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Let’s say you want to earn some extra pocket cash, but you’re short on free time (and energy). Your phone might be a good place to start. There are quite a few apps designed to help you earn some extra dough, either in the form of gift cards or standard cold, hard cash.
There is a trade-off, however. Nearly any kind of reward app, even the legitimate ones, will track at least some of your personal data.
1. What They Do With Your Data: Find out what kind of data is collected, how that data is used, how long the company retains it and whom the company shares it with, Mr. Bischoff said. “Giving up your privacy to a data-collection company should not be done lightly,” he warned. “Both iOS and Android alert users when an app asks for a new permission.” That might be permission to access your location, photos or contacts, for example. “Think about whether that permission is really necessary for the app to work or if it’s just using that permission to mine more personal data,” he said.
2. How They Make Money: “From a consumer’s standpoint, it’s important to understand what the monetization model is for the company that makes these apps,” added Kowsik Guruswamy, chief technology officer at Menlo Security. “That alone can be very revealing in how the companies plan to use their data.” For example, an app might make money through sponsorships with the brands it partners with or it might offer customers paid upgrades. However, it’s also likely it makes money selling your data to advertisers or other third parties, which is why it’s important to note what kind of data it tracks and how it uses it.
3. What Other Users Have to Say: Beyond reading the fine print, you can also research the app’s reputation via online reviews. Pay special attention to reviews that address privacy issues. “While many apps offer legitimate means to make money — taking surveys, snapping photos of local businesses, lock screen ads and reviewing products — be wary of apps that seem too good to be true,” Mr. Bischoff said. “Sometimes an app combines a legitimate cash-for-task model with background data collection, so watch out for that, too.”
We looked at dozens of apps that promise to help you make money from the comfort of your smartphone, and most of them aren’t worth your time. Some, however, do what they promise, even if the trade-off is a good bit of your personal data.
If you’re willing to trade, the following (free) apps are well established and can legitimately help you earn cash back. No, you won’t fund your retirement or put a down payment on your home, but you can earn a few bucks to pay for your latte — or dare we suggest avocado toast?
If you don’t mind searching the web, answering surveys or watching videos, you can earn a few “Swagbucks,” which you can then trade in for gift cards at places like Amazon, Starbucks and Home Depot.
“I typically cash out the Swagbucks for gift cards that I use on Amazon to buy household goods,” said Cherie Lowe, a personal finance writer and author of the book “Slaying the Debt Dragon.” Ms. Lowe has used the app for nearly eight years, earning around $3,000 worth of gift cards over all. “I did save up enough to get $600 to put toward a laptop at the Apple store at one point in time,” she added.
You can earn one Swagbuck for every dollar you spend at certain online retailers, too. According to the Swagbucks website, this is the equivalent of earning 1 percent cash back. With online surveys, you typically earn 40 to 200 Swagbucks (100 Swagbucks = $1), according to the site. You can also earn a few Swagbucks for watching videos, and the app will tell you how long you can expect to spend watching. You’ll spend about half an hour and earn a few points.
Shopkick rewards you for shopping at stores you probably visit anyway: CVS, Marshalls and Best Buy are a few of its partner retailers.
“Shopkick I primarily use in Target,” Ms. Lowe said. “Because why not get rewarded when you’re there? I like that you can cash out your rewards at as little as $2 in gift cards, too. Every little bit helps. I typically stockpile and cash out around Christmas to supplement our budget.”
Once you download the app, you earn points, or “kicks,” every time you spend at partner retailers. You can earn kicks without spending, too, by checking into stores or scanning certain items. While you won’t get cash back directly, you can trade the points for gift cards to dozens of partner retailers. In short, Shopkick essentially works like any other rewards shopping site except there’s no need to hop through a portal to earn your points. Just spend with your card as you normally would.
Ibotta is a couponing app, but instead of getting a discount on your purchases, you get cash-back rebates. You check the app for offers — $1 cash back on a pizza brand, for example — and then either scan your receipt or link the app to your store loyalty cards so your savings are automatic. Ibotta accepts receipts only from participating stores and retailers, but most of the big players are listed: Whole Foods, Walmart, Ralph’s, Kroger, HEB. Some offers will apply to only one retailer; others might be valid at several.
“I use Ibotta regularly and have made $253 so far,” said Jessica Landon, an avid Ibotta user who’s been using the app for about a year and a half. “I usually look up offers before I head in the store, then upload and scan the products right when I get in my car so I don’t forget.” She said staples like produce usually earned only about 25 cents cash back, but it can add up. “Buying beer for my husband usually gets me larger amounts. Diapers is another item that can earn you cash back faster.”
With UserTesting, you get paid to offer feedback on a website. The pay is $10 per test, and it involves visiting a website, completing some tasks, then recording your feedback about the user experience. While you’re visiting the app, UserTesting uses software to record your mouse movements, clicks and your voice. The tasks take about 10 to 20 minutes to complete.
To use the software, you will need an internet connection and a microphone and to be able to download their testing software. If you want to take mobile tests, you’ll need an iPhone, an iPad, an Android phone or an Android tablet. You’re paid via PayPal, which means you can live and use the service to make money as long as you live in a country where PayPal works.
Privacy-wise, you want to be extra careful with apps that track your behavior in this way. Of course, UserTesting needs to track your experience, as that’s the entire point of the service.