What I Learned From a Freelance Writing Scam

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Clint Eastwood by the Gorillaz, God’s Grill by Cold Duck Complex)

Okay, it wasn’t actually a scam. But it did teach me a lot about freelancing.

A few months ago, while trying to look for opportunities to get more writing experience (this was before I’d started writing for the UCLA Library), I decided to try my hand at doing some freelance. My older brother suggested to me freelancer.com, so I made a profile and gave it a shot.

The way the site works is you make a bid on a job an employer posts online – both what you’re expecting to be paid for it, and how long it will take you to finish it. It’s actually a pretty cool platform – besides writing, they also have freelance web designers, content creators, and even artists. I’ve considered returning to it as an employer to get cover art for some of my projects, but luckily enough I have a badass talented girlfriend who’s willing to draw the sick creatures of my mind.

Okay, shifting lanes from the side track. I didn’t get a lot of success with the first few jobs I bid for, despite utilizing all the various tips I found online (don’t price yourself too low, make sure you’re checking the site constantly, get the in-site training modules to show your skillsets). Then, out of the blue, there was one job I got accepted for! I felt so special.

The person on the other end of things introduced himself and said he wanted me to do some basic article writing – he would give me a topic, and I would provide him with a well-researched, 500-word article on it after an hour or two. The first one he gave me was about tax fraud – choosing a particular type of fraud, researching what it is and how to avoid becoming a victim of it, and writing an article summarizing it for the lay public.

He told me it was an ongoing project, that there was room for me to do up to twenty articles a week. I thought to myself, Well, I definitely can’t do that many, but I didn’t speak up about it – I thought that after we tried the preliminary article, we could discuss my workload per week.

And so instead I wrote. It took me just under an hour and a half to create and edit the article – not the best writing I’d ever done, but solid. The employer was impressed and told me he wanted me to write another one; I asked him for an hour’s break for lunch and we agreed to get back online later that day.

At this point, I had started to receive some conflicting signals. On the legitimate side of things, he had officially hired me through Freelancer using a contract, was validated with the site as a legit employer, and was tracking my work through a Freelancer desktop app that automatically paid per hour. The funds were being credited to my account, and would be officially paid something like two weeks later.

On the shadier side, the man had never given me his name (come to think of it, I’m not even entirely sure he was a man, although there must have been something at some point that made me consider assigning a gender identity). His interactions with me inside the Freelancer chat were restricted to him telling me to contact him through Skype, and the Skype address he gave me was for a company that, as far as I could tell, didn’t exist online. Also, the workload he was insisting on – twenty to twenty-five articles a week, over forty hours of work – was ridiculous.

Okay, hindsight is 20/20, but at that point, I saw that I was being paid for my work through Freelancer and that was all that mattered.

Anyway, I got back on Skype at the proposed time and waited. For hours. The person didn’t contact me again, so after about two hours I sent him a message telling him I would be getting on in the morning the next day before lab, in case he wanted to contact me.

The next day I got on and he wasn’t there. I waited all the way until about five minutes before I had to leave for lab, and he finally got online. He didn’t say anything about his absence; instead he asked if I was ready to write another article.

I told him no, I was about to leave for lab, and that I had some questions about him and the writing I was doing. (At least give me a little credit for being suspicious.)

He told me he worked for XXXXXX (I’m not going to do the site a disservice by discrediting it), a website that produced short content articles for professionals’ pages to help them draw clicks and views. From my limited knowledge, it goes like this: a doctor wants to create a website to sell herself, because all business is done online nowadays. She wants a lot of traffic and knows that a lot of medical keywords on her page will increase her appearance on search engines. So she hires a site like XXXXXX to give her short articles about medical-related stuff, the kind of articles she can load up with keywords to better optimize her site on a search engine. (I’m sure tech people are rolling their eyes right now.)

The guy I was working for was a writer for XXXXXX – a very legitimate site of web content writers. However, a quick web search found a lot of blogs of people who were dissatisfied, either as writers or as site owners, with the quality of work being put up. They claimed that some of the so-called “writers” barely spoke English and instead contracted out their own work to young twenty-somethings who were starting out and looking to prove themselves as content writers.

Sound familiar?

Well, I wasn’t able to do all that research until later in the day. All I got was this guy, very confused/borderline angry, asking why I wasn’t able to write another article. I told him I had work, and that I had been planning on asking him if we couldn’t cut down the number of articles to, say, ten a week (still a lot of work for someone with two part-time commitments).

He said no, the contract was for twenty a week minimum. And that was when I started to freak out. I was already late for work and I sent him a hasty Skype message saying that twenty articles a week wouldn’t be possible for me, and that I was so sorry but I had to leave, and that I would be back soon.

I went to lab and performed an experiment; the entire time, I was growing more and more anxious at thinking what kind of legal ramifications I might invoke by not being able to write the quota. Would I be forced to quit my job at the library to work full-time for this middleman writer? Would I face fines or even lawsuits if I broke the contract?

(Dramatic, I know, but that’s me.)

It got me so worried that I started to feel physically ill. I called in sick to work and headed right back home, intending to try to work things out with this person. When I got back, he had cancelled the job on Freelancer, dissolved my contract and my pay for the first article, and unfriended me on Skype.

My first inclination wasn’t toward indignation – I actually laughed. I was so relieved there wasn’t going to be anything worse than a slap in the face and an embarrassing story to tell my friends (you know, the ones I’d been bragging to about being picked up for freelance).

In the end, I learned a lot about the difference between legal and shady, and I really only lost an hour and a half of my life and like eighteen bucks. I have not since been on Freelancer; I decided pursuing writing through the Library would probably be enough for me without the stress of freelance.

If you’re planning on trying a site like Freelancer, don’t let my experience stop you. A lot of people do really well and go on to have great careers writing freelance professionally. And honestly, if I’d had a better first experience, I would probably still be trying to pick up jobs.

Just remember: if a dude tells you he would prefer to arrange business through Skype, you politely decline.

Yours, chagrined,

-R.R. Buck


4 thoughts on “What I Learned From a Freelance Writing Scam

  1. Well, lesson learned. I’ve actually been trying to get my foot into the freelancing door myself and have heard to stay away from sites like that. There’s too people who are not “professionals.” I’m not saying those sites are completed bad, especially since I don’t know from experience, but I’ve heard it’s better to contact actual companies straightforward. I’ve been cold emailing people and have actually been getting responses.
    Good luck!


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