The idea of making money online without having to leave your couch is appealing. But while the internet is a great place to do business, it’s teeming with “opportunities” that aren’t worth your while. In extreme cases, they can take more than they give.
I asked three people to share their worst experiences trying to make money on the internet and what they’d recommend instead.
1. Online surveys
Surveys are a ubiquitous way to earn money online, and many personal finance websites recommend them. But unless you have a lot of time on your hands and no other options, they likely won’t be worth the effort.
“They take up so much time, and you literally only earn pennies [per survey],” said Jennifer Jackson, a Millennial transition coach. “I earned a whopping $5 after three hours of work.”
That’s a dismal $1.66 per hour, which is better than another Student Loan Hero writer did when testing online survey websites; she earned just $1.18 per hour. Jackson recommended looking for online and in-person focus groups instead.
“There are usually organizations in large metro cities that conduct studies, which can pay you hundreds of dollars,” she said. “I’ve earned up to $550 for just a few hours of work. I have done taste tests where you basically get paid to eat food, studies on upcoming TV shows, and even alcohol studies where they pay you to drink beer.”
2. Mystery shopping
Mystery shopping is a tool companies use to measure the quality of service at a specific location or to gather information about a product or service.
While you might think it’s something you’d do in person, several companies make mystery shopping possible with your computer and phone.
Rachel Smith, a blogger at Budgets and Kale, tried a mystery shopping gig that involved calling a car dealership to set up a service appointment. “This meant coming up with a fake car make and model and scheduling an appointment, then canceling the next day,” she said.
Each call netted her between $3 and $5, and she could complete each one in under five minutes, earning about $50 total. But the follow-up calls kept coming long after she thought she was done with the work.
“I was receiving call after call,” she said. “One dealership called me from a different state and attempted to set up my appointment several months later. I remember being so confused on the phone. Why would someone call me from a different state about a car I didn’t own? It was actually a bit unsettling — like maybe someone had stolen my information.”
If you’re thinking about mystery shopping online, consider using a Google Voice phone number or something similar.
Smith also recommended website auditing. Sites like UserTesting, which I’ve used, pay up to $10 per 20 minutes of your time. Once you sign up, you’ll visit a website or app, complete a set of tasks while recording, and voice your thoughts out loud as you go.
3. Reselling products from overseas
Kevin Cash, co-founder of CardCruncher, has tried countless ways to make money online. His worst experience? Trying to sell activated carbon filters imported from China.
“I discovered this growing trend of people buying these big activated carbon filters on eBay for hydroponic greenhouses,” he said. “I wanted a piece of the action at a time when I had very little money.”
Cash and a friend put together almost all the money they had, did a lot of research, and negotiated with suppliers from China. But when they got the sample product in the mail, he realized the quality was subpar. The filter was dirty and much heavier than he’d anticipated.
He realized a lot of customers might try to return these filters if he shipped them out.
“I hadn’t really factored in customer returns to the business model,” he said. “My plan was to bootstrap the business, and factoring in returns made that very complicated. The business ended up failing before we even made a sale.” The partners lost roughly $1,500 on their online business idea.
To be fair, importing and reselling products from overseas can be a good way to make money online — just not if you’re looking for a quick buck.
For his part, Cash learned from his mistakes and has done it again with a different product. “My business partner and I ended up learning a lot from that whole process,” he said. “We leveraged that experience into another import business, which has been pretty successful.”
Other ways to make money online that disappoint
Taking surveys, mystery shopping, and importing products from overseas aren’t the only ways to make very little — or even lose — money online. Here are some others to watch out for:
- Multilevel marketing companies (MLMs): If you haven’t been invited to a Facebook “party” by one of your friends selling yoga pants, children’s books, or essential oils, just wait. Many MLMs require that members pay for products upfront in hopes of reselling them at a markup. The problem? More than 99% of people who participate in MLMs lose money, according to a report by the Federal Trade Commission.
- Online gambling: Gambling in any form is a bad bet if you’re trying to earn money. And the fact that online gambling is available 24/7 and you can do it in your underwear could make it more addictive than gambling in person.
- Day trading: Unless you’re an experienced investor, trying to time the stock market through day trading is a risky venture. If you’re new to investing, invest wisely by sticking with mutual funds for now. It’s not as sexy, but you’ll have a better chance of making money.
- Scams: If an offer to make money online sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Scammers capitalize on your desperation and often ask for personal information so they can steal your identity or for money to set up the job. If something feels off — such as poor spelling and grammar in an ad or on a website or a request for you to send money — it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you’re trying to start a new side hustle or just make a little money online, it’s important to know which opportunities are worth it and which ones aren’t. While we’ve mostly pointed out bad ideas, check out our list of 24 legitimate ways to make money online for better alternatives.
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