Michelle Nickolaisen

@_chelleshock

Someone stole my identity on Upwork and all I got was this lousy blog post

August 15th 2016

I’m a freelance writer by trade. I’ve been freelancing for seven years, writing since I could hold a pencil, and scored my first online writing gig trading free games for game reviews back in the day. Last but not least, I’ve never been a user of Upwork, an online marketplace for freelancers (this becomes relevant here in a minute).

One day back in early August, I opened my laptop, ready to start my workday. After an emergency phone call from a friend, I got back on the computer — imagine my surprise when I saw this string of notifications:

Swiftly followed by these messages:

And that wasn’t the last of it, oh no. Within a few hours, this guy had:

  • sent me multiple threatening messages via Facebook and Twitter, via multiple profiles
  • sent threatening emails via multiple email addresses
  • left comments on my Facebook page, blog, and other sites where I’d written, saying that I was a scammer to be avoided
  • requested my phone number and address via my Facebook business page

My first thought was that this was the kind of harassment that is, unfortunately, pretty par for the course for marginalized people on the internet. I write and tweet about sexism, racism, and other social issues a fair amount. I assumed that in the process, I’d made some aggro dude angry and he was trying to scare and humiliate me in response.

So far, this isn’t even half of the screenshots I have of harassment and threats from that day

Come to find out, the guy actually did have an Upwork account, as Upwork eventually confirmed on Twitter as I was live-tweeting this oh-so-fun experience. Upwork also confirmed that someone had been impersonating me on their platform (although I had to point-blank ask several times to get that confirmation, instead of dodgy answers).

Their customer service team initiated a conversation with me that moved from Twitter DM to email. By the time we progressed to email, I was already wildly unimpressed, given that their social media rep was telling people on Twitter that the situation was handled hours before I had any emails from them.

Once we got to email, though, the situation only got worse. I’ve had a lot of shitty customer service experiences, but not many that were this infuriating and patronizing. Their first email was entirely unsympathetic, and the rest of their emails were absolutely riddled with PR-speak (and the strange assumption that I don’t understand how Upwork works, which like, c’mon, it’s not rocket science).

excerpt of email #2 from the stunningly awful customer service team at Upwork

They also refused to answer any of my questions about the incident.

The list of things Upwork wouldn’t tell me:

  • How long someone had been impersonating me using their platform
  • How many other people this person had scammed, who might also come after me in this exceedingly creepy manner
  • Any other information on the impersonator’s previous clients, so I could reach out to let them know that they didn’t work with me and try to do damage control for my name/brand
  • If they were contacting previous clients to let them know that they’d been the victim of freelancer fraud
  • If this impersonator used any of my personal information (like SSN or driver’s license number, etc.) to impersonate me, or if they just signed up with my name and a fake email
  • Any information on the client who was scammed, who came after me in such an aggressive manner, so that I could take legal action against him if the threats persisted

In other words, anything at all…unless I wanted to get lawyers involved.

One of their customers had taken it upon themselves to harass and outright threaten me, and I couldn’t even take action against him because Upwork was protecting him and hiding behind their terms of service.

I did look into getting legal assistance to help deal with the matter but, shock and awe, lawyers don’t come cheap. I’d been meaning to write a post about this — it’s not a secret that Upwork is pretty terrible to freelancers, but I wanted other people to be aware of identity theft as yet another potential problem with the platform. Then I saw this story from another freelancer who also got royally screwed by Upwork and that was the nudge I needed to finally put this down.

Upwork is bad for everyone

It’s bad for freelancers because it’s a race to the bottom, the clients are often cost-focused, and they take a huge cut of the pay. Then there’s the situations like Shadi’s — where Upwork didn’t care that a vindictive would-be client had gone after him, when there was a very clear paper trail showing he’d done nothing wrong, and locked him out of his account when he had $1200 or so in payments waiting to be withdrawn.

It’s bad for clients because Upwork obviously doesn’t have very stringent fraud-prevention policies in place, since someone was impersonating me (a writer who lived in Austin, TX from 2009–2016 and now lives in Richmond) with a profile that stated I lived in Bremerton, WA. How do you know if the person you’re working with is who they say they are? Have fun!

Aside from that, many clients who aren’t freelancer- or tech-savvy don’t know any better. So they use Upwork and have a shitty experience, whether it’s because the marketplace is skewed to far lower costs than is realistic for quality freelancers, or because of the lack of security measures. Then they think freelancers are all unprofessional thieves — I’ve encountered more than one person who tried to work with freelancers and gave up after a bad marketplace experience or three. In other words, Upwork gives us freelancers a bad name.

Last but not least, there’s the abhorrent customer service. One of the common threads between my experience and Shadi’s is that Upwork’s customer service replied in canned, patronizing ways both times:

we won’t tell you what the trust and safety processes we have are, but we assure you they’re tremendous (also, sucks someone stalked and harassed you, but lol not our problem)

The entire conversation was like that. At some point they tried to get me on the phone, which could have been genuine, but seemed like an awfully convenient way for me to not have a written record of the conversation. Like Shadi said in his response to an Upwork rep on his post — they don’t care until it becomes a shitstorm (in my case, they didn’t care until I made a ruckus on Twitter). Even then, they don’t care enough to pretend to care about the stress and inconvenience their policies have caused you.

The extra shady part? I’m not entirely convinced that this actually was a scam — or rather, that the person had been scammed via Upwork. There were multiple fishy things about the encounter:

  • the harasser had a lot of Facebook/Twitter/email/etc. accounts (and all the Facebook accounts were clearly fakes)
  • along with multiple IP addresses (which I could see because they left blog comments and used my contact form)
  • there were inconsistencies in the screenshots and their story/comments
  • I’m not entirely sure someone could actually scam someone the way they were describing on Upwork, at least going by Upwork’s own payment guidelines

But since Upwork wouldn’t give me any information, I have no idea whether this was a case of extortion or identity theft, and I can’t do anything about any damage to my brand or business in either instance.

In other words, the fact that Upwork doesn’t have stringent security/fraud prevention measures in place could be creating loopholes that make it easy for people to extort money from unsuspecting freelancers.

I mean, they’re only a multi-million-dollar business with the stated goal of being the premier freelance marketplace. Why would they go out of their way to protect freelancers and clients (and innocent bystanders) from situations like this?

Sure, Upwork needs clients on the marketplace to function. But they also need freelancers that don’t suck, and if they keep behaving this way without taking action to stop freelancers on and off their platform from getting trampled, there’s no reason for anyone to associate themselves with them.

From one freelancer to another — don’t use Upwork. Don’t hire people through Upwork.

Stop giving 20% of what you’re paying for project fees to a company that doesn’t care what happens to the people using it, and pay your freelancers better instead.

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