Who wouldn't want to get paid to go shopping? We've all seen the ads for "mystery shoppers" and "secret shoppers," that promise easy money and free meals and merchandise. Are they on the level or is it just a scam?

"Unfortunately some companies and individuals are trying to take advantage of mystery shopping's growing popularity and are taking advantage of people," said John Swinburn, Executive Director of the Mystery Shopper Providers Association.

The association, founded in 1997, represents more than 180 companies that engage the services of so-called "mystery shoppers," independent contractors who anonymously visit stores and restaurants to gather customer service data for management and owners.

Many ads promise as much as $50 an hour and free merchandise. It all sounds a lot more glamorous than it is.

Mystery shopping developed in the 1940s and 50s as a way to expose dishonest employees. In its early days, mystery shopping was also often referred to as "integrity shopping" and much of it was carried out by private investigators. Posing as ordinary customers, mystery shoppers would try to catch sticky-fingered employees.

In those early days, mystery shopping was not done on a large-scale, and most consumers still had no idea what the term "mystery shopping" meant.

"As more firms began to offer mystery shopping, they started to include some value-added observations about safety, environment, and general customer service issues. It wasn't long before companies started to see more value in the information regarding their operations than in the integrity data," Sinclair Service Assessments, a San Antonio mystery shopping firm, said on its Web site.

As the nation's economy became more service oriented and more competitive, large chains began to see the need for reliable intelligence from the front lines of the retail wars. They began to turn to specialized marketing firms, who in turn would send trained investigators into the businesses to record their observations.

So, why are we hearing so much about mystery shoppers today? Swinburn says there are two principal reasons.

Web Promotions

"More and more companies are using mystery shoppers and the Internet has made mystery shopping opportunities more available to people," Swinburn told ConsumerAffairs.com.

There was so little interest in the practice in the past that Swinburn said there are no reliable measurements of the industry's growth over time. However, he says the most recent reporting shows the industry grew 12 percent from 2003 to 2004, when sales totaled $600 million.

Today, ads on the Internet and radio recruit mystery shoppers with promises of both cash and merchandise, targeting college students and stay at home moms. But Swinburn says it's not that easy to get a job with a reputable mystery shopping firm.

"Most mystery shopping firms give applicants a test. The test can be for basic things like spelling and grammar, but also more subtle things like observational skills," Swinburn said.

"Companies want detail-oriented people who can follow explicit instructions. They need people who are observant and can collect the data the companies have requested."

Admittedly, not everyone has those skills. Swinburn said anyone aspiring to be a mystery shopper should expect to be tested.

Red Flags

"I would be very concerned if the company to whom I applied failed to provide some kind of screening process, if they had an attitude of anyone and everyone can be a mystery shopper. That would set off alarm bells," he added.

Another red flag, he says, is mystery shopping companies that charge a fee in order to apply as a mystery shopper. Member firms of the MSPA are forbidden to charge their shoppers fees. A radio commercial recruiting mystery shoppers says applicants must also have a bank account and debit card.

"I can't imagine why that would be a requirement for a mystery shopper," Swinburn said.

It would seem, then, that not all those engaged in promoting mystery shopping are on the up and up.

Watch the "Watchdogs"

A Google search of "mystery shopping" produces a number of sponsored links that warn consumers about mystery shopping scams. The sites purport to be reputable authorities that have thoroughly researched the industry in order to help consumers avoid being exploited. For example, Top2005Scams.com has this advice from "online fraud investigator" David Grisman:

"As a watchdog for work-at-home scams, I have thoroughly reviewed hundreds of mystery shopping websites, talking to their owners, reviewing their member's areas, and speaking to many of their clients and workers. Based on my research, as of July 2005, I only recommend three websites out of the hundreds I've looked at, as they are the only ones that have met my stringent standards to be sources for daily work," he Grisman says on his Web site.

But after warning consumers about companies that charge fees, Grisman then recommends three sites that all charge fees: Shopping Jobs ($25), Shop Until You Drop ($24.95), and Get Paid To Shop ($34.95).

And Grisman isn't the only benevolent soul on the Web who claims to be trying to protect would-be mystery shoppers. Another sponsored link is for TopSiteRatings.com, "from the desk of Chris Kevin." Compare his pitch with Grisman's:

"Being a watchdog for work at home scams, our job is to thoroughly review these hundreds of mystery shopping websites by talking to their owners, reviewing their member's areas, and speaking to their clients and workers. Based on our reviews and research, we can recommend only five mystery shopping websites out of the hundreds we've reviewed, as they have proven themselves to be legitimate sources for daily work."

Not only are their Kevin's five recommended sites all charge fees as well. And on Kevin's site, Get Paid To Shop charges $37, $2.05 more than on Grisman's site.

"The companies running these ads would not be accepted for membership in our association," Swinburn said, adding than member companies must abide by a strict code of ethics which is published on the association's Web site.

Swinburn said MSPA offers a training and certification program for mystery shoppers, but stressed that it is not a requirement to get a job.

He said despite some of the current advertising, mystery shopping is just not as simple as it sounds and that some skills are necessary to get a job with a reputable firm.

He also offers some free advice.

"Be very leery of promises that sound too good to be true, because they probably are. If you are told you can keep high-end goods, like wide screen TVs, take extreme care to understand all the disclaimers and fine print," Swinburn said.

In other words, mystery buyer, beware.

One final caution: It's not just the paid ads that appear on search engines that you should be wary of. Keyword-driven ads like those on search engines now appear on nearly every major newspaper Web site as well as on editorially-driven sites (like this one). They are generated automatically and are not reviewed by the publications' editors.