Last Friday, Heather Boerner, a San Francisco-based medical writer, got an email from someone who said he had hired her through oDesk, a web marketplace where employers and freelancers can connect.
Boerner, who has written for The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and others, has never used oDesk.
She quickly realized that she had been the victim of identity theft. Somebody–a fake Heather–had gone to Boerner’s website, copied her resume, downloaded her photo, linked to her website, and created an oDesk account offering services as a writer.
“It’s an elaborate scheme. It’s really bizarre,” said Boerner, who has alerted some of her colleagues (which is how I heard about it). “The guy who notified me of this said he had hired Fake Heather to do some writing. Fake Heather then hired people to do the writing for her [or him].” The person who notified Boerner said he gave Fake Heather $1,000.
The man who had hired Fake Heather said that he communicated with her solely via Skype. Boerner signed on to Skype and found Fake Heather’s account. “It was the most amazing thing to see my name and my photo on an account in Toronto,” she said.
Boerner isn’t the first to be victimized by someone using exactly the same M.O. Last fall, Carol Tice, a Seattle-area freelancer who writes the blog Make A Living Writing, unexpectedly received several emails from writers in India applying for work as content writers.
Then she received an email from someone wanting to know if Tice wanted to continue the writing project they were working on. “I assured her that I had never started article writing for her, and certainly wasn’t going to continue,” Tice wrote in a blog post. “I didn’t even have any idea what topics she was having articles written about!”
As was the case with Fake Heather, Fake Carol set up a Skype account outside the U.S. (in London), and used Tice’s name, photo, and website to connect with clients on a freelancers’ website (in this case, Elance).
Tice was alerted by someone who was about to start working with Fake Carol but “had a strong instinct that something was not connecting,” as she told Tice. Fake Carol, like Fake Heather, was also subcontracting writing to others.
Tice was incensed at the possible damage done to unsuspecting writers and to her own reputation. Elance removed the imposter’s profile, but “I think it’s notable that there wasn’t even an apology made for the damage to my reputation here,” Tice wrote. “It just makes me sick to think about how these writers were excited to be writing for me, and then had to find out it was all a scam. Even though I’m only an unwitting participant in this ripoff, it really rankles.” (I’ve emailed Tice for any further comment.)
A public-relations firm that represents Elance-oDesk (the companies merged in December, 2013) said Friday, “We take fraud very seriously and have a dedicated trust and safety team that focuses on protecting clients and freelancers alike,” and “We redress the issue promptly when it is detected by our systems or reported to us by a user.”
Here is Tice’s bottom line: “This whole experience was a sad reminder that when you go on platforms where it’s easy for clients to mask their identities, you really don’t know who you’re dealing with. Which means it’s easy for that client to disappear without paying you. Just another reason to go out and find your own clients instead of hanging around bidding on Elance for gigs posted by clients who may not be who they appear.”
This is serious business; Tice and Boerner have suffered real harm, as have the writers who did work and didn’t get paid. As Boerner said, “I’ve worked for 10 years to build a career. I published a book this year. And then this yahoo comes along and tries to exploit it to try to scam people.”
But I can’t help but wonder what motivates Fake Heather and Fake Carol, who could be the same person. The bank robber Willie Sutton, as the story goes, was asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” he replied. But what kind of person robs freelance writers? That’s where the money isn’t.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Boerner is busy trying to clean up the mess that Fake Heather created. “I checked my credit reports. I contacted Skype and asked them to remove this fake person’s Skype account. That’s still in process. I filed an FTC affidavit,” she said. “People have told me I need to contact the FBI.” Her website and LinkedIn page now sport warnings, where she asks for “help to assist me in catching this fraudster who appears to have done this more than once.”
“I’m going to file the police report today,” Boerner told me yesterday as we wrapped up our conversation. “And get my flu vaccine. So I’ll be protected in every way.”