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Dollar Signs

Aired June 21, 2003 - 16:30   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: For the next half hour, we'll be talking about your money, how to get more and make what you already have work better for you in this rough economy. We begin with some inspiration from a New York investment banker who lost her six-figure job and made a successful career out of the freebie economy, where companies pay you to test their products and services. So how might you cash in? Let's bring the woman in, who has masterminded the freebie economy, Jennifer Voitle.
Well, good to see you, Jennifer.

JENNIFER VOITLE, MYSTERY SHOPPER: Good to see you, Fredricka. Thank you so much for having me on.

WHITFIELD: Well, great. How in the world did you do this? You lose your six-figure job, which I would imagine sent you into some mild depression, and then somehow you tapped into, you know, really, this jewel of a find in which you can make a living off getting freebies. How did you start?

VOITLE: Well, pretty much what you said, when people are laid off, they all try the traditional means. You look for jobs. I interviewed with pretty much every bank on Wall Street, but with thousands of us on the pavement, it's tough to get a traditional job. So what are you going to do? I wrote a book. But that was -- it paid my August mortgage, and that was gone. So I was trolling the Internet one day and found out about mystery shopping, and, know, I started out ...

WHITFIELD: And what is it, exactly? Explain what mystery shopping is?

VOITLE: OK. Sure. Basically, we are hired to evaluate company services. Companies know today that customer loyalty is of crucial importance. You know, you spend a lot of money to get the customer in the door, now what are you going to do to keep them there? So we mystery shop everything. I mystery shop the hiring process, which is pretty ironic to me, being laid off, I'm kind of an expert in interviewing. So I check that out, because the employees that are hired are the first lines for the company. They're the face of the company, the companies have to make sure that they hire the right people.

WHITFIELD: So in other words, there are some companies that want to hire you -- or they'll pay to you to apply for a job...

VOITLE: Right.

WHITFIELD: ...and you say collect $50 in which to apply for the job. And this is a job that you don't necessarily expect to get or even accept?

VOITLE: No, I'm trained to present myself as the ideal candidate. And my job is to go in there and get that job offer, which is, you know, pretty funny. And then -- go ahead.

WHITFIELD: Now, I understand that in one month you were able to make $7,000.

VOITLE: More or less.

WHITFIELD: More or less, from this kind of, you know, freebie economy. You've gotten vacations. You've, you know, gotten products such as groceries, et cetera. Now, how do you really begin this? What are the tools that you've got to have in order to take advantage of this freebie economy? I guess for one, you've got to have Internet access, right?

VOITLE: Right. Right. I'm so glad you asked that. I think there's three essential components that you need, Internet access, you have to have a car, at least, you know, in areas other than the city, and a cell phone, to me is really important, because I'm out on the road, and companies will call me that I shop for, and I'll be able to react very quickly and nimbly.

WHITFIELD: All right. So for example, let's start with the Internet access. You actually want to visit certain Web sites, don't you, that target mystery shopping. And you sign up with these mystery shopping Web sites online. Then what happens?

VOITLE: Well, I'd start with, which is a free site. You should never pay to mystery shop. Or you can go to, and you can even search by state and industry that you're interested. If you're interested in casinos, or hotels, you can find it there. Sign up with as many companies as you can.

I spent eight hours a day when I first started for months. And then I find -- I got my first job. A lot of times you'll self-assign, you go to the Web site once you got the password, the user name, or the companies will contact you through e-mail when there's something available in your area. And then you just start building from there.

WHITFIELD: Now, it seems like a dream, and it sounds pretty easy. But you even kind of profess that it can be exhausting, just kind of running around all day from appointment to appointment, et cetera. Describe what a typical day is for you.

VOITLE: OK. Well, I do many things other than mystery shopping, and basically I really have about 15 jobs and ventures that I do. And the first thing I do is I check the Internet to see if I've sold a book on The next thing I do is I'll plan out my route. Usually I look about two weeks ahead, and I schedule around the few jobs that I actually do have, the few part-time jobs where I do merchandising. And I'll try to layer everything in there together, and that's how I really make the money. Because you can't really survive just on any single thing that I do, but building everything together, you know, makes a very powerful synergy.

And I'll lay out a map, and a route. And a lot of the stores I do can be done within a window of let's say a two-week period. So if I'm going to be out in Staten Island, I'll look and say, oh, yeah, this job needs to be done, or this one needs to be done. And you know, I'll just have things on the way out to Staten Island or Newark that I can make money at.

So it's like a money hunt.

WHITFIELD: Yes, it certainly sounds like it, and it's paying off for you. So Jennifer, we want to ask you some tips in a moment, but first we want to encourage people to send your questions, you know, to our e-mail. We are accepting some of those questions. We've got a lot more coming up. E-mail us at We're also taking in some of your phone calls for Jennifer to find out how you can strike it rich, so to speak, in this freebie economy. That number is 1-800-807-2620. We'll be right back.


WHITFIELD: All right. We're talking about how you can live large and pay very little doing it. In fact, get paid for doing it. Our guest, Jennifer Voitle, is a mystery shopper who's paid to shop, travel, and dine out. She's taking your questions about the little- known freebie economy. So give us a call at 1-800-807-2620, or you can e-mail us at

And Jennifer, I've got some e-mails for you. In fact, it is a mystery how it is you're able to try out these products, try out foods, even travel, even play golf, and get paid for doing it. Matt writes -- "Most free stuff offers are scams, just getting people to look at a product. Are there actual, real offers out there that are true to their word? If so, how do you distinguish between scams and real offers?"

VOITLE: Well, Matt, the first thing I'd tell you is never, ever pay to do this kind of work. There are many reputable companies. You can find through, it's a free site, and they've been around for at least six years. And you're dealing with real companies, real department stores, real retailers, real restaurants that you're already familiar with. So don't worry about it.

WHITFIELD: So you don't want to give anything to get anything. Because I have seen some of those vacation packages that say, you know, if you pay us this, and we'll send you on this free trip, and then we'll owe you another trip, you say don't go for things like that?

VOITLE: No, absolutely never do that.


VOITLE: There's so many ways to get free travel that you don't even need to deal with any of that.

WHITFIELD: Here's another e-mail from Edwin of Toronto. He says -- "I find free stuff is old stock that a company would rather give away than throw away. The problem is, knowing when this is the case and knowing when to trust and when to see it as a sucker's deal." So what do you advise? He has a good point there.

VOITLE: Well, I'm not really sure that applies with the mystery shopping. I know what he's talking about. But, you know, when you're paid to go out to dine at a restaurant, you know, or go see a movie or go, you know, golfing or go -- what else do I do? You know, everything.

WHITFIELD: It's natural that everybody would be suspicious, though. Because you can't get something for nothing. And that's why I think a lot of folks are wondering, how can this really be true?

VOITLE: Well, let me point out that we are providing a valuable service. We are the eyes of the customer and the ears of management, and we are trained, we're basically business analysts part improv actor and part MacGyver.

WHITFIELD: And kind of like consultants.

VOITLE: Right, we are. And you know, we get -- sometimes I'll get a document that's 10 or 20 pages long, that's very specific. This is why you're going into this bank and financial service, and this is exactly what you're looking for. And in return for the free product or service, or even cash that we receive, we do write reports. And I'm so glad that question was asked.

WHITFIELD: OK, Jennifer. We also have someone on the telephone, because we're encouraging people to call in with their questions as well. And Herman from Miami is on the line. Herman, what's your question or comment?

CALLER: Yes, I would like to know if in Florida, in Miami, do you have an office where I can approach and talk to them and see if I can participate in the program as, like, what you've done?

VOITLE: Do you have Internet access? Because almost all of these jobs -- it's -- that's the mystery part about it. We don't ever actually meet the schedulers, it's pretty much all done on the Internet. And once they know you, they will start calling you. That's why the cell phone is so critical, or they'll start e-mailing you.

CALLER: I'm on the cell phone right now calling. I just heard someone told me about it, and I called. Is there any Internet, in particular, that I'd go into?

VOITLE: I recommend Or, and you can google on Mysteryshop, and if you're in Florida, there's a company, Bear Associates International, there's service evaluation concepts, there's so many really good ones. And you'll find them all on Volition. They've all been tested. There's forms there. You can get advice if you're just starting out. All free. Of course, it's free, or I wouldn't be doing this.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks a lot, Herman.

All right, Jennifer, that's the hard part to believe, that this is all free. You're not giving anything in order to get all these goods and services. So I imagine, you know, you've been doing this for a while now, after being laid off from your six-figure job. And now you're able to supplement a pretty good income and live off it. So what are your favorite, I guess, things that you get for free?

VOITLE: Well, my top favorite thing, I hope you can see this, I'm going to hold it up. This is one secret I'm not going to give away every day. But can you see these?

WHITFIELD: Credit cards?

VOITLE: Free gift cards? Free gift cards like (UNINTELLIGIBLE) $75. American Express gift checks. This is $50. I love to get free miles. Best of all. And the very best thing, there's a lot of promotions going on right now, like Northwest Airlines, fly free fast for three, you can get 10,000 miles.

WHITFIELD: So you're getting free miles, you don't have to actually fly anywhere to accumulate those miles, but you're just given these miles?

VOITLE: Well, I mean, I work at it. Like let's say you're going to dine out at a restaurant and you're already partnered with Northwest Airlines in their frequent flier program or Continental or whatever you like. You can sign up with, and use your mileage on your credit card, and you'll get $10 per mile spent, and you also get a $1 per $1 spent on your mileage credit card. It just multiplies like crazy. And if you get Northwest credit cards, there's another 15,000 miles. So right away you've got a domestic ticket free.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my goodness. That's what you'd call living large. OK. George from Ohio is on the phone and he has got a question or comment for you, Jennifer.

CALLER: Hello, Jennifer.

VOITLE: Hey, George.

CALLER: Hi. How are you?

VOITLE: Great, thanks.

CALLER: I just wanted to say that I have a degree in hotel restaurant management, and I do know that this is legitimate, because I've worked in many restaurants which had been upscale restaurants, and we have had secret shoppers come in. And we usually get some kind of tip somehow some way. But they're very, very cautious of how we treat people all the time, of course, but even more so when they think that somebody or a secret shopper is in. It's unbelievable to see the upper management running around the restaurant like crazy people. And I think it is a wonderful program. And I myself have enjoyed the benefits from working with it as well.

VOITLE: That's great, George. I actually also worked selling printers for Mosaic Sales Solutions. And the funny thing to me is I'm actually mystery shopped myself, so I know what you're talking about.

WHITFIELD: Wow! OK. Well, Jennifer, we've got an e-mail from Scott that I want to read to you as well. If we can put that up on the screen. "Do mystery shopper companies look for a particular demographic of shopper?" That from Scott. Jennifer.

VOITLE: That's another great question, Scott. And actually, when you apply, almost all the time you will be asked to provide your demographic information.

And there are many reasons for that. Don't ever let it scare you off, like let's say you're going for a mortgage. They might want to test out a match pair type of thing where they've got one couple of a certain demographic applying against, you know, another one. Or, you know, they want certain -- the clients actually will specify the type of customer, they'll want a certain age group, or sometimes they have to have men and I can't do that, or they'll have -- actually the most interesting thing, if you've got a teen at home, or between 18 and 21, they need people to do compliance audits. So you'll actually go and buy beer and cigarettes -- I mean, what a job. And then you test to see, did they check for ID?

WHITFIELD: Is there ever information that you don't want to give out, that makes you a little bit suspicious about a company?

VOITLE: You know, when I first started applying, they asked for my Social Security number right off, I'd always give a fake one. And then by the time they call me and they're starting to pay me, then I'm, like, OK. Because you worry about identity theft. And who are you giving your information to? Because we don't meet these people in person.

But I think if you stick with them, the MSPA site, Mystery Shoppers Professional Association, or Volition, all those companies are reputable as far as I know.

WHITFIELD: All right. And I'm going to look for your final thoughts now, perhaps your final tips, your best tips that you're willing to share with some of -- what could potentially be your competition out there as a mystery shopper.

VOITLE: Well, I'm just hoping that maybe more businesses will see the benefits to using mystery shoppers, and the entire size of the pie will just increase.

And people can try this. There is hope out there. That's the one message I want to give. If you're laid off or if you're struggling and you don't know what to do, you should give this a try.

And you're going to start out -- I started off real slow, like, $10 a day, $15 a day, and I set goals, like $100 a day, and once I hit that, it took a couple of month, then I'm like, I'm going to make $200 a day.

And you just have to keep at it. You have to be very methodical, very organized, and you'll be able to do this and you'll be able to enjoy, you know, doing things that maybe you couldn't otherwise afford.

WHITFIELD: All right. Jennifer Voitle, thanks very much, appreciate it. Thanks for the tips on living large and not even having to pay much for it.

All right. Well, just when you thought they could go no lower, I'm talking about interest rates, home mortgages are now going through the floor. At least from the interest rates standpoint. Is this the time to refinance? Hear what our experts have to say when "Dollar Signs" returns.


WHITFIELD: One bright spot in the bleak economy has been the housing industry. Mortgage rates are at a 40-year low, making it a great time to refinance your home. But how do you know if it's right for you? And if now is the time to do it? Stacey Bradford, associate editor of Smart Magazine,, that is, is here to help us crunch the numbers. We're also taking your questions on refinancing at 1-800-807-2620, or you can e-mail us at

All right. Good to see you.

When do you know if it's most beneficial for you to try to refinance? Because sometimes it may cost you a little bit more than you expected initially if you try to refinance? When would it best benefit you?

STACEY BRADFORD, SMARTMONEY.COM: Well, I think the first thing you want to consider is the fact that rates are at a 40-year low. So if you bought a house a number of years ago, chances are rates are a lot lower now. So then you take a look at your interest rate. And there's a rule of thumb that if you can save at least 1 percentage point on a mortgage, it's probably a good idea to consider at least crunching the numbers to see if it makes sense for you.

WHITFIELD: And then what you also have to keep in mind is sometimes, even if you're able to lock in a pretty low interest rate, you've got to ask about closing costs, because sometimes that can make it unaffordable for you at the time, right?

BRADFORD: That's a very good point. Now, closing costs can vary, but the average closing costs is usually around $2,000 to $3,000. So what you want to do is you want to take a look at where your monthly payment is today, where it would be if you were to refinance at a lower rate, and then divide that into how much your closing costs will be, and see how long it will take you to recoup your savings.

WHITFIELD: But there's also a possibility of having no costs closing, right? How do you do that?

BRADFORD: Well, there's always a cost. So don't believe anybody if they tell you that it isn't. It's just that they're wrapping it into your mortgage itself so you don't really feel it on a monthly basis. But you should be very careful, because when you do that, it would be very easy for somebody to maybe sneak in a few extra costs that you're unaware of. So make sure you read everything very closely.

WHITFIELD: And what do you need to consider in terms of how long you're going to be staying in the house? Is it beneficial if it's only going to be another five years, or does it need to be at least 10 years, 20 years, et cetera?

BRADFORD: Well, it really depends on everybody's individual circumstance. But what you want to do is, as I was mentioning, let's say you have a $300,000 mortgage. And I just ran some numbers as an example that might help some people.


BRADFORD: If you start off with a 6.5 mortgage, which somebody might have had maybe a year ago or so, and they refinanced now at, let's say, 5.25, it will take you roughly maybe 12 months to recoup your costs if you have $3,000 in closing costs.

WHITFIELD: Wow! And if you do end up refinancing, it's advisable, I hear from so many analysts, that you don't want to go for another 30-year, but perhaps you want to reduce the time. Fifteen years, 10 years, et cetera. What's your best advice on that? Do you agree with that formula?

BRADFORD: Well, again, it's individual. But I have to say that if you're considering going into a 15-year mortgage, and if you can afford it, because keep in mind, your monthly payments will be much higher, this is an excellent way to build equity in your home because you're paying so much less interest. So if you can afford it, you should do it.

WHITFIELD: All right. Stacey Bradford, Thanks very much, appreciate it, for helping us save money.

BRADFORD: Thank you.


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