Wallet Hacks

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.

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 (Ipsos i-Say USA, 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 and InboxDollars 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:

Here's a survey site I find suspicious…

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

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.

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:

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.