Tests for isolation by distance (IBD) are the most commonly used method of assessing spatial genetic structure. Many studies have exclusively used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences to test for IBD, but this marker is often in conflict with multilocus markers. Here, we report a review of the literature on IBD, with the aims of determining (a) whether significant IBD is primarily a result of lumping spatially discrete populations, and (b) whether microsatellite datasets are more likely to detect IBD when mtDNA does not. We also provide empirical data from four species in which mtDNA failed to detect IBD by comparing these with microsatellite and SNP data. Our results confirm that IBD is mostly found when distinct regional populations are pooled, and this trend disappears when each is analysed separately. Discrepancies between markers were found in almost half of the studies reviewed, and microsatellites were more likely to detect IBD when mtDNA did not. Our empirical data rejected the lack of IBD in the four species studied, and support for IBD was particularly strong for the SNP data. We conclude that mtDNA sequence data are often not suitable to test for IBD, and can be misleading about species' true dispersal potential. The observed failure of mtDNA to reliably detect IBD, in addition to being a single-locus marker, is likely a result of a selection-driven reduction in genetic diversity obscuring spatial genetic differentiation.