your Mystery Shopper Profile
Before looking for jobs, it’s important to fill in your profile as completely and accurately as possible. This will include information like your:
- marital status
- parenting status
- household income
This can be somewhat tedious, especially if you’re doing it for multiple platforms, but this information is how the companies will match you to the most relevant mystery shopping jobs available.
When you’re chosen for a mystery shopping task, the employer has a few specific things on the agenda that they want you to do.
Luckily, you don’t have to go in blind. You’ll get a list of all the things you need to perform. Make sure that you are thorough with the list and do all the required tasks and answer all the questions.
It may help to jot down a few notes in your phone while you’re on the job to help you remember the details later.
Doing the onsite job is the easy part for most people — filling out the reports is where many give up.
This attention to detail will earn you positive feedback, which can translate into more (and higher-paying) mystery shopping jobs.
Meet Your Deadlines
Mystery shopping tasks are often on deadlines. You need to perform a task and provide the written report within the time limit.
This will keep the employer happy, and make sure you get paid on time as well.
Get in Character
Mystery shopping gigs involve posing as a real customer, so you need to look and act the part.
For example, if your task is at a car dealer, you might need to pretend to be someone planning to buy a car. That means engaging with the sales staff, taking test drives, and asking relevant questions.
Be prepared to take up the role according to the job requirements to get honest and accurate feedback.
Do the Math
While there might be a lot of mystery shopping opportunities available, not all are profitable.
Before taking on a task, calculate how much profit you’ll make and how much time it will take to complete.
One tip that Jenn gave was that sometimes the rates are negotiable. If the deadline is approaching, you might respond to the request but ask for a better rate.
The worst thing that happens is they say no!
With Field Agent in particular, I like to look for gigs that are at the same stores I’m already running errands at. It may add a few minutes to my trip, but can offset the cost of whatever I was shopping for.
Alternatives to Becoming a Mystery Shopper
Of course, mystery shopping isn’t the only side hustle in town. If you enjoy shopping, sharing your opinions, and making money on a flexible schedule, here are a few other options to consider.
Surveys and Focus Groups
Almost every list of side hustle ideas will include online surveys. Even though most don’t pay much at all, they’re simple to do and you can do them whenever your schedule allows.
Here our some of our top picks.
- Swagbucks – Earn up to $35 a survey with this mega-popular app, and get a $10 bonus just for signing up!
- Survey Junkie – Earn up to $40 a month and cash out beginning at just $5.
- YouGov - Long-running survey panel, with data often cited in the media.
- Pinecone Research – Earn $3 for each 15-20 minute survey. They'll send you a $3 check after your first one.
- InboxDollars – Get a $5 bonus just for signing up!
- Branded Surveys – One of the best-rated survey sites with millions paid out.
- American Consumer Opinion – Join millions of free members and earn up to $50 per survey.
Beyond that, you can drastically improve your hourly rate with online paid market research studies.
Among my favorites are User Interviews and Respondent, which often pay $50-150 an hour.
A quick way to get paid to shop is sign up with Instacart. The popular shopping app will have you shop for and deliver customer’s groceries around town.
This side hustle is best if you have a fuel-efficient car and already know every corner of the grocery store. There’s nothing worse than wasting time trying to find some random item on your list!
Typical earning power is in the $15-20 an hour range, but can vary based on location. Check out our full Instacart shopper review for more.
Flipping Products for Profit
If you have an eye for a deal, a reselling side hustle could be a good fit.
This is the age-old business model of buy low, sell high, and side hustlers do it in every niche imaginable, including:
You can even start with items around your house. For inspiration, here’s our list of the best items to flip for a profit.
Could You Become a Full-Time Mystery Shopper?
Mystery shopping can be a fun way to make extra money, but it’s not likely to be a full-time income stream.
Still, it’s pretty cool to be able to make money checking out stores, restaurants, or products, taking pictures, and asking a few questions.
Plus, there can be a bit of a treasure hunt feel to it, almost like getting paid to play games.
Have you tried mystery shopping as a side hustle? Let me know in the comments below!
Serious About Making Extra Money?
- Start Your Free $500 Challenge. My free 5-day email course shows you how to add $500 to your bottom line.
- Join the free Side Hustle Nation Community. The free Facebook group is the best place to connect with other side hustlers and get your questions answered.
- Download The Side Hustle Show. My free podcast shares how to make extra money with actionable weekly episodes.
Big thanks to Sumeet Kumar for helping research and draft this article! Sumeet runs MoneyFromSideHustle.com and helps people find gig economy jobs to add to their bottom line.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need a degree or some other qualification for mystery shopping?
No, most secret shopping gigs do not require any special degree. However, there will be some tasks where they might ask for people of a particular age, like 20 to 30 years old, to look like college students.
The Mystery Shopping Professionals Association (MSPA) provides a certification that might help you score more jobs.
Do mystery shopping companies send checks before a job?
If someone is sending you a check before doing a job, it is a scam.
Real mystery shopping companies only send you money after you have completed the task and you have sent the report. In most cases, you’ll receive payment 30 days after completing the job.
Do mystery shoppers keep the things they buy?
Yes, in most cases, secret shoppers get to keep the products they buy.
You’ll usually need to pay upfront with your own money though. After submitting the receipt and report, you get reimbursed.