Friday, March 20, 2009

A Message from MSPA

Today I am only calling your attention to a legislative matter. The MSPA has the following on their site:

Dear Mystery Shopper:

MSPA has some very important, and quite serious, information for you.

There are some very serious legislative threats that could deny you the right to work as an independent contractor and threaten the mystery shopping industry.

We urge you to contact your Senators and Members of Congress and implore them to oppose legislation that would undermine the legal recognition of independent-contractor status.

We ask that you contact your Senators and your Congressional Representatives in three ways:
  1. Call their Washington or home district offices
  2. Send them an email or submit a web-form message to them
  3. Write and mail a letter to them (and copy us at the address on the bottom of this message or send a copy by fax or email)
The following are suggested points you should make in your communications:
  • I am an independent contractor (I do mystery shopping on contract with companies) and I strongly urge you to oppose any proposals that would threaten my right to work as an independent contractor
  • New laws that increase the risks to companies that do business with independent contractors put legitimate self-employed service providers – like me – out of business, because our clients will be afraid to do business with us.
  • Many companies that are clients of Independent Contractors qualify for Section 530 protection and need the certainty that Section 530 provides in order to continue doing business with independent contractors – like me.
  • IRS data indicate that the federal tax compliance rate for independent contractors whose earnings are reported on Forms 1099 is 97%, which is only 2 percentage points lower than the 99% compliance rate for employees--that is, we are, as a group, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens.
  • Now is an especially inappropriate time for the government to take any action that will depress economic activity, especially in the entrepreneurial sector.
For your further information, at this point, we are not aware of any specific anti-independent-contractor bills that have been introduced in the U.S. Congress. Nonetheless, we believe that bills that would make it more difficult to establish independent-contractor relationships are currently being drafted. Our request is that you join us in our effort to urge elected representatives to oppose any such bills.

That having been said, one of the major areas of concern is the prospect of making changes to Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978. As written, Section 530 provides parties to covered business relationships with absolute certainty that the independent-contractor status of their relationship will be respected for federal employment tax purposes. Prior efforts that we believe will be resurrected would remove that protected certainty. The protection afforded both to shoppers and to mystery shopping companies would be eliminated under provisions of earlier attempts to change the law and we believe the same efforts will be made this year.

We believe the preservation of independent-contractor status is critical to the mystery shopping industry. If new Federal legislation were enacted that significantly increases the legal risks associated with doing business with independent contractors, it is impossible to predict with absolute accuracy how that would affect the mystery shopping industry. We believe, however, that the effect, on balance, would be extremely negative. If a new law were to result in companies hiring mystery shoppers as employees, the cost to clients would necessarily increase, and that cost increase could lead to a singificant reduction in the amount of mystery shopping opportunities available.

Thank you for your support in this very important effort.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Don't wait until April 15th!

Ah, tax time. The joy, the challenge, the excitement. Yeah. Okay. Look, I'm no professional tax preparer, and don't give advice on how to fill out forms. But, if you have no clue how to go about this, here are some suggestions:

Of course, your records are all in order, easy to get to, and make sense, so this won't take long. You have your list of assignments with all the information about what you have been paid, including bonuses and reimbursements. You have your mileage sheet all together and calculated, so you know how many miles you drove for business purposes. All your office supply purchases are listed, your receipts are kept and filed and you have a total for them.

You'll need a Schedule C, a Schedule SE (probably the long form, although your tax advisor can help you) and the regular tax form. Because you've had self-employment earnings, that means it's the 1040 for you.

If you have earned $600 or more from a single company, they will have sent you a 1099 Report of Earnings form. Don't be fooled into thinking you don't have to report any money you make that is less than that $600 figure. The IRS expects all income to be declared.

Now it's just a matter of reading through the forms and filling in the blanks. Pay attention to mileage, the standard deduction changed from 50.5 cents per mile to 58.5 cents per mile on July 1.

Consensus is split as to the "activity code" to use for mystery shopping. Many shoppers use 999999, Unable to Classify. 561600, Investigation and Security Services is a common code for shoppers in states that require a private investigator's license. I personally like 541910, Market Research & Public Opinion Polling. Again, check with your tax preparer or accountant.

Good luck, file early, and get help. The first time seems harder than it really is.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Spell Checking

Ode to a Spell Checker

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marks four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a quay and type a word and weight for it to say
Weather eye yam wrong oar write.
It shows me strait a weigh as soon as a mist ache is maid.
It nose bee fore two long and eye can put the error rite.
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore your pleased to no.
Its letter perfect awl the way.
My checker told me sew.
Author unknown

Spell checking software is helpful, and clearly has its limits. If you are of the age to perform mystery shopping and are not a proficient speller, I can recommend a couple solutions.

First, get educated. If that means taking online lessons, do it! There are many resources online, free and confidential.

Second, take advantage of the power of the synonym. If you are writing a narrative and run across a word you just aren't sure how to spell, think of another word to use!

Finally, get a good dictionary and keep it by your computer. It will help you determine the correct usage for effect/affect, lay/lie, who/whom and many more.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sentences and Comma Splices

This is a sentence. It starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. It contains a subject and a verb. "Is this a sentence?" Yes, it is. "This?" No, it has no verb. "Well, who are you to tell me what a sentence is, I've been writing sentences my whole life!" Aha! Comma splice!

A comma splice is where you take two sentences and join them with a comma. Each sentence should convey one idea. When you jump to the next idea, start a new sentence. So...

"Well, who are you to tell me what a sentence is? I've been writing sentences my whole life!"

Friday, February 6, 2009

Report Writing: Lesson One

Get ready for a thoroughly boring series! Yes, that's right folks, it's grammar time! I don't want to insult anyone's intelligence, but if the advertising of 2009 is any indication, there is a serious Grammar Gap. Mystery shopping companies tend to hire editors with good language skills, so if you want good grades on your assignments, perhaps a quick brush-up is in order. Let's start with my favorite.

The apostrophe: Probably the most misused character these days, the apostrophe is used in two cases: to take the place of a missing letter as in "don't" for do not; and to show ownership as in "Becky's shoe"—the shoe belonging to Becky. Let us examine possession first.

WRONG: Piano's Repaired Here, Orange's 4 for $1, —There's no ownership or letters missing, this is a simple case of more than one thing, and should have no apostrophe.

In the case of a word ending in "s", very often you will see the apostrophe after the "s" to form a plural. So if you have more than one pencil, and they all have points, you would say pencils' points.

WRONG: Pencils's points. Pencilss points. Pencilses points.

Its or it's? In the case of posession, use "its." An easy way to remember this rule is to compare the object to "his." If the lamp were a guy, you would say "his shade," not "hi's shade," right? So using "it" would become "its shade" not "it's shade."

Okay, that's enough for today. Go forth and look for examples and you'll be amazed at how many are confused by such a small mark!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Serious Stuff

If you stick with mystery shopping long enough, one day it will happen. It's disconcerting at best, downright dangerous at worst, and leaves you with a seriously uncomfortable feeling. It could be two employees roughhousing next to the fryer. Perhaps you see a supervisor shove an employee or use foul or demeaning language. Maybe you catch sight of a cashier's hand going from till to pocket. Or worse.

Most undercover assignments come with very clear instructions about not identifying yourself—ever. But what about when the serious stuff happens right there in front of you? How will you handle yourself and the situation?

First, let's think through some scenarios. If there is a serious danger to life or limb and you feel action must be taken, take it. You don't need to identify yourself as a mystery shopper to alert the manager to an unsafe condition or action. It's a good idea to keep the phone number of the assigning mystery shopping company somewhere close by. If it's during business hours, you can excuse yourself to your car, call the company and explain what happened. They will advise you on whether you should proceed with your shop. If the company cannot be reached by phone, continue on with your shop, detailing the condition or action very precisely in your report.

If you see abuse, physical or verbal, a phone call to your assigning agency (outside of earshot of the store, please) is a good idea. Again, they may wish to cancel your shop immediately, or they might have you continue. As long as the situation doesn't degrade to fisticuffs or handguns, it's a disciplinary issue but not dangerous.

In the case of till-to-pocket, the situation might not be what you think you saw. As a trained observer, you will need to describe the incident as clearly as possible in your written report. Did you actually see the money go into the employee's pocket, or was she reaching for a tissue? Exact times here are crucial as many stores will have security video they can check. Your very best, honest reporting of the occurrence without personal commentary, is essential.

It is very hard to avoid personal commentary in these situations. It seems natural to attribute blame to one party, but that is not your call.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A challenging photo audit

I had an "open audit" not long ago. I was asked to visit one of those mall playgrounds with rides and check each ride. Each ride was tested (with a helpful rider I brought along), photographed, described and the overall platform was checked for safety issues. The mystery shopping company provided me with an authorization letter in case I was questioned.

While performing my audit, I noticed an older gentleman watching me very closely. When I got out my camera to photograph a safety issue, he got on his cell phone. Within moments, my daughter and I were being escorted to the mall cop office for questioning. I showed them my letter, which did not impress them. I explained the assignment, which did not impress them. I provided the phone number of the assigning company and my business card, which they pushed aside on their desk. I asked their concern and they said, "You can't be too careful nowadays. What if you're a terrorist taking pictures so you'll know the best place to set a bomb?"

National paranoia is running a tad high, which I can certainly understand. The older gentleman acted very wisely, in my opinion. He was alert to suspicious activity and reported it to the proper authorities. The mall cops even handled it well, and called the assigning company to verify my credentials...eventually. Everyone remained calm and non-threatening.

But those of us who work in stealth mode need to know that we are being observed, and those observations might raise suspicion. And we need to be prepared. Think through the scenario at least once every couple months in your career. What do you do if you are questioned by a store employee? A manager? A mall cop? A police officer? Each answer should be slightly different. I had an advantage in that this was an open audit and I felt free to discuss my assignment. Had I been "undercover," the situation might have been a bit pricklier.

It deserves a moment of your time to consider the scenario, however.