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Are those ‘mystery shopper’ jobs a scam?

Many Internet ads are touting jobs as mystery shoppers — and asking for Social Security numbers. Jean Chatzky has advice.

Q: Have you heard of being paid to be a mystery shopper? I am a little concerned about going online and providing my information to them.

I have heard that you should not put your Social Security number on the Web, but I would think they would need it if you will be compensated. What are your thoughts?

I always look forward to your appearances on “Today”!— Tina, Delaware

A: Hi Tina. Yes, I have heard of this and I think it sounds like a lot of fun.  But like you — particularly after the ChoicePoint scandal — I’m a little leery about putting personal information on the Web. 

Your Social Security number, in particular, needs to be protected as much as possible.  That means (in addition to not putting it on the Web) you shouldn’t give it out over the phone, shouldn’t have it printed on your checks (some people do!), shouldn’t carry your SS card in your wallet, and when it’s asked for in a doctor’s office (where sometimes they categorize patients by SSNs) ask if you can substitute some other number instead. (This also applies to any transaction.)

As for hooking up with an organization that employs mystery shoppers, you should use the Web as a resource, but not the only one. For instance, you could enter the words “mystery shopper” and your area code (or nearby area codes) into a search engine (Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc.) to find a company nearby.  Then search the site until you find a phone number (or use an online phone directory as a backup) and give the company a call.  If they hire you, they will need your SSN to pay you, but at least you will have checked them out somewhat. It is best, of course, to meet company officials face-to-face and make a determination as to their reliability and trustworthiness.

Q: I really want to be a stay-at-home mom. At the same time, I need to make some money! Are there any legitimate stay-at-home jobs?— Jennie, New York

A: Yes, there are, Jennie.  Not knowing what you do right now, it’s hard to give you specific recommendations; however, here are some guidelines to start you in your search:

First, talk to the people you’re working for now to see if there’s any way to arrange a schedule that allows you to spend some/all of your time at home.  Assuming you’ve been a good and valued employee, this is often the best option.  People are often afraid to ask the question, but if you’ve decided this is the road you’re going to pursue then there’s really nothing to lose, is there? 

As for other work-from-home opportunities, you’re right to think that the ones advertised on telephone calls and infomercials are largely suspect.  They are.  But you may want to take your skills and start your own at-home business.  For example, if you have great communications skills, perhaps you could take on a public relations client or two from home.  If you’re a graphic designer or a writer, it’s very possible to make a nice living freelancing.  And, you may want to consider the world of direct selling — i.e. Tupperware and its brethren.  People who approach direct selling as a business rather than as a hobby often find it’s quite possible to bring in sufficient income and work hours they’re comfortable with. 

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at Money magazine and the author of “Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future.” Her latest book, "Pay It Down: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day," is now in bookstores. Copyright ©2005. For more information, go to her Web site, .