How An Entirely Fake Restaurant Became London’s Hottest Reservation
By Davis Z. Morris, December 10, 2017
A London-based writer has illustrated how easy it is to manipulate review sites like TripAdvisor, by pushing an entirely nonexistent restaurant to the top spot in all of London.
Vice writer Oobah Butler – who also recently impersonated a designer for Paris Fashion Week – already had a bit of experience with gaming review sites, having previously been paid to write fake reviews by a shady PR service.
That inspired him to create The Shed at Dulwich, which was, literally, the backyard cottage he calls home. Butler set up an account for his “restaurant” using a cheap disposable phone, and simply didn’t provide an address, saying it was appointment only. That simultaneously deflected inquisitive debunkers, and created an air of exclusivity that was key to the eventual triumph of his fakery.
He also faked photos of The Shed’s food, somehow making shaving cream, bleach tablets, and his own feet into very convincing mockups of gourmet dishes. Then he recruited friends and allies to write glowing fake reviews, each of them unique and posted from different computers to help defeat TripAdvisor’s fraud detection systems.
Things quickly got, in Butler’s words, “a little out of hand.” From the very bottom of TripAdvisor’s charts, his fake restaurant steadily climbed the London rankings. He started getting emails and phone calls requesting nonexistent reservation spots, with interest only amping up when he told callers The Shed was “fully booked for the next six weeks.”
Even stranger, food suppliers started guessing the Shed’s address and sending him free samples, and job applications started rolling in. PR companies even contacted him to offer their services — all without Butler serving a single meal.
Somehow, the momentum carried The Shed at Dulwich to the top of TripAdvisor’s charts, making Butler’s fake eatery the top-rated restaurant in London. According to Butler, The Shed held on to that ranking for two weeks.
Butler finally decided to take his stunt to its obvious conclusion by cleaning up his yard, inviting a handful of guests over, and serving them frozen dinners straight from the grocery store. Some of The Shed’s guests apparently saw through the ruse, but most, according to Butler, enthusiastically bought in to what seems to have been a genuinely unique experience, with some even immediately requesting to rebook.
TripAdvisor, responding to Butler’s stunt, argued that it didn’t prove much, since there’s little real-world incentive for anyone to create a fake restaurant. But that misses the larger point: even as we rely more and more on the internet for information, a lot of that information can’t be trusted.
There has been plenty of evidence over the years of concerted efforts to manipulate review sites, including not just TripAdvisor but also Yelp, and even the car dealership guide on Edmunds.com. There’s no evidence that these sites are complicit in the fakery; it hurts them as much as anyone, but just as with fake news on Facebook and Russian bots on Twitter, it’s obviously hard to stop.
We’ve reached out to TripAdvisor for further comment on the renowned shed, and will update with any response.
How Technology Is Changing the Mystery Shopper World for SMBs
By Mona Buchnell, December 21, 2017
Online review websites and an increase in low-cost mystery shopping companies have led to more ways for busy entrepreneurs to understand shoppers' minds.
Implementing best practice policies, employing experienced managers and being hands-on all go a long way toward managing quality assurance, but hiring professional mystery shoppers to see how things really run when you're not around is still a tried-and-true method for maintaining high standards.
Like most industries, the mystery shopper business has been impacted by technology in both positive and negative ways. With the advent of online review websites and an increase in low-cost mystery shopping companies, there have never been more ways for busy entrepreneurs to get third-party feedback on customer service, but sometimes too much information can be paralyzing. If you're considering hiring a mystery shopper, but you're not sure where to start or how a professional assessment service will differ from the customer feedback you already receive online, this guide is for you.
Mystery shoppers in the era of online reviews
The popularity of websites like Yelp has drastically changed the way business owners in service-related industries receive customer feedback, and many SMBs feel lost as to how much stock they should put into online reviews. While most entrepreneurs agree that consistent negative reviews, especially those that critique the same issue, shouldn't be ignored, the veracity of negative one-off reviews can be difficult to determine, and conflicting accounts of service experiences are often confusing. For these reasons, many SMB owners still employ mystery shoppers (or mystery diners, mystery clients, etc.).
In addition to offering a fresh take on service, professional mystery shoppers bring a lot to the table that online customer reviews don't. One major issue with using online customer feedback to inform future decisions is a lack of industry knowledge. For example, a reviewer might say they received bad service in your store because an item was out of stock. While stock issues should absolutely be addressed, it's hardly the fault of the sales associate, even though the customer may blame them specifically (in some cases going so far as to physically describe them online or name them outright). Similar issues happen with online food service reviews, wherein nonprofessional reviewers ream waitstaff for long wait times or poorly executed food, when the real issue may be in the kitchen or with the way the front of the house is being managed.
The main advantage to employing professional mystery shoppers is that they are first and foremost professionals. Reputable companies hire mystery shoppers because they have a keen attention to detail, high standards, and most importantly, experience in the industry. Thus, rather than considering websites like Yelp to be a replacement for professional assessment services, online reviews should be considered as just one part of the QA puzzle.
Fighting online mystery shopper scams
The online culture of leaving reviews for everything from boutiques to insurance companies has led many people to believe they have what it takes to become a professional customer service assessor. Because of this, the online landscape is cluttered with scam mystery shopper companies that promise jobs to inexperienced reviewers, often in exchange for one-time registration fees. SMB owners who hire these fake companies can end up spending a pretty penny for substandard services (if services are ever rendered at all).
To combat these scam services and promote industry training standards for QA specialists, organizations like the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) have formed. The MSPA is a global association dedicated to creating professional standards and ethics throughout the mystery shopping industry, in addition to raising awareness among service providers and business consumers regarding best practices. The MSPA has 450 member companies worldwide and offers SMB owners free access to a search tool for reputable mystery shopper companies, which can be filtered by need and region.
For SMB owners who want to hire mystery shoppers, tools like those provided by the MSPA are invaluable, and there is no reason not to use them. By utilizing resources from professional organizations and cross-checking mystery shopper companies with the Better Business Bureau, SMBs can easily avoid wasting time and money on subpar services.
Mystery shopping technology
Mystery shopping services employ high-tech methods for capturing information and for verifying and standardizing the mystery shopping process, which means better data for SMBs.
Many companies now utilize geotracking to ensure mystery shoppers are going where they say they're going, and most QA reports are now submitted via mobile applications, which means SMBs get shoppers' feedback faster. Inputting QA information in an app, rather than writing it out or filling out a stagnant web form, also allows the business owners who hire mystery shoppers to request very specific feedback.
For example, an entrepreneur who owns a chain of auto supply stores might notice an uptick in online complaints regarding the tire department in one of her three store locations. This individual might then request an in-depth mystery shopper report specifically about the customer service in that tire department at that specified store location. This type of customized service was historically only accessible for enterprise-level companies that could pay top dollar for a fleet of specially trained mystery shoppers, but now, thanks to improved technology, it's affordable for much of the SMB set.
Better reporting is also a side effect of digitized QA assessments, and if you're in the market for a mystery shopper company, one of the first things you should ask for is a sample report. The more sophisticated companies out there may direct you to a business user portal online where you then filter through mystery shopper assessments over time in a dynamic dashboard. Often video and audio files of mystery shopper encounters can be stored alongside reports, which further enhance the experience of receiving feedback and gives the business owner an up-close and personal look at customer service.
Online feedback from customers is valuable, but it's not the only way – or even the best way – to find out how your business functions when you're not there. Assuming you complete your due diligence when selecting a mystery shopper company, these professional services can provide you with the detailed insight you need to make better process and hiring decisions.
How to shop undercover and get paid for it
By Kayleigh Kulp, July 4, 2017
Lori Cheek has been secret shopping on and off for a decade, making up to $75 per "shop" to various stores and fitness centers while trying to bootstrap her dating app business, Cheekd.
She often gets to keep whatever she buys during the shopping test as part of her compensation. And if a company has a hard time finding mystery shoppers for a particular assignment, they may also offer a bonus.
"I've even negotiated travel costs when they seem desperate for a shopper," Cheek said.
She is one of over a million mystery shoppers who make extra money by acting as undercover independent contractors for retail and service companies that want to ensure their brand standards are met, according to mystery shopping industry association MSPA Americas. (It was formerly known as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of North America.)
Most gigs pay $5 to $20 and take less than 15 minutes to do in the store , said Michael Mershimer, president of MSPA Americas and president and COO of HS Brands International, which hires mystery shoppers for corporate clients.
Following a visit, mystery shoppers usually fill out a report that may take an hour, or submit photos or video. As part of a $1.5 billion industry, shoppers are the eyes and ears for corporate leaders. They may record things like how long it takes to be greeted in a store, or the time it takes for appetizers to arrive in a restaurant.
"I have been fully or partially reimbursed for massages, eyeglasses, groceries, cellphones and much more." -Cathy Stucker, author, "The Mystery Shopper's Manual"
Mystery shopping can be a fun way to earn extra cash if you consider the following tips:
Mystery shop places you like
Secret shopping can help lower the cost of living for people who have a slim budget and extra time to go to places they want to go anyway, said Mershimer.
"It is worth it? It should simply be something for some extra money. If you take on too many assignments you can end up burning out," said Mary Furrie, who hires secret shoppers for her Ohio company, Quality Assessments Mystery Shoppers. "But, if you carefully start and add what makes sense for your interest and time, it is a great way to make some extra funds."
Cheek shopped her favorite New York gym for free day passes worth $25 each.
Consider it a way to lower expenses, not get rich
Though it's possible for shoppers to make as much as $40,000 annually on a full-time basis, it's rare and requires always being on the road, Mershimer said.
Instead, aspiring shoppers should look at it as a fun side gig that might offer only reimbursement for an experience or item, said Cathy Stucker, who has been mystery shopping for 20 years and is author of "The Mystery Shopper's Manual."
"Not only have we gotten to eat for free, … I have been fully or partially reimbursed for massages, eyeglasses, groceries, cellphones and much more," she said.
Mystery shopping allowed Indianapolis-based Cherie Lowe, author of "Slaying the Debt Dragon," to go on dates with her husband while paying down $127,000 in debt.
"We typically visited chain restaurants, and those meals were completely covered, plus a little cash. It was a great way for us to supplement a very slim budget for dining out," she said.
Just don't expect to be paid to visit your favorite establishments too frequently.
"Most of the shops have restrictions on how often you can call or dine, … so you may have to wait up to six months before you can return to do a shop you like," said St. Petersburg, Florida-based Jen Smith, who shopped for extra cash while she paid down $53,000 in student loans.
Never pay to mystery shop
About 95 percent of mystery shopping is done through companies hired by brands to administer the work, rather than the brands themselves, Mershimer said.
Aspiring mystery shoppers should beware of scams. Legitimate mystery shopping companies do not charge to sign up and do not require signing up for trials and offers, Stucker said.
There are some "aggregator" companies that will pool the openings to one place to make it easier, and they do charge a fee, but if you are willing to register directly with a few, there is no charge, Furrie said. About 150 reputable employers can be found on the Mystery Shopping Providers Association website.
Realize you're an independent contractor
Mystery shopping is not a permanent gig, and there is a certain set of considerations that shoppers should bear in mind.
"Before you sign up you need to realize that you are an independent contractor. You will have to pay taxes on the money," said Paul Moyer, who has gotten free oil changes and groceries. "Also, many of the agencies will make you take some short courses to qualify for certain shops."
That also means you'll have to perform well to keep getting hired.
A good shopper must be able to focus on details, have a good memory and write well, Mershimer said. Credibility is also important: If you're caught not being in the place you said you'd be, and if information you provided is wrong, you won't work for the company again.
"To be really successful you have to be very reliable and be able to key in great comments/facts without a lot of opinions or advice," Furrie said.
Because the surveys and reporting are done via web, you must also be at least a little tech savvy.
Candidates "usually have to shop for several months to show they will show up on time and move up the ranks from there," Mershimer said. "They get a kick out of it but take it seriously."
How To Select A Mystery Shopping Company
A mystery shopping company recently ceased operations, with very little notice to clients, employees or shoppers. We were contacted by one of their clients in a panic, asking if we could take over their program “immediately”, because they had tied program results to their people’s monthly evaluations and bonuses, and they didn’t know what they’d do without it. What a stressful, unnecessary thing for a client to have to go through. Without knowing specifically what originally led the client to select this company, it reminded us that we are often asked the important question of “How do we know you’re a viable company?” when being interviewed for potential selection by clients. This is the first in a series of posts that we hope can help potential clients select the right partner for them, based on our years of experience of being on the other side of the process.
After 16 years in business, we’ve seen many different ways that potential clients decide how to select a mystery shopping company. Unfortunately, the most common seems to be that they get several proposals and then simply pick the one with the cheapest price. The other end of the spectrum are clients who invest their time and resources to seek a company with whom they can truly develop a long-term relationship. These clients employ a very in-depth, purposeful process that can include multiple phone conversations, a team of people from the client being involved, highly detailed and specific questions, actual reference-checking, and one or more onsite visits by the client team to the mystery shopping company’s offices.
In the case of the company that recently went out of business, performing some simple research on their financial situation may have prevented the traumatic after-effects of having to find a new company so quickly. Consider doing the following to help you determine a company’s financial health:
• Don’t pick a company based on the cheapest price. You really do get what you pay for. Would you select your heart/brain surgeon on the lowest price? Of course we don’t perform life-or-death surgery, but our clients rely on us and our work to determine (if not entirely, at least partially) their managers’ and associates’ performance reviews, incentive plans, bonuses, and so on, so it’s pretty important stuff. Consider the selection of a mystery shopping partner in the same vein as your other professional services partners: your accountants, law firm, advertising agency, social media partner, web programmers, and so on; again, these aren’t life-and-death, but you didn’t select them for their cheap prices. In our business, you simply can’t do great work at the cheapest price, and it will eventually catch up with you.
• The Mystery Shopping Providers Association, www.mysteryshop.org, is the U.S.-based, international trade association for our industry. Search MSPA’s website to see if the company is a member; if not, that could be a red flag. If they are a member, call the association and ask whether they are in good standing, if there have been complaints from clients or mystery shoppers, etc.
• Do they have a line of credit with a bank that can be utilized if they need it? If so, how much is it, and when does it either renew or expire? If they don’t even have one, or a legitimate alternative capital stream, it could indicate they are either very small in size, which is risky if you’re a larger organization, and/or have financial issues that preclude them from qualifying for one.
• Ask the company to provide you with the past 3 years’ financial statements. If they won’t provide it, it could be a red flag.
• Once you receive their financial information, if you’re not well-versed in how to read through it and what to look for, ask someone who is to help.
• Ask for a list of client references, and in addition to asking them about the service capabilities of the company, ask them about financial issues. Do they get hounded the first day after an invoice isn’t paid on time (indicating potential cash shortages and overall weakness)? Do they receive calls directly from mystery shoppers claiming they haven’t been paid by the company? Do they have any other indications they can share of whether they are financially sound or weak?
• Require letters of reference from their accountant (if they even have one), their bank, and their landlord (again, if they have one). Read them carefully to see if they are fully supportive and express confidence in their viability, or are they hedging and wishy-washy in describing their position and relationships?
• Check their BBB rating. Not all viable companies are rated only A or A+. It’s common for shoppers to complain when they haven’t been paid, but usually because they simply didn’t do the required work; no complaints could indicate a very small company that may be financially risky. If they do have complaints, dig deeper into that area to see what they are. If a company just ignores the complaints, or has a rash of recent complaints with no explanation, those could indicators that something is financially amiss.
• Go visit them. Do they even have an actual office? You’d be surprised how many don’t, and how many try to pass off a shared business-suites address and photo of that building as “theirs”. When you get there, what is the impression it gives? Is this a well-funded, professional organization?
Checking out a company’s financial viability doesn’t take much time, and shouldn’t slow down your selection process. However, it will save you considerable time and headache if you make the wrong choice and have to scramble to find a new one in a great rush.
We will provide more tips on selecting a mystery shopping partner in the near future. In the meantime, if we can answer any questions, please call Ron Welty, our Founder & Chief Client Officer, at 419-872-5103.
Kiplinger.com outlines scam against IntelliShop and Consumers
Don't Fall for This LinkedIn Mystery Shopper Job Scam
Avoid getting conned on the networking site. Plus: Learn how to earn extra cash as a legitimate mystery shopper.
By Cameron Huddleston, March 18, 2015
Mystery shopping is a great way to earn extra cash. And a message with an offer to work as a mystery shopper sent via the professional networking site LinkedIn might seem like a legitimate opportunity. But, unfortunately, it’s the latest approach scammers are using to target victims.
Scammers have long used e-mail and traditional mail to promote bogus mystery shopping jobs, says Rich Bradley, president of MSPA North America, the trade association that represents mystery shopping business owners. But now in a new twist scam artists posing as IntelliShop, a legitimate MSPA North America member, are sending bogus mystery shopping offers to LinkedIn members.
“This is a relatively new approach,” Bradley says, but the con is the same. The LinkedIn scam, as well as virtually all mystery shopping scams, takes one of two basic forms. In the first and simplest, potential victims are asked to pay upfront to become mystery shoppers. The scammer keeps the cash but no job materializes. In the second and more complicated, victims are asked to cash a large check, then use part of the money to shop at certain stores, keep a portion of the cash and wire the remainder back to the bogus mystery shopping agency. But in the end, the check bounces and the victim is responsible for covering the amount of the fraudulent check. The scammer, of course, pockets the portion that was wired back and disappears.
Bradley says that MSPA North America’s bylaws prohibit its members from asking mystery shoppers to pay upfront for an assignment. And no legitimate firm would send a check prior to the completion of a mystery shopping evaluation—or even an unsolicited message to recruit mystery shoppers, he says.
MSPA North America urges consumers who have received unsolicited LinkedIn messages about mystery shopping to report them to LinkedIn. Never respond to unsolicited messages asking you to be a mystery shopper or click on any links within the e-mail, which could lead you to a fraudulent Web site or download malware onto your computer.
To find legitimate mystery shopping opportunities, you can search for an assignment with an MSPA North America member. Most industries including retailers, restaurants, physician practices, financial institutions and even government agencies use mystery shoppers to evaluate their customer service. Assignments can range from visiting an establishment and filling out a short questionnaire to in-depth evaluations that can pay several hundred dollars, Bradley says. It’s advantageous to sign up with several firms to increase your chances of getting assignments, he says.