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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!


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