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I’ve mentioned before that I dabble in the world of secret shopping occasionally.  It’s not a bad gig, but oftentimes the amount of money they’re willing to pay me to, for example, drive to Warwick (20 minutes) and pretend to be interested in a buying a motorcycle, just isn’t worth it.  So it’s not a steady source of income, but occasionally something lands in my inbox that I’m actually willing to do

A few months ago, it was secret shopping the University of Phoenix.

As a librarian, I have a rather large beef  with the University of Phoenix.  Since all the classes are online, there is no physical school and no physical library.  This, however, does not stop University of Phoenix students from needing a library, and they often come to me, the public librarian, and expect me to have materials to support their specific curriculum.  They usually become unpleasant when I tell them that we do not have medical coding books, and do not seem to care when I explain that buying those books doesn’t really fall within the purview of the public library.

As a secret shopper, I was all too willing to evaluate their level of customer service, particularly since their online nature meant I could do it from home in my jammies.   So I filled out the online request for more information stating that I have no college education (the secret shopping company said I had to lie about that), and was interested in a B.S. in psychology.  I used to want to be a psychologist when I was an angsty pre-teen, so I figured this was kind of a way to live the dream.  After filling out the form, U of P was supposed to call me and we would further discuss how they could meet my needs.

They never called.

They were supposed to call me within an hour, but it didn’t happen.  I sat there in bed awkwardly wondering what I should do with myself since I didn’t want to get involved with a project or book that I might have to abandon if they called.  I was also a bit anxious about flubbing the script, so I re-read the guidelines for the secret shop about ten times, and waited by the phone which is a truly unpleasant experience.

Finally after an hour and a half, I abandoned my waiting and went for a run expecting to come home to a voicemail–still nothing.

So I washed my hands of them, and decided to fill out the online questionnaire with my secret shopping company stating that the U of P did not call me back, then wait for my check to arrive.  Sadly, it was not so easy.  I needed some kind of code that I could only get from the counselor I was supposed to speak to (presumably to keep secret shoppers from going “oops, they didn’t call me, gimme cash”), and after three days of not submitting my secret shopping report, I got an email from the secret shopping company asking, “what the hell?” and concluding with, “you call them if you want to get paid.”

So I spoke to a very nice man named Jason about my career goals and what the U of P could do for me.

“What has your life been like with no college education?” he asked in a thoughtful and somewhat velvety tone.

“Hard.” I told him, “Really hard.”  There was a long pause where he seemed to be waiting for me to expand on that, so I threw in a “paycheck to paycheck, barely getting by.”

“And how do you think a degree in psychology will help you out?”

To this question, I had no answer.  All I know about the field of psychology is that it requires further education beyond a bachelor’s degree.  I imagine most people with a BS in psychology work in an unrelated field where they’ve been able to parlay their understanding of the human brain into some kind of asset, but this is all speculation.  Finally I just told Jason, “I don’t know, I hope to figure that out once I’m in the program.”

The secret shopping company had not warned me that this counselor would probably ask questions about my (fake) life, so I was very ill-prepared, but I think I pulled it off.

Then Jason called back.

This phone call happened four months after the initial one, and he was just following up (in a very concerned voice) to see why I hadn’t enrolled and started down the road to education and life improvement.  As I’d already been paid, I really didn’t want to spend anymore time mulling over my fake life with Jason, but as I am far too nice, I told him that I’d gotten a new, better-paying job, and would consider college again in the future.

“What are you doing these days?” he asked.

There was a long pause where I tried to remember what I had already told him.  What if he’d taken notes?  Should I just say “I’m a secret shopper, congratulations, I gave you a good review.”

“I have another call I have to take.” I told him and quickly hung up.

Nowhere in my secret shopper agreement and terms does it say that I have to continue to play along four months after the initial transaction, but my Midwestern niceness dooms me to, well, niceness.

I hope he doesn’t call back.

home loans_bannerI signed up with a couple of secret shopping agencies a few months ago, but haven’t really pursued it at all.  It’s funny, when I was working in retail, I was always the victim of the secret shop and came to loathe these people–now, I have become what I hate (little melodramatic).  Most of the shops that came into my inbox were very unappealing–going to a motorcycle shop in Warwick (hate Warwick), going to a cell phone kiosk in Cranston (hate cell phone kiosks); plus the pay seemed really low for the time and travel they would take.

Then one of the companies that is a subsidiary of another one I signed up with started calling me.  Turns out all it takes is being a bit courted to make me jump at the chance to help out.  For a decent amount of money, I agreed to go to a local bank and inquire about a home loan.  This is all rather hilarious to me because it seems like anyone who would be doing secret shopping, would probably not be earning enough money to afford any kind of mortgage, but I guess I don’t know for sure.

Certainly I’m not earning enough money to take on that, or any, financial responsibility, and I half expected the banker to laugh me out of the building when I told him “I freelance.” I’ve been freelancing for about two months, have lived in my current residence since July 1, and kind of shrugged when he asked where I get my money, I thought that he’d tell me to get back to him when things had picked up.  My credit score is stellar, but on paper I look like a total flake.

“We’ll just use last year’s tax return.” he told me.

I can’t help but feel like it’s this kind of thinking that created our current state of economic crisis.

As the daughter of a woman who handles big money real estate loans, I may know a little more than the average bear about this kind of thing.  The reason the banks occasionally do take risks on somewhat unattractive loan candidates is that if the person defaults, the bank gets a house that they can resell, plus any money that was paid back toward the principal of the loan.  The bank doesn’t really lose, because it retains a way to make its money back–that’s how it used to be.

Now, as everyone knows, the market is flooded with cheap property and the system is tilted heavily in favor of the buyer.  The bank could take your house away, but they probably couldn’t resell it quickly or without loss–so why do they want to take a chance on me?

I’m baffled, and a little afraid, but I will discuss my options with the mortage broker and see what else he has to tell me.  Hopefully, they won’t find a way to offer me an obscene amount of money, so I can rest easily knowing that they won’t be doing the same to someone else who is inquiring legitimately.