How to tell if a survey company is a scam or legit

The idea of earning money from survey sites and market research is really appealing.

What's not to love about getting asked a few questions and being paid to give answers?

We know companies need to run focus groups. We know they need to test new products, new services, and new ideas like advertisements. As potential customers, our opinion matters.

But like anything else great in this world, there are thieves and scammers lurking around the corner ready to take advantage of unsuspecting people.

Ten years ago, most survey companies were clearly scams. Market research companies just weren't looking online to pad their survey pools. Nowadays, many market research companies are using the internet to get more responses. The legitimate companies are drowning out the scams, but the scams still exist. And the scammers now have models to copy so they look like legit companies!

The end result is that it's becoming increasingly hard to tell the difference between a legitimate opportunity and a scam.

Want to earn extra money?

Today, we're going to teach you how to tell the difference.

Do you want to see some real life examples of mystery shopping and work at home scams? Click here to see a breakdown of three separate scams – including how to identify them yourself and avoid getting scammed too.

What's a scam?

There are two types of scammy survey sites:

  1. Sites that just pitch you other products and services.
  2. Sites that make you pay to get surveys.

They lure you in with the promise of untold riches through market research but bait and switch it on you. In the first case, they make money off you when you sign up for other products or serices. In the second case, they get you to pay them.

The ones that make you pay to join are similar to the old “work at home” scams. Work at home scams are simple, the promise of “work” if you buy their “startup” package. Replace “work” with surveys and “startup” with membership fees and you have an old scam with a new facade.

In both cases, the companies will also take advantage of the juicy personal information you may have provided. To give you an idea of what happens, I defer to Troy Hunt, a security professional I last mentioned in “Why I Have a Secret Classified Email Address;” his post on how your data is used by giveaway sites (think of those “win a free iPad!” email submission sites) is must-read.

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How the Legitimate Survey Business Works

Before we get into how to determine if a survey opportunity is a scam, we need to understand how the legitimate market research business works.

A big well-known company (like a brand name consumer goods company) needs to do some market research or run a focus group. Both are expensive to do in person, as focus groups often pay $100+ for 60-90 minutes of work to a participant. You can only imagine how much the research company adds to the bill. Online surveys are much cheaper!

So those big companies hire a market research company to send out online surveys to folks with the right demographic target (age, income, marital status, geographic region, etc.). You have survey companies with enough business to run their own (Survey Junkie, Swagbucks, etc.) and you have smaller companies who are there to fill in the gaps.

These second tier companies are often the ones you see listed all over the internet.

In some cases, the survey company only does surveys. These purists are often the closest to the market research companies. In others, there are a lot of other “point earning” activities you can do like “read email” or “watch videos” or “play games.” (more on this later)

I've been doing surveys for about six months from a variety of vetted companies and you start seeing the same names – Qualtrics, Samplicio.us (Federated Sample) – those are the main guys.

The tough part about market research is that it's an unpredictable business. It's unpredictable for the survey taker (you) because companies won't always want your opinion.

The result is that you get surveys irregularly but you earn a little cash along the way.

You won't feed your family with surveys but it can earn you a little extra to help pay bills and get further ahead financially.

If you want to see a list of confirmed websites that will pay you money, including paid survey sites, visit my page on 276+ websites that will pay you money. The list of survey sites is legitimate.

How the Scam Survey Business Works

The problem is that scam survey companies will prey on that trickle of money and suggest that they can send you a flood. They can't. They make those promises so you'll sign up.

Then what happens? They try to make money off you directly, rather than make money from market research companies by having you respond to surveys.

How do they make money off you? They send you offers, like entries into sweepstakes (enter your zip code and email for a chance to win a $500 Apples iTunes gift card!) or other scammier survey sites.

They'll send you offers of free samples or some other bribe to get you to enter in an email. All the while, earning about $1-3 per sign up (that's about the going rate for a double opt in email address).

Legitimate survey companies also face the problem of unpredictable surveys. Many of them have built up an entire ecosystem around the survey process to give you something to do if you don't have a survey. You see companies like Swagbucks (Swagbucks review) and InboxDollars (InboxDollars review) offer different ways to earn points if you don't have any surveys – some of these include offers.

The distinct difference between the two is that scam survey companies will often inundate you with offers immediately upon signup and without any suggestion that you'll get anything out of it. Legitimate companies set it up like a cashback or pointback scenario, sign up for this offer and get 500 points or $5, thus cutting you in on the commission they earn. You still need to do your research though, which I'll get into shortly.

For a scam survey business, you are the product.

Beware Impersonators

Recently, I've been asked by many readers if Company X or Company Y is legitimate.

In many of those cases, the name of the company was legitimate. The person they were talking to or emailing with was not.

The scammer was pretending to be working at a legitimate survey company!

Identifying this is very hard but if you're asking questions, that's a good thing. Call the company and find out if that person is real and works for them. I discovered this type of scam after a reader, Casey, asked me about Taylor Research company in the comments below.

Someone pretending to be from Taylor emailed him from a GMail account, which set off alarms for Casey (good!). When he called Taylor Research, who is very real and respected, he discovered that everything was real except the person who contacted him and the number he was supposed to call. He was the 3rd person to report it and the police are investigating.

Trust your gut!

Who Can You Trust? (besides your gut)

It's hard to know who to trust before you sign up but I always look at the Better Business Bureau and see what their rating is, whether they have complaints, and what those complaints are about. One of the more popular sites, Swagbucks, has an A+ and 114 closed complaints in the last 3 years. 114 sounds like a lot but when you consider how many members it has and the time frame, ~3 a month is a low number.

Here are five survey companies I've signed up for and can confirm don't have any of the flags listed below.

Then start looking for these red flags:

  • Never pay to join – Huge red flag, you should never be paying to join… legitimate companies spend a lot of money building their rosters because the more people they have, the more likely they can fill in those demographic gaps. They would never ask you to pay to join.
  • Never give social security number, credit card information, or full address – There's really no need for any of that information. The most a company should ask for is general demographic information (age, sex, zip code, income, family, etc.), they don't need your full address and certainly not your social security number.
  • If they force you to go through promotional offers before they show you anything – Some companies have added these other pieces, like watching movies and playing games, to the core survey offering. The reality is they only get so many surveys so to keep you an active member, they offer these others pieces. They don't make you wade through offers to get to surveys.
  • Look for a privacy policy – Legitimate companies will always have a privacy policy and it will be prominently linked on their site, often in the footer. If it's hard to find, I'd move on.
  • They email you from an anonymous account – A legitimate company won't be emailing you from a @Gmail.com or @Yahoo.com or some other free email service. They will have their own business website with their own email address, like @wallethacks.com.
  • Never take a big payment of any kind where you have to pay some of it back – A common scam is for someone to send you a big check and have you send them something back of value, either money or an expensive product. It's known as advance fee fraud and the check will bounce (after spending a few days looking like it's successfully cashed) after a few days, once you've already sent back money or items. Never do this.
  • If it sounds too good… – The language companies use can tell you a lot about them. Scams will promise you hundreds or thousands of dollars a month or extremely high payouts on surveys. Your internal BS detector is very good, if you sense something is off then walk away.

Here's a survey site I find suspicious…

Here's the homepage… at first, nothing looks obviously suspicious about this company.

survey-homepage

When you click on Get Started, the green box is replaced with a “letter” from “Patricia Johnson” with a form at the bottom for name and email. When you enter your name and email, you are sent to this screen where you watch a short video.

The video explains how “Kevin” makes hundreds or thousands of dollars making money sharing his opinion, from the comfort of his own home. The video explains how market research works, like I did in the paragraph above, and is completely accurate. The only complaint I have about the video is that it oversells how much these surveys pay and how much you can earn.

survey-submission-video-page

Watch long enough… and then this appears:

And that, my friends, is why I would never sign up for this site. They want you to pay for membership. Biggest red flag of them all.

The tricky part is that it's hard to know before you sign up! You might be tempted, after putting in your information and watching a video, to give it a try. What's the worst that can happen right?

Will you earn hundreds and thousands of dollars? Maybe.

Is it worth it? Maybe.

Would it shock you to know that this company is willing to pay a $26 commission for each person that signs up? 🙂

Final quick tips…

Here are some other ideas that can help:

  • Always use a separate “survey only” email address – Some companies pay you to “read email” (which is code for they'll email you advertisements) and it can be a lot of email. Plus, if you end up accidentally signing up for a scam, you don't trash your regular email address.
  • Set up a junk “tester” email address – If you are really worried, you can always set up a junk mail only “tester” email address (I have a gmail account I never check, specifically for this) to run through the sign up process once, just to make sure. Sometimes you can get away with using a temporary disposable email, like the ones offered through Guerrilla Mail, but sometimes sites will not allow you to sign up with a disposable email address.
  • Check the BBB – If the name is extremely generic with lots of dashes, it'll be hard to find their company name. This itself is a bit of a red flag because most of the legitimate companies have real names to help with the branding. The ones with generic words don't want to stand out! For legitimate companies, it should be easy to find them on the Better Business Bureau.
  • Check if they are affiliated with CASRO – The CASRO (Council of American Survey Research Organizations) is the leading market and survey research organization.

If you find a survey company and aren't really sure whether they're legit, you can always email me and I can take a look. I can even be your guinea pig and sign up first. 🙂

Just send me an email with the name of the company and I'll take a peek.

List of Legit Survey Sites

This list includes the legitimate survey sites I know. If the company you're wondering about is on this list, you can be reasonably assured they're legitimate at the time of this writing. If they aren't on the list, they could still be legitimate just smaller (so I don't know about them). I just can't say either way. All these companies are on my list of ways to make money.

If you want to share an experience (good or bad) you had with a market research company, let us know in the comments.

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

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  1. marcela grad says

    Hi Jim,

    Thank you for all the advices for finding a good survey site.

    Today I got a phone call from “Fieldwork NRC”.

    A woman called me and, when I told her I would check the site before considering working for them, she was very understanding and gave me a phone number to call if I decided to participate. I am having problems finding the site or information about it – and whether it’s legitimate or a scam.

    Do you know anything about it? I would appreciate it so much your response.

    Thankssss in advance,

    Marcela

    • Jim Wang says

      I don’t know anything about “Fieldwork NRC” but if you can’t find information, it’s probably not a great sign.

  2. Ben says

    Stay away from the company called One Poll. They were once legit, but are now blocking member accounts for false reasons before they reach the $65 min threshold to cash out. They are keeping money earned hostage and refuse to pay.

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