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The Downside of Upwork

What the popular platform isn’t doing to protect freelancers from scammers


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Jim Garlits

3 years ago | 7 min read

One of the more popular places for freelancers to find work in this COVID-19 altered world is through the Upwork platform. Yes, they nab one-fifth of your income.

Yes, they make you pay for connects or front load them if you fork over another fifteen bucks a month for a Plus membership. Yes, they charge you to transfer your pay into your bank account.

They’re money-grubbers. The site is not intuitive. Finding out how to land gigs is like doing a jigsaw puzzle blindfolded. But they’re still one of the best things going for creatives.

I’ve finally landed a few gigs on Upwork and I can tell you from experience that there’s no garden path that leads to your getting a foot in the door, but there’s a lot of money to be made once you do. And you will!

A dirty little secret

Here’s something Upwork doesn’t spend much time addressing, but something you’ll quickly figure out on your own once you’ve started to get the hang of it: A lot of the postings are from scammers.

Let me share a couple of personal examples to illustrate the frustrating and time wasting process that we noobs have to navigate to be successful.

Is that you, Macmillan?

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Back in May, shortly after joining Upwork, I responded to a posting from someone whom I thought was from the publisher Macmillan.

I knew that as a new account with no previous clients on the platform, my chances of landing a gig for the Big M imprint were slim. But we all have to start somewhere, right? And I tend to think positive, so I shot them a proposal for the blog writing and proofreading project:

Screen capture by Jim Garlits

It didn’t take long for them to respond. I got this from Gabriella:

Screen capture by Jim Garlits

The letter, supposedly from Gabriella at Macmillan, started in the passive voice and spelled Upwork in all caps. My email to the Human Resource (sic) manager would be going to the email address macmillan1publishers at Gmail.

See a pattern developing here? I realize that a lot of professionals are horrible with emails and internal communications. When many things have to get done on tight deadlines, people don’t proofread. But job ads aren’t emails. You should be thinking, “this doesn’t pass the sniff test.”

The problem is, a lot of noobs, convinced that Upwork is feeding them legitimate opportunities, will rationalize away the sirens going off in their head. Don’t be “that guy.”

Doctor WHO?

My run-in with Gabriella was back in May. I wish I could say that it was my only bad experience and that I learned my lesson the first time. That isn’t the case. It took me a while to figure out the dynamics and find a way to protect myself.

So, a few days ago, I submitted a proofreading proposal that looked professional and seemed legit. If I’d focused and looked a bit deeper, I’d have seen that payment was unverified. It slipped past me. I’m not perfect.

My proposal was answered, oh joy! It came in at the end of a string of other successfully bid proposals, but I still had time in my schedule to complete the work, so I clicked to open my messages tab to find yet another invitation to “onboard” with the company’s Human Resources Department. Here we go again…

It was 7:30 p.m. and I was done working for the day, so I said to myself, “this should be fun” and used the information in an aggravatingly formatted PDF in a Dropbox folder to initiate the Skype call with Dr. Mike, who fancied himself the President and Vice Chairman of a large Chicago healthcare company.

Right off, the joker misspelled his company’s name. Then he asked for a resumé. And then…

And then I got an email from Upwork stating that the job listing had been removed. Right then during the Skype session. I called Dr. Mike onto the carpet.

Screen capture by Jim Garlits

In case you don’t know, Upwork doesn’t let clients opt out of an active proposal or contract. The process can take weeks.

I clicked back over to Upwork in my browser and went to the proposal page. It displayed this message:

Screen capture by Jim Garlits

I went back to the Skype interview and continued the conversation with Dr. Mike:

Screen capture by Jim Garlits

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Mike stopped answering. I think it’s Upwork who needs to do some answering, not Mike. For the amount of money they grab and the endless nickel-and-diming they subject freelancers to, they need to be doing a deeper dive into squelching the scammers. But consider me jaded; I don’t think it’s going to happen.

For now, it’s up to us to protect ourselves. Here’s how:

Never answer an unfunded Upwork ad

How can you tell if the client is funding his or her request? It’s down in the bottom left corner of the job ad. It’s tiny. Unobtrusive. It sort of disappears into the screen. Maybe that’s intentional, maybe not.

Screen capture by Jim Garlits

Everything else except the payment info looks above board, right? They’re looking for an intermediate talent who can give them a mix of value and professionalism.

They’re wanting to distinguish themselves with some eye-grabbing Shopify PDs. They’ve gotten a few bites so far, but that tiny little icon should be flashing like the stage lights at an Iron Maiden concert. Never ignore it. And never deal with anyone whose payment information is unverified.

Screen capture by Jim Garlits

While I’m at it, here’s another warning sign.

Screen capture by Jim Garlits

Remember Gabriella? Here’s a screenshot of her profile picture. Professional and full of moxie, right? Wrong. That’s another hint. If a clients haven’t taken ten minutes to complete their profile, are they worth your time? No, they’re not.

Don’t let the checkmark fool ya, buddy

To their credit, Upwork has been working lately to verify both client and freelancer credentials by making everyone upload a government sponsored ID and submit to a short video call. Accounts that existed before they implemented this requirement are still being processed, so you will still run into clients without the blue dot. Don’t play with them.

Screen shot by Jim Garlits

But even though I’m glad Upwork is doing something, this little blue dot is no panacea. It isn’t difficult for someone with nefarious intentions to fabricate or alter a government ID, or Photoshop an address onto a piece of mail.

When I submitted my drivers license to get verified, it took the Upwork chat room rep thirty seconds to approve my drivers license and initiate the video call to make sure I was me. Which means, they don’t have any idea whether I’m me or not. All they know is that I’m either me, or my image editing skills are mad enough to make him think it’s me.

That makes me mad. But it has also made me super aware of how to avoid the worst of the worst of the scammers that plague the platform.

Your next Upwork assignment

So here’s what I’m proposing.

  • First, don’t respond to clients on Upwork who don’t have a blue dot next to their name. They may not be who they say they are. Even if they do have the check mark, still be wary. But only working with blue-dotters is simple first-line defense
  • Second, don’t submit a proposal to a client who hasn’t completely filled in their profile. You might lose a legit gig here and there, but it’s worth the peace of dealing with less scams.
  • Last, don’t — please, please, please — don’t waste your time pitching to a client who hasn’t verified their payment method. This is the best way to protect yourself.

If you choose to respond to the dottless, the profileless, and the paymentless, you will waste your time with them. Time you could be spending writing, designing, creating.

You will be dragged into a purgatory of fake requirements that Upwork doesn’t require; initiating Skype calls with fictitious Human Resource Departments for people and companies who don’t exist; and you’ll never see a penny from them, ever. And as much as we all love writing, designing, and creating for free, we’re on Upwork for coin. Do your free stuff for your niece.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Even with the downsides of Upwork, they still offer many people a way to break into a freelance career they’ll love, and you can make money on Upwork, even as a noob. The law of large numbers says that you’ll land a gig if you send out enough proposals. Even if it’s because someone felt pity for your noobness, you’ll get a gig. Then another.

You’ll meet some people who are great to work with, and some who are tedious.

Some will become fixtures in your life, most will come and go. But they all pay you for your work instead of stealing your valuable time trying to get your personally identifying information.

But that will only start happening once you’ve left the scammers in the dust, and I just showed you how. Happy Upworking!

Originally published on medium.

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