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 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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  1. Sylvie Tremblay

    My first ever freelance gig, years ago, was from answering a Craigslist ad for someone subcontracting content for Wisegeek. This was before I had any idea that you could approach your own prospects! I think it paid a whopping $7 for 500 words, mostly on obscure topics. Thinking about that rate makes me want to cry.. I make 15-20x that amount for blog posts now, writing about stuff I really care about!

    • Carol Tice

      Well, at least the story has a happy ending, Sylvie!

  2. Nida Sea

    Wow! That’s awful. But not too surprising. I’ve come across a couple of mill middlemen, but the rates are so disgustingly low I can’t give them a second thought. And since the work is being completed, I doubt the mills have any reason to stop them. Very pitiful and demeaning to writers everywhere.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah…I am not pleased about this trend. But maybe at least if writers see super-low rates, maybe this tips them off as to why they’re like that — because a middleman has inserted themselves into the deal.

  3. Allen Taylor

    This has actually been going on for years. The truth is, most of these middlemen aren’t making any more money than the writers are. They’re just scraping the profits off the top for connecting the writer with the work. Writers who suck at marketing themselves fall for these scams because the work just falls in their lap. At the end of the day, they’re living on beans and working too hard to enjoy the scraps.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m sure it has…but at this point, I get the sense that it’s an epidemic. As the volume of work shrinks and writers get more desperate, the opportunity to resell if you can snap up volumes of assignments grows. Just makes me sick!

    • Katherine Swarts

      Sounds to me like a perfect example of the old “pyramid scheme”–selling workers, not work.

      • Carol Tice

        It’s not a pyramid scheme — if it was, then each subcontracting writer would have to in turn recruit other writers and get a cut of their even tinier pay. 😉 As far as I know, it’s just one level.

  4. Karen Briggs

    Thanks for getting this out there. I am about to share this with someone who is thinking of going the bid site route. It’s something to beware and be aware of.

  5. Victoria

    I have never taken any work on Elance. I had an account made a few years back but found ODesk to be the easier platform to use so I stuck with them. Now, I work with majority of private clients, however, there are middlemen in this business too. For example, one client approached me to do some writing tasks. Once I received the order I automatically knew that they were working for two of the clients that I was already writing for based on the order details.

    I don’t see a problem with outsourcing work to other writers when you have client approval. However, it sounds like what you described in this post, the clients are under the impression that one writer is doing the work and it is not being sourced out.

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly, Victoria — I think the client may be in the dark about how the work is being done. Though maybe when they see their 10 articles have 3 different writing styles to them, they get a clue.

      Certainly, there are situations like working through a marketing agency, where rates are still fair and a middleman is appropriate, as they may be accessing top-drawer clients that would be hard for you to find on your own.

      But to take a 25% cut of a $20 article fee…that’s just disgusting.

  6. Daryl

    Hey Carol,

    I think lots of writers have done work through subcontractors – which may be a slightly more realistic terms than “middlemen”. Of course, just like any other job, it’s important to set a good rate. I’ve been paid up to $75 for a subcontracted article (not through a bid site). I’ve also been paid significantly less ($10) for a a subcontracted article from a well known and respected site. The important thing here is really to exercise good judgement in choosing your clients, subcontractors or not.

    • Carol Tice

      I agree — and to have a floor for rates, so you’re not working for ridiculously low pay, just to line the pockets of some online profiteer.

  7. Kelly G in ATX

    I’ve actually had a mostly good experience on Upwork. I agree that most writers should avoid it and other content mills because there ARE a lot of skeevy things happening there, but it was the best way for me to get my feet wet and introduced me to a whole world of career possibilities I didn’t think was obtainable. I was able to find a couple of legitimate clients that I work with regularly now, and have only been stiffed once since I started with them last year. I’m not surprised that this middleman stuff is happening, but I’m floored that “Don” had the cojones to approach you with that kind of “offer”! I don’t do as much work on Upwork anymore, but if I continue to, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for that kind of stuff. Thanks for sharing!

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah…I think he doesn’t read my blog much. It was kind of stunning how he thought this would be a business ‘opportunity’ I might be interested in doing!

  8. Marina Sun

    This is very disturbing.
    I only just got started and spend more time of my day reading through this blog, helpful blogposts and “how to”s than actually applying for work.
    I know it will take some time to get everything “up and running” and in the meanwhile I did sign up at one of those content mills (Upwork). I weren’t even yet able to get a job there, but reading articles like this (or rather the very real story that stands behind it) makes be really unsure about…basically everything.

    • Carol Tice

      Marina, you might check out my Step by Step Guide ebook to learn how to get your freelance writing career started without resorting to the mass platforms where, as you see in this post, a lot of scams are going on. The ebook is up on my ‘ebooks’ tab at the top of this page.

  9. Christine

    That’s crazy! And I still have people in my life who tell me I should get more gigs on these content mills.

    • Carol Tice

      Ironically, I have a guest post in the works from someone who’s making $100 an hour on UpWork, who’ll be sharing her tips — and you can bet she’s avoiding scammers like I’ve described in this post!

    • Carol Tice

      Yes, I know one self-proclaimed guru who’s been freelancing for just a few months, whose big tip in her course is “Get on Elance!” Really? Like writers haven’t already discovered Elance from Googling about getting freelance writing jobs…

      • Christine

        Exactly! Hmm never even considered that. And even jobs that require interviews for writing aren’t a guarantee. Everyone wants something for nothing… Well, the wrong clients I suppose.

  10. Eric Ludy

    You know, I actually independently thought of this scheme when I had a lot of work to do one day and not a lot of time to do it. Then I thought to myself, “wait a second, that’s incredibly immoral.” It’s sad to see so many opportunists out there without an inner voice telling them to do something more productive. There are so many better ways to make a buck!

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, that’s basically what I said to Don: “But what about the part where that’s really immoral?”

      I mean, it’s one thing if you’re a digital agency and have Fortune 500 companies in your roster, and you connect writers to those great clients. That’s worth a cut. And you have digital marketing savvy you bring to the projects. But to just skim simply because you get up at 2 a.m. or something and snap up a bunch of mill assignments before the writers can get to them? I think it’s heinous.

      • Kelly G in ATX

        How are these middle men snapping up all the gigs in the first place? I mean, when I applied for jobs on Upwork, there was always at least 3 or 4 other writers vying for them too, even if I happened to spot them shortly after they were posted. Sometimes I got the gig, sometimes I didn’t. I’m curious what these middle men are doing that’s netting them the postings in the first place – is it that they’re posing as someone else? Or something else entirely? It’s sad that clients aren’t doing a bit more work to see who is applying for these as well. I get that the mentality is probably “it’s just business”, but we’re in business too. Writers just seem to get the short end of the stick overall 🙁

        • Carol Tice

          I’m not sure, but I get the sense it involves getting up at very odd hours to catch listings the minute they post.

        • Daryl

          Hey Kelly,

          The person was hoping to leverage Carol’s popularity and reputation in order to get these gigs. Other less popular middlemen/subcontractors push their cheapness (I’ve seen down to $1 per article) or ability to get large amounts of content produced extremely quickly as selling point. The ones who usually go through these subcontractors are often clients who can’t afford to pay much anyway.

          • Kelly G in ATX

            Ah, that makes more sense now. Still sucky, though! Thanks!

  11. Rebecca L. Baisch

    These middlemen are good at disguising what they are doing. One of the big tipoffs is that when you ask for information from a client or prospective client, it takes an inordinately long time for the supposed client to get back to you, and sometimes the replies come in at odd times and from someone whose name wasn’t on the orginal proposal.

    Technically the concept of subcontracting labor isn’t inherently scammy, and if you believe the Upwork-Elance-Odesk marketing some of the biggest businesses on earth use these labor bidding sites. What’s scammy, and possible illegal is the way these scumbags go about it. The guy that contacted you must have big brass ones.

    Unless and until the legal system catches up with this “new world of work” model, it’s strictly up to you to vet your clients. My rule of thumb is “if it smells bad, it is bad” and interestingly, I’ve gotten this kind of “job offer” from someone purporting to be from some pretty legit businesses several times.

    • Carol Tice

      Absolutely, Rebecca — if there’s one contact email in the listing, and then you’re getting emailed back from a different name or email or Skype handle, be wary. That’s what the scammer who impersonated me was doing. It was “Carol Tice” on Elance, and then he had another email address from him that he replied on.

      • Rebecca L. Baisch

        Yeah..on these sites there’s never an email in the initial contact (RFP) info.I got an invite once from Elance for a grant writing job, and they wouldn’t give the name of the supposed nonprofit, even after they said they wanted to hire me.That’s a dead giveaway. Used to be you could look up the “client’s” work history and if you saw a bunch of jobs in different areas you could pretty much bet you weren’t dealing with the real client. I understand that now that Elance is merging into Upwork (up your what?)even that will no longer be permitted. No wonder they are so skittish about the recent California Uber decision.

  12. Sondi

    Oh wow. Well, now I’m depressed. I’ve never used sites like Elance before, partially because I’ve heard how demeaning they are for writers. Thanks for continuing to elevate the profession, raise awareness about these middlemen creeps and encouraging writers to charge what they’re worth.

  13. Lopaze

    This definitely has happen to me twice and I didn’t even know it until I was done with the project. Why? Because they told me they had to go see if there client liked what I wrote. And one guy was price shopping even though I got paid pretty well in the beginning. I saw this trend 3 years ago and I knew I couldn’t put all my eggs in one basket with contractor sites such as elance and odesk. Not saying you can’t find good projects there however I would say a large percentage of them today are middlemen price shopping.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s the sense I’m getting, Lopaze. It’s sort of unreal, given the pittance most of these gigs pay — and a sad commentary on writers’ self-esteem and what they will take for payment, that middlemen can insert themselves into these low-paid transactions.

      • Lopaze

        Yes I agree and that’s been my experience in the beginning. That’s why I started to focus on building relationships more than ever because I knew what was coming. Relationships are everything!

  14. Brenda Storey

    I’m confused at the reaction to this. I work on Elance. I bid on jobs that may be posted either by the end client or by those you are calling middle men (as another commenter pointed out, these are actually people who are simply subcontracting the work out). I’m then working for that person, and when I complete the job, any reviews of my work can be done by that person, middle man or not. The end client is surely concerned with the quality of the work, not with who has written it? It seems like a valid business model to me. As for the dishonesty, surely it’s no more dishonest than someone having a book (or a blog post etc.) ghost written, then passing it off as their own work?

    • Carol Tice

      So you’re OK with someone taking a cut of your payment while providing absolutely no value, Brenda? Beyond maybe giving your work a quick read? Because I’m not. It’s certainly a valid business model…just one that exploits writers and cuts their pay even further than the tiny amounts usually bid on these platforms…while also denying you the chance to build client relationships with end clients.

      • Brenda Storey

        Thanks for responding Carol. Not sure why you say they are taking a cut of my payment, as my payment is what I agree with them, not with the end client. Why is it exploiting writers? Any of us could have bid for the same job. I agree that the work isn’t well paid, but it suits a lot of writers to work this way, for numerous reasons – not necessarily because they lack self esteem! In fact a lot of your readers admit they have used Elance at various times. I’m genuinely trying to understand your argument here.

        • Carol Tice

          They’re keeping some of the money that is attached to the assignment you’re doing, for a client that by rights you should be communicating with directly. They write nothing. That doesn’t make you mad?

          • Lourdes Mboya

            It is important to note that some people do not have the confidence, patience or perhaps the time to market their writing skills.

            Consider the case of third world countries. It would be certainly off the mark to claim that they don’t have good writers albeit the clients at their reach would only pay less.

            There has to be a middleman to connect them to the “Fortune 500” companies. They also have got to live you know-the third world writers. It is the lack of opportunities that has gotten them to the online arena in the first place. For this case the middle man: 1. Cuts on the risk of not finding a job; 2. Cuts on the time for looking for a job; 3. Leverages the marketing skills needed to find a job; 4. Reduces expenses like travelling and communicating in the process of finding the job; and among others, 5. Gets the writers who have not been fortunate to break through the bottom a way to get a living.

            The referee (you call them empire?) is only effective when they are in the match. It is honorable to be passionate and resilient in the fight against poor pay to writers. It is, however, more honorable to find a market for and buy the bananas from the farmers who you feel are being exploited. What does the cliche say? Action speaks louder than words.

            Sorry Carol Tice but I am convinced that this Business Model is particularly yours to enforce. Rather than leave the writers you profess to care about at the mercies of wicked middlemen you could be their clutching place when they drown. Getting work at 75 dollars and paying such a writer 50 dollars puts them in business for one more day, ‘eateries’ on the table and yes, a smile on some faces.

            I’m just thinking. Design and Develop an online system. Evaluate good writers. Use your reputation and skill to find jobs. Give these writers you love opportunity to get a living. And finally, finally get a way to actually do something towards removing the exploitative content mills from business. Kindly, reply.

          • Carol Tice

            Lourdes, I know 3rd world writers who are earning well getting private clients.

            There already IS a middleman on Elance…the Elance platform. And I think most of these gigs DON’T end up paying $50 a post — more like $10 or $20. Most of the job offers on Elance aren’t for pay that high. And if I became an Elance middleman, as you’re proposing, I could do nothing to make clients on Elance pay more. So I’m not seeing where I can improve the situation.

            Unfortunately, I can’t make writers stop taking poverty-wage gigs. I do pay $50 a post on my own blog, and have encouraged others to pay for guest posts, too. Becoming a mass job board is not something I aspire to, and I don’t think the world needs another one.

          • Rebecca L. Baisch

            Lourdes, I respect your viewpoint, but have an issue with your conclusion. It is not Carol’s place to change the freelance marketplace, other than highlight the abuses and to offer a place for a discussion like this. Like the person who hired attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan to sue Uber, someone has to challenge the industry, after of course first planning and articulating a cohesive and attainable plan of action and deciding what might be an acceptable outcome.

            That’s easier said than done. I have a website that I put up called that I started expressly to gauge the appetite in the freelance ranks for challenging and improving the system. I got three people that were interested enough to be willing to pay for a subscription, and I trialed the thing for a long time. I wound up not even investing the $99 to put up the blog that is linked on there because I don’t think there is a market for the product. I don’t know whether that’s due to lack of interest or fear of upsetting the apple cart.

            Thre are online sites that only take legitimate paid postings and that quote rates. Some of them charge the clients to post an ad, some don’t. They have maybe 1/10 of one percent of the traffic that Elance or Upwork does.

            As long as there are people willing to provide cheap products there will be buyers for them. That’s the nature of any business model. If they can’t afford steak, they are going to look for hamburger. And in any market, there will be people that take advantage of that metric to exploit both sides of that model until something stops them.

            And now I’ll get off my soapbox. Sorry Carol, didn’t mean to take this discussion over.

          • Carol Tice

            Not at all, Rebecca. I sort of had the same dream when I started this blog — that I could take down the mills. I’ve come to realize I can’t. I can educate and help people who want something better for themselves.

            But there will always be a segment of people for whom mills are all they can deal with, for a variety of reasons. And they are willing to accept the low pay as the tradeoff for not having to build a business. At this point, I say more power to that — if that’s what you want, great. You’re set. Until this niche implodes, which it’s already beginning to do, as we saw with the Elance/oDesk merger.

            The middleman scams are another sign of lack of demand for cheap mill work. I just hope writers who rely on this income stream are thinking about diversifying, because this is a shrinking opportunity.

            And as you found, Rebecca, few writers want to be the squeaky wheel that tries to reform an industry. In a way, I am that wheel, but mills have their place in the marketplace (though that place is getting smaller). That’s why they still exist.

          • Rebecca L. Baisch

            Yeah, I’ve always been sort of a closet reformer…but even a squeaky wheel needs an axle. Thanks for the forum but like you, I don’t think there are enough squeaks to warrant marketing an oil can.

          • Lourdes Mboya

            Okay… Interesting.

            Thanks for taking time to reply Carol. And your response is really something Rebecca.

            The society at every point of time has marvels, people who have influence or popularity. They are gifted with the opportunity of dictating the culture and views of that community. Look at how “Robin hood” affected taxes or how Lincoln swayed the masses towards the emancipation of slaves.

            Now guess who is the marvel of the writing community at the present. I’m just wondering if not her, then who?

    • Rebecca L. Baisch

      Brenda, subcontracting isn’t basically dishonest. Ghostwriting can be a form of subcontracting. But when the end producer doesn’t know it, and very possibly the end user client doesn’t either, then it smacks of dishonest business practices at best and outright fraud at worst (because the client could possibly, even probably, gotten the work done more cheaply and efficiently working directly with the subcontractor). From a client standpoint it’s an inefficent model, since they are having to give information to the main contractor and then hope its gets relayed in an accurate and timely fashion to the person actually producing the work, in time for the project to be finished on time and the work product to be completed at the highest quality. If both the producing client and the freelancer know there’s a middleman, then fine. No harm, no foul. I doubt that in the instance Carol is describing, that was going to be the case.

      • Brenda Storey

        Hi Rebecca, thanks for taking the time to try and help me understand this. I agree that in this case it is quite possible that the client and freelancer wouldn’t know about the middleman, but I’m not sure if that is any different to what often happens in the business world – people produce work that is passed off as their own, and the end user neither knows nor cares as long as the work is of the right quality (and presumably the “middleman” has done his part of the job by checking that it is, and “tweaking” it as necessary). Anyway, something to think about!

        • Rebecca L. Baisch

          The real problem for me is that these so-called freelancer sites are often (not always, but often) actually acting as employers, but reaping the benefits of calling their temps (or contractors if you prefer) IC’s. And I think a lot of that is because it’s a fairly undefined workspace.

          When you have to pay 8.75 or 10% of your income as a fee (and you DO pay it – if the client is happy with a percentage add-on, then he would have been happy to pay you that percentage), then pay FICA (or VAT, or whatever applies in your country) and probably income tax as well, and yet the person you are working through has total control of how you do your “job”, that’s a problem for me.

          That’s why I avoid the farmers. And yes, I have a profile on ELance, although it’s been a long time since I saw a good client on there. That’s too bad since when I was laid up in a cast for eight months I earned in the very high 4 figures with Elance.
          It could be such a good business model, if they would just play by the rules.

          • Carol Tice

            In light of Uber, I think lawmakers are taking another look at intermediary platforms…we’ll see what happens with the Elances of the world, and whether they can continue to claim their writers are independent contractors.

          • Rebecca L. Baisch

            The Uber decision only applied in California and is under appeal. The only way it has legs on a national level is if the IRS or the U.S. Dept of Labor notices, and they won’t do that unless (A) there is a class action lawsuit or (B) someone figures out how much of the so-called non-participating hourly workforce is actually using these platforms.

        • Carol Tice

          Brenda, in ghostwriting you get paid — hopefully WELL paid. And work directly with a client who approves how you imitate their voice and style. I don’t see a parallel to what Elance middlemen are doing — taking a low paid gig and make it pay even less, while depriving you of the chance to build a client relationship.

          The whole point of platforms such as Elance is that they connect you with clients! Elance IS the middleman already, in this scenario. They’re taking a small cut, already. Right?

          This is not a setup that needs ANOTHER middleman in it. Then you have TWO LAYERS of middlemen between you and the client! It’s really a nightmare.

          These shysters are creating a barrier, a layer of intermediary where you don’t get all the pay that was offered for this gig, and you don’t get direct client contact, between Elance clients and freelancers. That’s not a good thing for the marketplace, on any level.

          My passion is for helping writers get every dime that they deserve — and middlemen don’t help us get there.

      • Carol Tice

        That’s right — the proposal wasn’t that we edit or project manage anything — simply that we monopolize assignments and then dole them out, and take a cut. I see that as adding no value to the marketplace, and deserving of no revenue.

        They’re just scooping up assignments and denying them to writers who could have built real client relationships, and likely creating a poorer quality result for the client by parceling assignments out to many different writers with different styles and levels of competence.

        • Brenda Storey

          I guess in a free market that’s how it goes. Everybody on there (me included) has the chance to bid on the jobs too. To be honest, the quality of the jobs is often such that there isn’t much potential for building relationships with the clients that will lead to a lucrative relationship – the clients themselves are just mass-producing work too. It might not be what a world of high-quality writing wants to see, but it’s out there, filling the web, and for some of us it fulfils a desire to write without getting involved in the world of marketing, social media etc. -well it does for me, I can’t speak for others!

          • Carol Tice

            Thanks to Google, junk content is less and less desirable, so it’s a sunsetting niche. Hope you have another plan for fulfilling your desires as this opportunity fades out…and I hope writers steer clear of middlemen trying to profiteer off the implosion of the SEO content market!

  15. Vicky Cox

    This is disturbing. I’m a newbie, so I appreciate this heads up.

  16. Charlene Oldham

    I think it is a good rule of thumb to look for ads (on CraigsList and elsewhere) that actually list the company or publication’s name. That way you can do a little research on your potential client.

    • Carol Tice

      I agree — I’m always suspicious on blind ads. It’s a tough call though, because sometimes it’s a marquee company that just doesn’t want to be swamped the way they would be if people knew it was such a hot brand. But most of the time, it means this is a dysfunctional client, in one way or the other. Apparently, it increasingly could mean you’re dealing with a middleman and not the client.

  17. Mary

    Hi Carol and all,

    I rarely comment, but I have to let off some steam on this one. What the Hell?? It makes me want to go on there and give these low life people a great big piece of my mind…as if that would help.

    I’ve always wanted to do that to the ones that have the nerve to first say that if you can write exceptional content, make no errors, meet all deadlines, and write 10 articles a day, they are willing to pay more. They then say they will pay as much as $1 per 100 words. I feel like the Tazmania Devil it makes me so mad. As you can tell, this is a huge pet peeve with me. I didn’t think it could get worse, but apparently it has.

    I have to say, I am on a fixed income and do not have to completely make a living at writing so I’m lucky that I can somewhat pick and choose my assignments. However, even in the beginning, I would never write for one of these idiots. There are a few great clients on those sites, but they’re hard to find. I started on Elance and picked up some long term clients that pay well, which led to other opportunities, but I was very lucky.

    However, I urge you to listen to Carol and learn how to get your clients in other ways. I am. In addition, if any of you are writing for those stupid ass idiots that pay pennies or you think you’re writing for one of these scams, please stop. It upsets me even more when I see writers bidding on these jobs. They are not going to stop until we do. Why should they. Thank you for letting me let off some steam.

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly, Mary — there’s enough exploitatively low rates for writing out there, without middlemen inserting themselves into the process and lowering rates further. Please!

  18. Bex

    Yep! Learning how to tell good clients from scam artists and clueless joes was the first skill I learned on Elance. Just booked another regular $1000+ per month client there and was able to refer the same client to another freelancer for a regular contract of their own.

    • Mary

      Good for you Bex. There are some good ones in there. You just have to find them and then write a damn good proposal.

      • Bex

        Yeah, I suspect that with their phase out to Upwork, I’ll be using it less and less. The search functions are much more limited there, unfortunately, and I haven’t found a groove yet.

  19. Rob S

    Back when I started out and needed anything I could make just to eat, I worked for a woman in England. I got a penny a word. I don’t know what she made. On the bright side, I work for an agency now and get great assignments at very good rates (average about 25c a word and up to 50c). I know they earn their cut because my editors are always on top of things. Whenever I read, “Get on Elance!” I smile and leave the page. Worst advice ever unless you’re desperate.

  20. Joyce

    I work with middlemen in a sense all of the time. However, the end clients know that multiple people are involved in the project. For example, I partner with a web design company and I provide the content. I speak on the phone with the end client, so they know it is my writing that goes on their websites. The companies I work with provide testimonials and endorsements for my work. Yes, I realize that I am getting less pay than if I skipped the middleman, but they are providing an entire package for the client in the form of a website and I only handle one part.

    I do avoid those offers that sound like what was described in the post. I just prefer working with PR companies, website designers, marketing agencies and other legitimate middlemen for work.

    • Carol Tice

      I think your examples are middlemen that earn their cut because they add value — which to me these Elance middlemen do not.

  21. Evan Jensen

    Had a good laugh over the photo you chose for this post. I don’t troll content mills for work anymore for this reason, among others you’ve discussed on your blog and in The Den. Even if a middleman isn’t involved, most content mills want you to sell your soul for a couple dollars per article.

    • Carol Tice

      My faves are the ones that want you to ghostwrite for nothing — so you’re poor, AND don’t get a portfolio piece and can’t build your career with it. If there was only one message I could send to writers of the world it would be: Ghostwriting is supposed to pay better than byline writing!

  22. Krystal C.

    I’m not against subcontractors, since they have a role to play in a free market, IF they are known to the writer and the bidding site. That doesn’t seem to be the case here.

    I wonder what the legal implications of these relationships are, though. If a writer submits an article to an unknown person who is remaining hidden in the middle, and the middleman chooses to add anything to the original article and submit it to the end client, the unknowing client could fault the writer. Seems like fraud to me.

    • Carol Tice

      I don’t know if it’s fraud, Krstal, but there’s a lack of transparency there that I think can cause a lot of problems in your career.

  23. Raymonda

    Hmm, I don’t think I understand. I’m rather new to freelancing. Let’s say a client posts an assignment for $100. Are you saying that someone is pretending to be you in order to win the bid for $100? And then subcontracting that job out at a lower price? Am I on the right page?

    Either way, it’s a rather sickening practice. While definitely not illegal, it’s really unethical. Because that means I’m making less money. Well, I’ve never used Elance. I have an account on there but I’ve never gotten any work from there. I’ve heard good things and bad things about Elance. I guess it’s just one of those 50/50 deals. I used to use content mills – until I realized I was wasting my time and talent there.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s how it works…except so many Elance assignments are for more like $20 an assignment, rather than $100. Then, the middleman scoops those up and pays you $15.

      Yes, it’s sickening.

      There *are* a few outliers who seem to do well on the bid sites…stay tuned for a guest post I’ve just commissioned from an UpWork writer who’s earning $100 an hour!

      But the vast majority of writers I know who’ve spent time on bid sites say they can’t compete with Third World pricing, and that there are a ton of lowballers. There are gems in there, but the question is whether the time spent applying to all these gigs is worth it to find the occasional decent gig.

  24. Patricia

    I want to tell you of a recent story that happened to me on Freelancer. In fact, I finally cut ties with the person last week.
    At the beginning of June, a man contacted me directly through Freelancer. I though I had to bid first, but no. I am a freelance writer, but what he wanted was a web Designer and to set up a couple of payment processing accounts. since I did have those skills, I had no problems doing it. he wanted me to process the orders that came in. I started questioning him, because nobody was going through the website. The first payment from Square (one of the accounts I set up), and went to my bank account. Then he asked me if I would take the money out of the account, and send it to a painter in Nigeria. Since it was not my money, I got it out of my account, sent it, and close the two payment processing accounts, and closed the email account. I also reported him to Freelancer. I could not believe that I feel for something like that in my life. A word of advice, since these content mills will not double check an employer, it is a good idea to check on them yourself before excepting an gig. I am still beating myself up for this, which I should not.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m not sure I follow what happened there, Patricia, but I definitely agree with you — vet clients! And be wary of blind ads, or ads where when the client starts reaching out, the email and contact info are different than what they had in the ad.

  25. kate

    Danny Margulies claims to make big bucks on Elance. Not sure how long it took to establish himself but he’s of the belief you can work Elance to your benefit.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m of the belief, having talked to thousands of writers at this point, that a few outliers can make big bucks on Elance. The vast majority of writers who spend time on there seem to consider it a waste of time, and report they only see very low-paid gigs advertised.

  26. Lisa Freamo

    I got caught up in one of these scams on O-Desk when I was new to freelancing. It was a nightmare born of loyalty and “friendship.”

    By the time I realized that I was making an embarrassingly low amount of money for “clips” and “exposure,” I’d had a lot of conversation with the guy, and he’d given me 2 “promotions.”

    Until I got serious (after finding Carol, the AWM, and the Den) I was making less than a dollar per 500 words. Then, I got a “raise” to 5 dollars per 500 words (yes, seriously).

    And, just like you warned me in this post (, as soon as I needed something (more money, and a week off) I was unemployed, without my week’s measly pay of $41.75.

    Within a week, I had two real clients, and I’m successfully making 10x what I was then, writing for only a few hours a week.

    Plus, I still have the clips, which I’ve taken the time to edit and polish, so now they’re actually good.

    • Carol Tice

      Glad you found your way out of the mill maze, Lisa!


  1. Home Business Links Volume 1 Issue 7 - Work At Home Renegade Blog - […] Bidding on Elance? Beware The Rise of Middleman Scams […]

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