Upwork, is a platform for freelancing. It offers connection between clients and freelancers, who offer many various services. Freelancers with the proper skill-sets write proposals to clients who have needs that fit their skill-sets. Clients choose what freelancers that they will interview, each candidate is considered, and when the client, or client's team decides what freelancer to work with, they close the bidding war.
The freelancer that is chosen is then presented with a contract job offer. The payment scheme for projects are either hourly, separated into milestones, or they are paid in full at the completion of the entire project. The money from the client is held in escrow, until the work is submitted and approved.
This helps to keep clients and freelancers in a safe working environment. It is an incredibly useful system for scoring gigs and for making businesses more competitive, by connecting them with a ton of online talent. But, what happens when people try to exploit this amazing platform?
I can tell you the answer to this, because I am a freelancer on Upwork, and I almost fell victim to this kind of enemy, today.
I am not new to technology. I am not new to scams. I usually can smell one about a hundred miles away, and I have a short laugh at how unconvincing that they are. I think things, like:
"Wow... that's the best you got?"
This is because, usually, these schemes are pretty easy to see through. If you have been working online for very long, you have probably grown accustomed to this kind of thing, as I have. Craigslist was one of the first to be exploited heavily by scammers, using check fraud, among other illegal schemes.
The scam that I almost fell victim to, was not quite the same. In fact it was much more elaborate than any that I have seen before. I want to take you through the day and a half that these people spent, trying to lead me into trouble. I want to show you this so, if you see any of these signs, you know what is happening.
So, pay close attention to my story, and share it with others. There is a point toward the end of this article, where i will be sharing with you the message that I sent to the person who was in contact with me, just before they left the Skype conversation where I had my "interview." This is worth reading, and worth sharing. It may prevent someone else from falling victim to this, and it also may help make it real to the kinds of people that are doing this, to others. Let's begin.
I awoke, on the morning of, 2/17/2020, like any other morning. I got up, made some coffee and sat down at my laptop. I am new on the Upwork platform, and I have been working hard to start a career as a freelance writer, from scratch. I proceeded to shake my computer's mouse, waking up the screen. What will today hold? I thought to myself, as the screen flickered on slowly.
The answer came in the form of an Upwork message. It read, as follows:
"You have a really nice resume and i will love to give you an opportunity, please go through the link. below and take the steps to get interviewed."
The message, was followed by a link to a .PDF file, which looked like this:
No alt text provided for this image
It told me to set up a Skype interview and add up the director of the company's HR. It came with a project name and an "Entry Code" to give to the interviewer. I did so, excitedly, in lieu of the fact that the job offer paid $35/hr. Life has been an enormous struggle the last couple of years. My girlfriend Audie Faith and I are finally getting back on our feet, a little. This $35/hr job, may not seem like much to some, but for my girl and me, it would have been life changing.
I proceeded to login to Skype and create the requested interview room. I added the person by email and proceeded to contact them. Upwork, had shown that they were interviewing five other people, not including myself. It took a little while to get an answer. This seemed legit, and it made sense. When I was answered, I was asked if I was ready to answer my interview questions.
I said that I was, and the questions started coming. All of the questions were tailored perfectly for the job. They asked me questions about editing and proof reading. They asked me to give an example of when I went, "above and beyond the call of duty." They asked me what kind of things that I do to stay focused, when working on a project, among other questions that were valid to the job posting.
After the interview was complete, they told me that they would pass my answers along to their superiors. A few hours went by, and I decided to send a follow-up message, as I usually do. I wanted them to know that I was truly interested. I didn't receive an answer for a while. I figured this was a normal part of the process of review.
In the meantime, I told my girl about the job. I told her about the interview. She was excited, too. She left with her mother to go to the grocery store, and I waited for a response at home. Finally, one came:
"Your answers were great, and you seem to be a perfect fit for this job position! Please, hold online for us to send you the official job offer."
My heart just about jumped out of my chest. I asked a few questions, and the person who I was in contact with started to run over the details of the project with me. They sent me a link to the website that they claimed was theirs. The website appeared to be an associate of a large legal services company called, LegalShield. This was the site, that I was linked to:
It had various elements, and it said that it was based in Michigan. The site was easy to navigate, and it even had videos that looked fairly professional and worked. Examples:
When I called the number for the website, it went to voicemail. The woman's voice, even had a northern accent (I used to live in Minnesota, and all three of my sisters still do, so I know the accent well.) All of these seemed legit, and I was fairly certain that things were matching up.
I was told that they had a series of six articles on one of the portions of their site, that needed to be rewritten. They said, that the only portion that they were keeping was the first out of six, but that the other sections had proven ineffective, and were badly in need of a re-write. My new job, was to write a 1,000 word piece that would be a part of the six article series. They told me to check my email, for the job offer. Note: Beware of anyone who asks you to leave Upwork to accept a job offer.
I checked my email. In my email, was their official job offer. It appeared, as follows:
My girl was still at the store when I received this. I about fell out of my chair. $400 dollars an assignment, for a thousand word article! Long term! That money would have significantly relieved some of the stresses that we are currently going through.
I was asked to return the document, signed. I reviewed it quickly, and gladly did just that. I was then told that, in order to do this job, they would be providing me with a special laptop to work remotely with them. It would have special anti-malware software, and it would be monitored. It was only to be used for work. I was still blown away. Around this time, is when my girlfriend returned home from the store.
I showed her everything that had been going on. Her eyes welled up with tears. The person that I was in contact with, told me that we would not be able to begin work until tomorrow, because it was a federal holiday and accounting could not process the payment for the equipment until the next day. We waited patiently, feeling as though many prayers had been answered.
Her mother called, and we told her mother, who also cried. I called my dad, who was happy and proud. I posted about how good God is on Facebook to my 1,500 friends (God still is good, by the way, one way or the other.) We went to sleep, happy and content.
When I woke up, I had not yet received a message from my awesome new job. Of course, I sent a follow up to make sure that we were all good. I received message back, soon afterwards. They said, that they were going to send me a check, which I could then scan with my mobile app. They sent copies of it, front and back. It was a Wells Fargo, cashiers check.
I found this strange, and so I asked them about the identity of the outfitter that would be giving me the laptop, as well as asking them why they would have to send me a check. They responded, by telling me that they had a delivery service, or that I could pick it up at the retailer, which was a few hours from my location. They did not identify the retailer, and seemed a little pushy on the delivery option.
This all seemed a little fishy to me. So, we took photos of the check to Wells Fargo, to see if this was legit. Wells Fargo confirmed that the check appeared valid, and that the account was a real account. They then asked if we had snapped a photo of the check ourselves. We told them that it had been sent digitally, and a look of concern came upon the two women's faces.
"In 16 years of working here, I know that we have never accepted a digital check," said the older of the two.
We also called LegalShield's headquarters, to try to find out if this was really from the company. They told us that the Unique Benefits associate, was a real associate to their company, but there was no way for them to tell if the people sending me the check were actually from that outfit.
The reason that they didn't know, lies in the type of company that LegalShield is. LegalShield is a MLM company. This means, that it is a multi-level marketing scheme. All of the companies involved are independent of one another. Basically, it is a giant referral company. They on-board new people to run their own business, and that business becomes part of the larger MLM scheme. This makes it incredibly difficult to figure out what company policies are, as each one has their own individual policies.
What the woman who answered was able to do, was search their global employment database for the names that had been given me, for the people that were in contact with me. They could not be found. She told us that the best thing to do was to get into contact with the associate and find out if they knew of the people that I was in contact with.
I went back onto Skype and asked them to call me. I pulled up a reverse-phone look-up site. I waited for the call. The call came, and it was registered to a, California, Skype VoIP caller. There were no flags on it, but it was clearly not the company name. The caller, asked me to form the questions that I had for their superiors and to send them to him in the Skype conversation for forwarding. I did this, strategically. These were my two questions:
"What is the specific retailer and it's specific address and phone number, for the company that will be providing the equipment?"
"Can I get a call from your company, from a number that is registered specifically to the company that you claim to be, for verification purposes?"
For a while, I got no response. After about an hour, I prodded, "So...? I haven't received the call yet, and Wells Fargo says that it does not do digital checks."
The response given: "You can print the check out. We already had an associate call you. It works either way."
At this moment, I was one-thousand percent sure! This was definitely a scam, and it was an elaborate one, at that.
Worried, that one of the other five people who were being interviewed for the same job may fall victim to this, I had the posting flagged on Upwork. I sent one final message to, "Mike Santillano." That message, read as follows:
"Mike, I just wanted to let you know something. The road that I have walked is one that has been full of hardship. When I received the offer letter for employment, my girlfriend was gone at the store with her mother. When she arrived home, it seemed as if many prayers had been answered. The compensation offered, would have changed our lives, and enormous alligator tears welled up in her eyes when I told her. She kissed me, and told me how much she loved me. She was proud, and she felt as though a huge stress had been lifted. As did I. I just wanted you to know, that what you are doing has an effect on real people. Real people, that have real lives. Words are powerful. They have the power to lift someone up, and they have the power to shatter their dreams. I imagine, that you have come from a rough place, too. I want you to imagine those you love most, your girl, your wife, your son, or your daughter, filled with hope. I want you to imagine, that they come from rough past, and that someone told them that their worries were over, at least for a little while. I want you to see the tears welled up in their eyes and the smile on their face. Then, I want you to ask yourself: What happens, next?"
"Mike Santillano," left the conversation.
Please, share and forward this to your friends. I hope that it saves someone else from this trouble. I also hope, that somehow, it reaches some of those that are doing this to other people. Maybe, it will make it real, to at least a couple. I'm sure that some still won't care, but if even one person and their family doesn't have to experience this, I would be happy.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. I just wanted to say, that Upwork is still a great platform. You should remain safe, as long as you follow the guidelines. Never take a job from someone who tells you that it will be taking the project, outside of Upwork! This is a clear violation of Upwork's terms of service! Unfortunately, for this job, they didn't tell me that part until the damage was already done. The proposal was still considered 'Active' on Upwork, for the entirety of this story. Best of luck! Upwork is great, and I would still definitely recommend it!
-Article by Jonathan Caleb Williams @badseedalchemist