The Way We Work
April 12, 2010 by Tamara Rice

Recently oDesk had the opportunity to talk about writer-targeted scams with marketing expert Marcia Yudkin, author of 11 books inluding Freelance Writing for Magazines and Newspapers, whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Boston Globe. Her insightful article "You Too Can Sniff Out a Scam" got us wondering what freelance writers need to know to protect themselves.

oDesk: First of all, why would scam artists target writers?

Marcia Yudkin: Scam artists target anyone who is vulnerable by virtue of diminished intellect or heightened gullibility, and intense hope for success makes aspiring writers willing to believe instead of being skeptical.  The scammers use that to part them from their money.

oDesk: What are the biggest scams you see threatening writers today?

writing scams alsoYudkin: Decades-old scams that originated prior to the Internet are still duping writers.  Here are the biggest ones:

Scam #1  "You're talented. We can get you a show or book contract."

Someone with a mesmerizing voice and silver tongue calls with flattery and an opportunity.  You should have your own radio show.  Or you should publish a book.  Only much, much later are you told about the thousands of dollars you need to invest to make this happen, and by that time, such details hardly register in your swelled head.

These callers are not talent scouts;  they're sales people.  Give a cold, hard look at their "opportunity."  Don't let the flattery make you ignore the cost.

Scam #2  "Join our venture."

writing scamsSomeone with a lot of enthusiasm and a clever idea approaches you, saying they've seen your work, found your website or heard about you from someone they can't remember.  Their new venture is going to turn into the next Blogger, Twitter or YouTube.  Get on board by writing our sales letter or website.  You'll get paid out of the money that pours in after the launch.

If you wouldn't work for free for someone who just called you out of the blue and asked, don't do so for this starry-eyed, smooth-talking entrepreneur.  You're unlikely to ever see pay for your work.

Scam #3  "Prove you can do it."

Here the scammers ask you to provide an unpaid writing sample, but not something you already have on hand.  Rather, they give you a creative brief and ask you to write to it, promising that if you show high ability, you'll get well-paid assignments.

Unfortunately, their "test" is a ruse to get you to write what they need. They are asking numerous people to contribute and have no intention of paying anything later.

oDesk: What are the tell-tale signs of a writing scam?

Yudkin: Watch our for generic flattery, when someone praises you to the skies but without saying anything specific.  Is this something they could have said to anyone?  Then they probably are.

If something seems too good to be true, that's probably the case.  Stand back and be skeptical.

Telling you there's a small window of time in which to make your decision is another red flag signalling a scam.  Beware of any other kind of pressure too, such as a scarcity of available slots.

Scam artists abound in any time, but especially in times of recession. There are people out there who will say anything to make a quick buck at a hopeful freelance writer's expense. Don't let that freelance writer be you!

Tamara Rice

Freelance Writer and Editor

Tamara Rice is one of several freelance writers on the oDesk Blog team. She joined the oDesk marketplace in 2009, after more than six years on staff at an award-winning national magazine.

  • Anon

    I am focusing on AdWords projects currently and have a good start at oDesk. I've forgotten this article writing project altogether since its not worth my time and energy.

  • Anon

    Another recent victim!
    I was one of the bidders on for a long term writing project. The person asked my gmail and started chatting there. That should have given me a hint, but I guess I had to learn it the hard way. He or she appeared as schoolteam7.

    In gmail wtih the ID [email protected] and no picture, I kept getting regular work and was told $6 for 500 words. I let go of other projects and worked on this for a month. Recently when I started asking for money, they kept pushing it. Today, I said I will send the articles after payment and they said they are busy and will send it soon - waiting for me to reach 100 articles. By now I had done about 87!

    I guess this is a good learning experience, and I hope others don't fall for such scams. I am thinking of publishing the written articles in blogs so that the clients that this fraud worked for will know. I have to make some money fast, and bidding on Freelancer and Elance is just not working out. Please let me know if you have ideas.


    • mamtabalani

      i m also one of her victim.

      • http://Anon Anon

        She's actually replying back asking to be patient. I still hope this was a big misunderstanding and I get paid. Maybe you should try resolving it with her. I am not able to remove my comment from this site.

        • mamtabalani

          she paid u.? plz share your id to talk.

          • http://Anon Anon

            not paid yet. you can add on gtalk - niranjan.ramamurthy2013

          • mamtabalani

   started a blog to teach the cheaters. plz share if u know some names.

  • Shameka

    As an employer & contractor on ODesk my primary concern is to always be fair. I expect fairness in both scenarios & I will always treat anyone I work with fairly. My other necessity is honesty. I expect anyone I work with to be honest with me because I'll always be honest with them. I'm currently looking for ghost writers for my blog. I have a pet peeve for incorrect grammar. I've found as an employer it is easy to thin the list of applicants just by emailing them and asking them general questions. Their response is an easy way to gauge their writing style/abilities. I have now offered all of the applicants I've selected $1 to provide me with whatever content they feel is sufficient enough to further convince me that they can meet my expectations. Although I left the on-going compensation open-ended I made certain to stipulate that I would make a payment immediately after receiving every article provided once hired. I purposely left the specific amount open because I want to reward any contractor handsomely for any work that is above average without initiating an expectation of $20+ for a 500 word article that doesn't exceed my expectations.

    I'd like to hear from all of the writers...
    Do you think I'm being fair? If not, what could I change?
    I'm very open to any suggestions.


  • Ireen

    Thanks Tamara for this very informative article.

    It's true there are a lot of scams out there. I have experienced one myself. The employer said a "test phase" (without payment) will determine for a better, regular job. After I submitted my article in the test phase, the employer said it was not good enough. I think it was good enough as I edited the grammar and spelling myself. It could have worth more.
    Right now, I'm being careful. There are invitations to interview as a writer with same requirement, an article on any topic for a test phase. I am now skeptical.

    I've put on links to my blog. That should have been enough for the employers, right? I mean, what are the portfolios for? Instead of giving a test phase that will make you wonder if you'll get paid.

  • Richard Crook

    Thanks to everyone who contributed to this blog. I will not be following up my initial interest in this line of work. I have read enough contributions to realize that this is yet another example of the rape of a desperate workforce by equally desperate employers watched over by greasy palmed pimps. Is that too harsh ??

  • John Dobson

    @ Jane; before you make generalisations about $6 says it all for 800 words, read what I wrote again. I wrote $6 for 500-800w, also, you don't know what was required as content, you are assuming that research was necessary. If i ask for 10 articles on a general subject they are for link circles. 500 words is usually sufficient but some writers think they have to write a masterpiece and 800 words is the limit for them.
    Odesk employers generally ask for articles for $1-2, or expect an article an hour for $2.20 an hour, $2 to the contractor. If I can find a writer who can produce an article to the specifications I stipulate, can spell, can write in US or UK English as required, uses grammar and punctuation as they are intended to be used, I will pay $4 to $50 an article.
    I have a huge stack of articles written by Odesk contractors that are so bad its difficult to know what they are about, and impossible to read because the grammar is what could be expected of an autistic child. Think about that before complaining that you were scammed, maybe your articles were crap too, not worth paying for.

  • Jane Flett

    The fact that you think $6 is a "fair rate" for 800 words says it all.

    I'm curious, approximately how much time do you expect someone to spend researching and writing those 800 words for you?

  • John Dobson

    As an employer on Odesk, I have been burned every time I employ a writer. If I offer 10 articles at a fair rate, say $6 for 500-800w, or even 60 articles the result has always been 50 cent articles, some so bad they cannot be edited. I have read refences, sample writing that is exemplary, the writer has 5 stars for a number of jobs, and offered 10 articles at $12 hour, the result being spins of articles I wrote myself. Writers have bought this problem of being scammed on themselves, I would now have no hesitation in screwing the price down to the bottom line and only paying once the work is received. Odesk has not helped, they don't care if the quality is trash, they still expect the employer to pay.

  • Tamara

    Wow, Charles, I didn't see your story until now. That's a horrible scam. I'm sorry you had to experience it, but we can all learn from your story.

    Yes, there is something very wrong and "fishy" about someone accepting you as a writer, based on your samples, and then finding your next articles unacceptable. You're right, they got all six and I would almost promise you they are using all six.

    I like working for an hourly fee when I write. There are a lot of companies on oDesk willing to pay hourly, which means (on oDesk, anyway) if you do the work, you get paid. The employer can't say later that they didn't like it and lower your pay. You work ... you get paid.

    If you are not able to find an hourly pay writing gig, ask for a percentage of the flat rate up front. Yes, they take a risk giving it to you ... but if you have good feedback scores in your history and your future scores to be concerned about (like on oDesk) they can trust that you aren't likely to take the money and run.

    The last time I worked for a flat rate, I asked for a percentage in advance (I think perhaps 20%) and was given 20%, just as I asked. It does help establish trust.

  • David

    Oops --- broke a big rule as a writer here. I didn't proofread what I just sent!!!!

    In my previous entry, I meant to say: "make an agreement with the employer to hold the payment in escrow."

  • David

    I have not written any articles for oDesk as of yet but have worked for in the past year. My experience with them has been positive as far as avoiding scams like the ones mentioned here. One thing Guru recommends of it's freelancers is, before they begin any job, to sign make an agreement and employer to hold the payment in escrow. This means the employer sends the money in advance and upon completion, will release the funds to you. When the employer commits to this, you pretty much know then that this is someone playing fair. You can also check how the employer is rated and how much they've spent to Guru freelancers. If you see someone who has never paid anything and refuses to pay in escrow, you know that's someone to avoid.

  • http://none charles

    Hi Tamara,

    I am sorry I did not follow up on whats been added to the comments I added above. No Tamara, Odesk had some valid reason not been able to help. Well last 2 months I been hit with few more scams. This came from one Austrialian company (who offered 4.5 dollars per 500w article), then one guy in north india offering 5 dollars, then we have one in America. In all these cases, no contract was signed, no guidelines except for a sample to follow, and of course few topics to do the articles on. Well after doing 5 articles to these guys, I asked for payment. Once the mail goes out for payment, from that point on, there was complete silence from these guys. Its as if these guys never existed on this earth. Another new scam that seems to surface is by first asking you to submit 3 articles (300 word) as samples. You get a mail back saying you are taken on probation for 4 dollars apiece (500 word). They ask you do 3 articles for 1 dollar apiece (500w). Once you submit these articles, you immediately get a mail back saying we dont wish to confirm you, saying the quality of the articles is not upto to the mark. You get immediately paid 3 dollars (for 3 articles) and chapter is closed. How can I change my style of writing within 24 hours? they had no problems to accept the 3 free samples, saying they are good quality. Can you guess how much they must have made with this 6 articles? rough guess will be around 40-50 dollars and what I get paid - 3 dollars. Jesus I am honestly sick and tired. I keep on bypassing anything that offer more than 3 dollars per 500 word articles these days. Last night I got an email from an american company, saying please submit a 500 worded article on ''throw blanket' for free as sample. I am going to get back to him saying sample will come provided I get paid or sorry. They are offering 5 dollars for 500w article. Nice try isn't????? Hope all this will change one day, until then.......


  • Brett Widmann

    This is a great reference. Thanks for making me aware of these scams.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Tamara. I hope people like you will forgive me.

  • Tamara

    Wow, thanks to all of you for your responses. Charles, I'm so sorry to hear about that. With the oDesk fixed price job, did you contact oDesk about not getting paid?

    And, Yolanda, I'm glad this was helpful. It is nice to know in advance how some go about getting work for free/scamming writers and creatives.

    Anonymous, I'm glad to hear you changed your ways.

    On a side note, I read an article recently online that was remarkably similar to one I turned in as a sample for an internet writing job I applied for more than a year ago. For a moment I thought about digging up my article and seeing how similar it actually was and to what email address I sent it. In the end I decided I didn't really care to find out, but seeing that article and thinking even for a moment "Wait, did I write this??" was this very lesson hitting close to home for me.

  • Anonymous

    and now I post real projects for freelancers and do pay money, and pay even more than the bid if the work is good.

  • Anonymous

    I have been one of the scammers you are talking about. and I am here to confess my guilt. I started my business with zero money in my pocket and a computer, printer and 128kbps internet speed in India and that too when the recession was at its peak in 2009. As business is hard to get and impossible especially when there in no money. So had to put fake project posts on freelancing/job/article sites asking for demo samples on it and people started pouring in the free articles that are worth some $500. But now I am successful and run a team of 5. I feel ashamed that I did this. I want to repay those people who made my business a success. I am writing this not to gain sympathy but to justify that I exploited some people for a day but now I provide a full-time job to 5 people. I hope those who are reading this will forgive me.

    And sorry could not give my correct website and name and my image might get tarnished.

    Seeking Apologies...


  • yolanda2008

    Great job. At least we are being warned about the styles of some scam. I have been scammed before. The client ask me to do this and after I have done what the customer asked, I send the articles but then after that I never receive any reply from him. I tried contacting him and send a number of messages but never got a reply. So now at least we know the styles.

  • charles pinheiro

    Thanks so much for pointing out the cruel reality the freelancers are facing. I am also a victim of this. Last week i got a call (after responding to their advertisment in the internet) saying we will give you monthly salary of so much of Indian rupees, come and work in our office after so many days. PLEASE NOTE NOTHING IS GIVEN IN WRITINg. then suddenly writing assignment started coming and i did all of them staying awake throughout the night. Now no monthly salary, (they are not saying exactly where their office is) no job and no assigment when I asked them to put everything IN WRITING what all they said over the phone. Well this is not the first time i am taken for a ride. Please we need do something on this. I am father of 3 small kids and a home loan to pay. I know how i struggle to get a square meal on the table. Last month i did some work for a fixed price on the Odesk. well got nothing paid from that as well. I lost my 15 years IT job due to the economic slowdown, hence on the Internet. Thank God my heavenly father is there....... no joke.... i know how well HE sees me through... Thanks Charles.

  • notadmittingit

    I applied for a freelance writing job recently and they wanted me to rewrite the first paragraph of their site.

    HAHA, I didn't think the first paragraph was the one they should lead off with so I told them that and then gave them a sample of how I would bump up and rewrite the third paragraph.

    So, yeah, I got scammed but they still didn't get what they wanted out of me. :P

  • Tamara

    Hi, Steve. Great discussion. Good points.

    I was thinking about what you said, re: "is it really just about the money." I would say that, yes, for a lot of us it is--though I can't speak for everyone. Money puts food on the table and gas in our cars. In an era of recession, few people can afford to work for other reasons--to do so would be a luxury.

    I gave it a lot of thought, however, and I do think that in addition to the incentives you've already mentioned, there are writers out there who might work for rewards like their own good PR--or something to put on their resume. In other words, put their name all over the site ... "Content for this site created by [insert name and personal website or blog here]." Thus creating your content would perhaps snag them some new clients. You can offer them free advertising instead of great pay--while ensuring that you'll get good work because the writer's name is on the line.

    As far as determining quality in providers, you are right that it can be difficult. Providers have a responsibility to maintain an honest and well-rounded portfolio on line and to submit relevant materials when applying for jobs.

    I don't think there are any hard fast rules. If I wanted a job at a magazine, I would have to submit samples of things they could actually publish--and I would trust that they would not publish them without paying me/hiring me. But I would be unlikely to trust a stranger over the internet with unique samples of my work for free when I've never heard of his company and he is hiring for a job that doesn't pay well. It's about trust, and it's also about how great the incentive is to land the job.

    This is a really tricky area, Steve. You've nailed it. You have every reason to want someone you hire to prove they are good enough before you hire them ... but at the same time you have to give them reason to trust you too. It's very hard to establish these things over the internet. Everyone has had a deal go sour--both providers and buyers--and it's hard to trust after that.

    I'd love to hear what others have to say about it as well.

  • Steve Schofield

    Yes Tamara, some great suggestions here.

    I agree, that an agreement of terms is a fundamental basis for any business relationship, but I know a lot of people find tackling this subject awkward (especially when in formal *signed* format) and therefore either avoid it or it doesn't come up when it should - right at the beginning, and may be perhaps incorrectly perceived as malicious intent, as you put it.

    I do also agree that you shouldn't expect skilled people to do things for free, that's just crazy. What I am trying to understand, is what kind of incentives, aside from a rigid fee per article/unit of time/word etc. would be interesting to content creators? What drives them? Surely it's not just money? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

    From a "publisher"'s point of view (which I guess is what the opposing side to this discussion would be loosely labelled), it is often difficult to really determine quality from providers as well. Especially within a community like Odesk (relevant as that is where this discussion is based), the spectrum of global experience, skills and abilities mean that it is a real minefield when searching for suitable content creators.

    Therefore, it means asking potential providers to provide samples/tests/trials could be deemed a valid process of due diligence. Seems logical from a buyers perspective to request this. I guess there is a responsibility for content creators to make their profile/portfolio/experiences/references as honest and auditable as possible to reduce the need for this...

    Agree with the old adage, content is indeed king, which is why finding the best solutions here is so important.

  • Tamara

    oops! ... meant to say: Is key to internet business. Not sure how the rest of that happened . =)

  • Tamara

    Hi, Steve. I interviewed Marcia for this piece and I wrote a piece called Giving It Away for Free on this blog, in which I talked about this very issue of knowing when you should go ahead and write without pay and when you shouldn't.

    When you speak of revenue sharing and performance-related earnings in place of the usual cash upon completion, those are issues that would require a *signed* contract to establish trust--IMHO. I think a reluctance to establish a signed contractual agreement would be a very good indicator of malicious intentions. (And a wise writer would always research the buyer and get a sense of legitimacy that way too.)

    However, I would say that you cannot expect writers to create quality content for free, in the same way that you cannot expect to get a domain name and internet access for free. I think a serious writer would probably require some sort of small compensation up front, even if the majority would come after performance, etc., per the contract.

    And I would also advise the writer to be sure they are getting much more $$ in this deal--when all is said and done--than they ordinarily would, as they are being inconvenienced by delayed payment.

    Does that make sense? Hope that helps, Steve. I do understand the problem with funds initially. But content--like design--is key to internet business qa

  • Steve Schofield

    I do see the point of this post and totally understand its stance. In fact I have battled the very same "scam" (maybe a little harsh in some cases, but for the purpose of labelling) in the design industry.

    However, coming from the other side of the fence, I know how hard it is for genuine entrepreneurs to make the necessary contacts with content creators, such as writers, in order to develop and evolve their new company, especially when cash resources are scarce,

    I'm interested to know from content creators, how they would expect to be approached when there are many potential recompense options available in working together - such as performance related earnings, revenue sharing, future equity etc?

    Also, how would/should they go about determining if the buyer is a "scammer" or a someone with genuinely positive intentions?

  • outsource philippines

    True indeed, a lot of these companies are abusing the people who works on their processes and only pays them in promises.

  • Angie J

    Ooh, so true. Thank you for sharing all this!

    I've seen several of these "We can't pay you now, but we will when this takes off - and you need to get in now, at the ground level..." things on Craigslist, for example.

    Reputable companies don't do that - and I hope every new writer (and some older ones, like me, actually) get a chance to read this!

    Thanks -


    • vitju

      In 2011, I “hired” Indian American freelancer named Delson Armstrong (Delson90) to write a screenplay, or two scripts actually.
      He recommended paying outside Elance, and I paid him $7500 upfront. He wrote couple of pages, but then I saw that he ran out of motivation. Maybe it had something to do with the money, and there was no contract. He realized that I live in Europe, and he was in New York, so nothing´s going to take the money away from him, whether he does the work or not.

      During first 16 months, he kept on saying that everything is going as planned, he´s been working hard and written this many pages, but he doesn´t want to show it yet. Excuses and explanation “I will show it tomorrow, next week, I have been sick, it´s thanksgiving here…”
      But nothing happened.
      Anyway, I was hoping for a new start even though we both knew that he´s a shameless liar.
      16 months: he wrote a synopsis for a regular agent story, and stuff like that.
      20 months: he returned 600 dollars.
      24 months: he really started writing this regular agent story he had created.
      26 months: he had a 6 week pause and deleted his Elance after receiving 2.5 star feedback from another job.

      I basically paid his rent or holiday trips,and wasted 6900 while he kept me hanging for two years.

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