Mystery shopping: How to find the real side gigs and avoid the scams

There are ways to legitamately make money from being a mystery shopping, but the prevelance of mystery shopping scams give the convenient side gig a bad name.

Undercover mystery shoppers make specific observations and any required purchases, and then fill out an online questionnaire and upload a photo of any receipt. After your work is accepted, you'll be paid, usually via PayPal.

RELATED: Night shift: 6 best jobs for the true night owl

Mystery shopping can be a way to pick up a little extra cash or get a free (or nearly free) meal, but it's usually thought of as a side gig rather than a way to make a living.

Here's what you need to know about mystery shopping so you can make some money while avoiding the scams:

What are some common scenarios?

Almost every category of business is mystery shopped, and the following are examples of some typical scenarios:

Banks – posing as a small business owner who talks to an employee about setting up a business account

Restaurants – ordering an entrée and appetizer, evaluating and timing service, observing the premises for cleanliness

Apartments – posing as a potential renter, asking questions about the community

Stores – timing how long it takes employees to offer help, asking questions in specific departments

Where can you find legitimate shops? has an extensive list of mystery shopping companies, and you can find out more by checking out the site's mystery shopping forum. Shoppers will post a "feedback requested" question on a particular company, and others will respond with information on how quickly it pays, how easy its schedulers and editors are to work with, etc. Some schedulers also post jobs on this site.

You can also find job listings at the mystery shopping forum, a work from home site, and then check to see if the companies are listed on Volition and if shoppers have reported any feedback.

You'll have to create a log in and password for both sites, but there's no cost involved.

Although Volition has a good reputation for listing reputable companies, you should still be skeptical if you find a shop or company that just doesn't seem right.

How can you spot a scam?

The following are some signs that you're dealing with a scammer rather than a legitimate mystery shopping company:

You're supposedly paid in advance – If you receive a check or money order to deposit advance of your shop, it's probably a scam. Actual mystery shopping companies require the work to be done and then pay and/or reimburse afterward.

You have to pay to get shops – You shouldn't have to pay any money to get access to shops. Just sign up with a company, and if you're accepted and they have shops in your area, you'll get emails and/or access to an open jobs board.

You haven't applied – Legitimate mystery shopping companies don't contact you unexpectedly. You should only be offered a job if you've applied for work with that company.

You're asked to wire money – If you're required to wire money as part of the supposed shop, you probably won't see it again.

You're promised big pay for little work – The old adage is accurate in this case: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Tips for maximizing profits

If you decide to give mystery shopping a try, you'll need to take into account the cost of gas, wear and tear on your vehicle, as well as the value of your time.

The following are some tips that can help you maximize your profits:

Combine shops with your regular trips – If you can find shops that are on your regular route to school, work or errands, you won't be spending extra money on gas.

Plan a route – Try to plan several shops together in a short route so you can knock out several in one trip.

Repeat shops when you can – Part of the time you'll spend won't be in the store or other location but in preparing for your shop and filling out the evaluation form afterward. In some cases, a job may need to rotate shoppers, but in others, you may be able to repeatedly do the same shop. You'll quickly learn the requirements so you won't have to go over them each time – although you will need to quickly check for any changes or updates.