I recently received a strange email. It went a little like this:

“YOU OWE ME MONEY. PAY NOW OR ELSE.”

This email was baffling for several reasons. For starters, I’m a freelance copywriter and I do 99% of my work myself. I have employed other freelancers in the past, but it’s been several years since I last outsourced any work. And I’ve always paid everyone in a timely manner.

Another baffling detail was the sender; I’d never heard of them before. So why were they emailing me to demand money?

Later that evening I received two more emails from other freelance writers, also demanding that I pay them for work they believed I’d commissioned on Elance, an outsourcing website.

The next day more messages poured in. I received comments on my blog, emails to a group I belong to (Brighton’s Farm) and notification of a report filed about me on a scam website – all accusing me of being a cheat, a liar and a thief.

My name was used to defraud freelancers on Elance. Although I first feared the emails were an attempt to scam me, I was naturally keen to find out what was going on, and to help the victims catch the real culprit.

So I replied to the emails I received with polite curiosity. I explained that I had nothing to do with their complaint, and asked for more information. Everyone replied to say that they were owed money by ‘me’ – or a company that was linked to me somehow. I explained that I knew nothing about this and had not used Elance, but naturally the victims were sceptical because they believed they’d been communicating with me for weeks.

Through email conversations with the victims I learned that a total of five freelancers were ripped off by someone who pretended to be me. The fraudster used my name and my business identity, as well as my location details and profile pictures. The fraudster concocted a fake online identity cobbled together from mine, and then once they had received the articles they had commissioned, they shut down their Elance profile and their Skype account and left no trace.

A couple of the victims were incredulous that I was unaware of this fraud. They asked me how someone so “successful” and “prolific” (their words!) could be oblivious to this scam. That’s easy to explain: the web is an enormous thing. How would I know about something happening on a website I don’t use, unless someone tells me?

Another victim wondered how the perpetrator had mimicked my online identity. I had to explain that copying information and pictures is as easy as right-clicking with a mouse.

Is fraud a part of the Elance experience?

Several of the freelancers that fell victim to this fraud had already been the victim of similar Elance scams. Essentially, an unscrupulous individual commissions work, gets the work, and then vanishes.

The freelancer has no chance of recovering their time, money or work. For some Elance users, fraud seems to be a part of the process – just a hazard of the job. So why aren’t Elance doing more to prevent fraud?

As a freelancer, I have a great deal of sympathy for the individuals who were ripped off. I hope they never experience this kind of theft again. I don’t think anyone should accept fraud as just a part of being freelance.

Online fraud – the perfect crime?

I reported this affair to the police. Action Fraud is a special division that deals with fraud and internet crime. The person I spoke to was very nice and sympathetic and they gave me a crime reference number. I also recommended that the victims report this to their local police. And I reported the fraud to Elance, who seem to be looking into it. But given that the total value of the crime is in the region of $3,000, how much time will anyone spend investigating this matter?

I don’t have much hope of anyone being caught for this crime, which is a great shame because I suspect they will do this again.

Editor’s note: We reached out to Elance, who told us:

“In investigating the situation, we learned that the account it concerns was flagged and frozen in our internal security processes before [we were contacted] about it. However, we absolutely acknowledge that once the matter came to our attention, we could have done better and acted more quickly, and we promise that we will in the future.

“Elance monitors registration and site activity 24/7 through a combination of business rules, fraud models, manual reviews, and by assessing feedback from the community.

“We review 100% of reported cases and take action as soon as possible  Resolution time is dependent on the response time of the parties involved. While we investigate the case, we take measures (such as freezing the account, like we did here) to ensure no further damage can be caused until the case is resolved.”

In this case, only the freelancers who worked according to Elance’s guidelines are eligible for compensation.

Have you used Elance – or other freelance marketplaces – successfully? Or have you ever been ripped off in this way?

Photo by JD Hancock