Mystery Shopping: Telling the real from the fake

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – Do you love to shop? Want to make some extra money? That's the pitch scammers use to lure you into phony jobs as mystery shoppers. We break down how you can tell the real deal from the fakes.

Yes, mystery shopping is a real job. It's a research tool companies use to measure the quality of service. It's also a multi-million dollar industry that actually takes a good bit of effort to get into.

Angela Callahan works hard at her full-time job; mother to her little girl, Elaina. But since she has a little down time, she thought...Why not take a stab at mystery shopping. Angela found a company online and registered.

"They said I would be receiving a letter with a check in it to cover all my funds," said Angela.    

The check and a letter came, and directed Angela to call for further directions.

"They told me that I would have to Western Union $3,185 to Lynette Barley at Queens, NY."     

She tried to tread carefully, asking questions, even noticing the security markings on the check. Then she put it into her Bank of America Account.

Sarah Leeke knows Angela got duped. She owns Remington Evaluations, a real mystery shopping company she runs out of her Midlothian home.

"A mystery shopping company is not going to just hand you a check and say hey, here's your money, go do with it what you want," said Leeke.

After five years in the business, Leeke says mystery shopping companies don't reach out to individuals.  You approach them and have to go through an interview process.

"They will say you're allowed to spend up to this amount of money, on these specific products. We will reimburse you with a paid receipt for those products, as well as pay you an additional fee of-- and they set the dollar amount-- $10, $15 for your report," Leeke said.

And all of that is spelled out in a contract you'll sign. Leeke says if you really want to get into the biz, pick up "The mystery shopper's manual" by Cathy Stucker who had 20-plus years in the industry. But don't expect to make tons of money doing this very detailed work.

"Sometimes it zero dollars. I would say on average, to maybe 20 or 30 dollars," Leeke said.

Angela Callahan never got to be a mystery shopper. She did get a big headache. Her bank discovered the check she deposited was a fake and closed her account.

"They told us we weren't allowed to touch it. We're never allowed to have an account at Bank of America again due to this check," Angela said.

Mystery shoppers are used in retail, restaurants, apartments and even by school divisions, and you have to be a good writer and attentive to detail. You can see more of our conversation with Sarah Leeke by clicking the video on the right.

Additional information from Andy:

"Mystery shopping" is a legitimate line of business.  In fact, one of the industry's recognized mystery-shopper organizations is based right here in Memphis: Owner Dave Sanford hires and places mystery shoppers for 17 retail chains to help them gauge the quality of their customer service.

"You shouldn't expect to pay in order to be a mystery shopper," says Sanford.  He says it's typically a good idea to get certified as a mystery shopper through the Mystery Shoppers Providers Association (  He also says most mystery shoppers are hired directly by the retailers or restaurants or registered with agencies like his.

"You will have to register with multiple companies in order to generate any significant amount of income," he says.

Sanford also recommends for both retailers and prospective mystery shoppers.

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