They try to seduce you with promises that you can make money while having fun in your spare time. But, in reality, dozens of online platforms that promise “easy” and “fun” opportunities are rotten side hustles.

To be sure, reasonable people can disagree about what makes a money-making opportunity good or bad. So it’s worth rattling through why we think these side hustles are just plain rotten.

Rotten side hustles

  • You’ll earn less than minimum wage, after accounting for expenses, or…
  • Assets — worth many times your pay — are put at risk when you participate, or…
  • The platform has the contractual right to steal your accumulated wages and has a history of doing so, or…
  • You have to pay upfront fees for largely worthless services.

Perhaps what’s most disturbing about the rotten side hustles is that there are almost always better options in similar industries or with different online platforms. But the better alternatives are less well-known, so they’re often overlooked.

Here are rotten side hustles vs. their better alternatives.

Survey sites vs. focus groups

If you’ve ever been tempted to sign up for a survey site, you should know that no matter how smart and efficient you are, you’re never going to make even close to minimum wage. Yet, you’ve probably seen advertisements for sites like Swagbucks, Survey Junkie, MyPoints, Perksy, and PaidViewpoint, which all try to lure you in with promises of having fun while you earn gift cards and prizes.

Of these sites, Swagbucks and SurveyJunkie appear to be the best of breed. But they’re still pretty sucky for anyone hoping to earn something close to minimum wage. This Swagbucks reviewer figures she earned about 89 cents per hour; another reviewer bragged he’d collected one $10 gift card in two months of trying. When our tester tried SurveyJunkie, he calculated that if he used his time as efficiently as possible, he could earn up to $3 per hour.

Some survey-site advocates say that this one of the few side hustles that you can do while watching t.v. That, of course, is true. And, if your main goal is to feed your ADD while binge-watching Netflix, have at it. But if your goal is to make money, taking surveys is a rotten way to go. 

Better alternative

If you think your time is worth more than $3 an hour, consider signing up for focus group sites instead. Like the survey sites, they pay you to answer questions. However, in this case, you’re likely to be invited to answer questions in person or via Zoom. 

Naturally, you won’t get offered a focus group every day. But if you landed just one, you’d probably make more money than you would doing surveys all year. FindFocusGroups, which matches consumers with focus groups in their area, estimates that the typical focus group takes anywhere from a few hours to a full day and pays $50 to $250.

Another option: Sign up to be a mock juror. Mock jurors are hired to review legal cases to give attorneys better insight into whether they’re presenting the case in a clear and compelling manner. Many cases can be reviewed online in an hour or less. Pay ranges from $5 to $60 per case

Mystery shoppers vs. grocery shoppers

I first heard about mystery shopping when I was a retail employee. The manager of the clothing store I worked for in high school warned us that the company had hired shoppers to make sure we were helpful, efficient and following company policy. If the shopper rated you highly you’d get a whopping bonus of, say, $5.

Little did I realize that the mystery shoppers were earning a similarly paltry rate of pay. However, after reviewing the compensation offered by a half-dozen different mystery shopping companies, one thing is clear. This is no way to make a living.

BestMark and SecretShopper are among the nation’s largest mystery shopping firms. You are certain to get offered plenty of gigs if you sign up with either or both of them. Typical mystery shopping jobs pay $10 to $25 per shop.

The catch? When you account for the time it takes to get to the shop; complete the requisite tasks and write up your report, you’re earning a few bucks an hour, after expenses. On occasion, one of these companies might offer reimbursement for dinner or a movie someplace nice. But those rare plum assignments get snapped up in seconds.

But you love to shop? Consider shopping for groceries or booze for Shipt, Instacart or Dumpling. The pay at these sites won’t knock your socks off either, but it generally exceeds minimum wage.

HyreCar vs. Turo and Giggster

If you have a spare car, you can rent it out and earn upwards of $20 per day. However, the platform you use to rent out your car makes a big difference. In our estimation, renting through HyreCar is a miserable idea; renting through Turo could be good; renting through Giggster could be great.

Here’s why:

HyreCar rents your car to Uber and Lyft drivers. They’re going to drive your car constantly and add a lot of mileage. Additionally, while the site promises to protect you with an insurance policy, the policy is full of holes. (You can find the details in our HyreCar review.) As a result, a raft of car owners claim renters have crashed or stollen their vehicles and they were never reimbursed for the loss. 

Turo rents your car to tourists, who are likely to drive less and take less risk with your vehicle. The site also offers insurance, which owners say has been fairly accommodating about paying claims.

Giggster rents cars (and homes, offices, retail space and land) to photographers and movie producers. If you have a distinctive vehicle, you can rent it by the hour at this site and earn many times more than you would renting it by the day through the other sites. Moreover, you can even restrict the amount it’s driven and require a deposit to ensure it comes back in the same pristine condition.

Wage stealers

Beware websites that require you to accumulate a set amount of earnings before cashing out. Too often these sites consider your earnings their property until the earnings are cashed in.

This is true at a number of sites that promise to pay you for listening to music, such as MusicXray and Slice the Pie. The way these sites abscond with your earnings varies — sometimes they boot you from the platform; other times they simply stop sending work when you near the cash-out threshold. 

Want to make real money with music? If you can play an instrument well enough to teach it, sign up with LessonFace. This site helps you teach online, setting your own rates and schedule. The platform takes a commission ranging between 4% and 15%, depending on whether you brought in the client or they referred the client to you. Other online tutoring platforms can also connect you with students.

Overchargers

At some online platforms, the thing they do best is find imaginative ways to charge side hustlers for useless services. At PeopleperHour, for instance, you get charged to ask questions about your pay; to get someone to respond to you promptly; and for being “inactive” for a period of time.

Freelancer charges side hustlers to take skills tests, and makes it impossible to bid on jobs without paying a monthly fee. After you pay those fees, you get offered work that pays so poorly that it’s not worth your time. If you take the job anyway, you’ll pay Freelancer.com another 20% of these miserable wages.

And those are not even the worst over-chargers among of the rotten side hustle platforms. Two big sites for contractors — Thumbtack and HomeAdvisor — charge undefined, but often exorbitant “referral fees.” Contractors complain that the potential client referrals are bogus. Some go to disconnected phone numbers and to “potential clients,” who never asked for work.

Better options?

Both PeopleperHour and Freelancer supposedly connect freelancers with jobs in writing, technology and other white collar jobs. Far better options for writers can be found through Contently or Skyword. Programmers and digital creatives can find well-paid positions through WorkingNotWorking and FreeeUp. Professionals in other fields can try FlexProfessionals.

Meanwhile, rather than using Thumbtack and HomeAdvisor to find clients, tradespeople would be wise to post on a free neighborhood site, such as Nextdoor. Nextdoor is admittedly a little quirky because it enlists local moderators, who sometimes overstep. But, its common for neighbors to post their availability for everything and anything from tutoring to home repairs. Better yet, if you have a happy client, he or she can post about you, providing a nice referral for free.

Finding good side hustles

None of these jobs are your cup of tea? Search SideHusl’s “work” category and click on one of the 44 different industries offering work. A snapshot of each option in that work category will come up, showing each site’s Husl$core. Pick the platforms with the highest ratings. (The rating formula is on a five-point scale.) The four- and five-rated platforms best serve the freelancer, paying reasonable wages with a minimum of risk.

Skip the platforms with Husl$cores of $ or $$. Those are the rotten side hustles that you’d be wise to avoid.