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Bidding on Elance? Beware The Rise of Middleman Writing Scams

Carol Tice


Have you ever wondered who you’re really writing for, when you get a gig on a place like Elance?

Recently, my eyes were opened to a racket that’s going on at many of these online platforms, that writers should beware of.

First, there was the situation where I discovered an imposter was posing as me on Elance, hiring writers, and then stiffing them.

But I recently learned this was not a one-off, fluke situation, that one scammer took a bunch of Elance assignments and then subbed the work out to other writers, instead of writing the pieces themselves.

It turns out that middlemen writing scams are increasingly common on content mills and bid sites. I learned about this scene when I got an email from a man who said he had a business proposal for me.


A ‘business partnership’ offer

Don told me it was good time to “invest” in sites such as Elance. When I pointed out that they were privately held companies, so it was hard to own shares of stock in them, he said that’s not what he meant.

He wanted to team up to speculate in Elance assignments. He would spend time on Elance, scooping up assignment offers, and we’d leverage my reputation to get good gigs.

Then, my good name would also attract writers who would subcontract from us and do the actual writing.

We’d turn in the articles and keep a cut of the fee offered by the client. (If this sounds a lot like the Elance scam above, except with me doing it for real, that would be because it’s identical, except for the identity-theft factor.)

A friend of Don’s was raking in the dough with this approach, and Don was eager to get in on the action. Don had noticed that writers were having trouble even being accepted on some platforms, and were stuck on waiting lists, unable to get assignments.

That’s where the “business” opportunity comes in:

“My friend showed me how he invests in [Elance], by picking articles and sending them to other writers. After they are through writing the pieces, he submits them [to the client] and pays the writers three-quarters of the money he gets.

“Trust me, people are making money [this way], because writers are stranded due to lack of work in content mills.”–Don

Not impressed

Regular readers of this blog can probably imagine my reaction to this charming invitation to scam writers by hogging all the Elance assignments I could get my paws on, so that I could sub them back out and keep 25 percent of the (usually already tiny) payment as a finder’s fee.

When I pointed out to Don that this was a form of writer exploitation by middlemen who add absolutely zero value to the article-writing process–and that this is the very sort of thing I’ve been on a 7-year crusade against on this blog–he responded:

“I also asked him why he was exploiting writers, but he told me that it’s normal in all bidding sites, such as Freelancer.com and Elance.

“I had to check it out myself, and I found out that most jobs [on these sites] are offered by people from India and Pakistan. That raises an alarm, since they come from Third World countries, and their rates are pretty disgusting. How can I, or you, judge him if he’s offering better rates than those guys?”

So there you have it, folks. At this point, demand for low-paid mill work is so intense, and the supply of work is drying up so fast, that ‘entrepreneurs’ have spotted an opportunity. Given the vast quantities of extremely cheap work offered, they can step in as intermediaries on some gigs and still offer writers a price that’s competitive with the bottom of the barrel.

I feel like I need to take a shower, just describing how that works.

By buying wholesale quantities of assignments on Elance and other bid sites, they can make a markup on what they pay you. Sub out enough work, and it starts to add up to real cash, which goes to people who spend a couple minutes on admin work, compared to your hours of actual writing.

What it means

How does this affect writers? To sum up, this is not good news.

I see two big problems here:

1. Falling wages. The rise of bid-site middlemen means wages for writers are falling. A middleman’s cut is coming out of the revenue you would have made if you’d managed to win that assignment yourself.

2. Fewer testimonials and referrals. If many gigs are being snapped up by speculators who seek to profit off writing assignments they plan to sub out, then you’re usually dealing with a bogus intermediary who’s of no real use to your career. When you’re not dealing directly with the end client, you can’t build a relationship and get testimonials or referrals.

What’s the moral to the story? The rise of Elance middlemen is just another reason why I don’t recommend these sorts of platforms for serious freelance writers.

But if you are writing on mills or Elance, try to find situations where you’re dealing with a real client, instead of a middleman. That gives you the best shot at keeping all the money on offer for a gig, and is your only shot at connecting with clients who could help your career.

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