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Too good to be true? Taking the mystery out of 'mystery shopping'

MARSHALL LOEB • Apr 6, 2007 at 8:15 AM

Who wouldn't love to try luxurious products for free?

It's this premise that entices many people to become mystery shoppers.

Market researchers often solicit real consumers to anonymously evaluate the quality of a product or service by purchasing it and then reporting back. It's a seemingly great deal for consumers - mystery shoppers are reimbursed for their expenses and get to keep the product.

But beware: There are a number of fraudulent mystery-shopping promoters waiting to pounce.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission recently charged a company called Mystery Shop Link with promoting fraudulent claims to consumers who lost millions of dollars because of the service. In a written release, the FTC states:

"In exchange for the $99.95 fee for one year of service, consumers thought they would be trained and certified as mystery shoppers, and would gain access to job postings available through the company, with enough paid assignments available to ensure a steady part-time or full-time income.

Instead, consumers received a worthless certification and access to re-postings of other mystery shopping assignments posted by other companies, who were unrelated to the defendants.

Consumers still had to apply for these jobs, most of them low-paying, and had no advantage over anyone else who found the postings elsewhere for free."

So how do you find a legitimate mystery-shopping gig?

First of all, know that you will almost never have to pay to become one. If you come across an ad promoting a mystery-shopping service that requires you to fork over any cash, move on.

Also, you should avoid mystery-shopping promoters who claim they can get you "certified." Companies that need mystery shoppers usually require no such thing.

And if you get a pitch to become a mystery shopper by e-mail or see an ad in your newspaper's "help wanted" section, it's probably best to move on.

To make sure you're not swindled, follow these steps from the FTC to find a real mystery-shopping job:

Do a Web search of mystery-shopping companies.

Look for ones that are accepting applications - and don't charge a fee for you to complete it.

Do your homework. There are many books available on the subject, such as "The Mystery Shopper's Manual" and "How to Become a Mystery Shopper."

Read up and understand what it takes to be a good mystery shopper.

Start with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association Web site at www.mysteryshop.org.

You can find out how to register with an MSPA member company, browse available jobs and feel confident that the ones represented there are legitimate.

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