Have you been scammed by freelancer com
Identity fraud at Upwork and other freelance websites threatens the integrity of the gig economy
The gig economy is booming, but what happens to those workers who are excluded from remote work platforms or the most valuable online job markets? Increasingly, the answer is identity fraud and account buying. The average asking price for verified freelance accounts from Upwork, one of the premier remote work platforms, can exceed $ 1,300. Some sellers even charge tens of thousands of dollars for their accounts. Additionally, the number of posts related to buying and selling Upwork accounts on a website increased more than 5,300 percent in the first half of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.
Gig economy workers remain the top targets for home work fraud, but the demand for remote workers coupled with significant gaps in identity verification methods found on most remote freelance platforms has created a bold and open marketplace for account fraud. As a result, a large number of customers and buyers have been defrauded by freelancers abusing gig economy platforms.
What we found:
- There are hundreds of Upwork accounts for sale on the Surface Web, so buyers don't have to use dark web marketplaces.
- The average listing price for an Upwork account is over $ 1,300.
- The level of identity fraud at Upwork appears to be increasing every year.
- The price for verified freelance accounts can exceed tens of thousands of dollars.
- Most customers seem to be trying to bypass the approval process and regional market restrictions for freelance platforms.
- Most of the customers seem to be from China, Russia, various African countries, India and Pakistan.
- Some buyers, particularly in China and Russia, bypass regional content restrictions using VPNs and rent time on sellers' computers through TeamViewer and other desktop sharing apps.
Freelance Platforms and Identity Fraud
The increasingly expansive gig economy covers a variety of job types. From ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft to dog walking apps like Wag! and rovers, anyone with a skill, interest, or valuable resource can participate. And those who are willing to pay for these services can often find gigworkers in just a few minutes.
These platforms offer buyers an implicit level of confidence. When a customer or employer searches for gig economy employees through these websites and apps, they expect them to work with the person whose profile they explored in the hiring process.
However, identity fraud appears to be increasing on remote gig economy platforms. Freelancers buy, rent, and use other people's accounts or create fake profiles to trick and defraud customers who use the platform.
As you'd expect, some of these gig economy companies' biggest websites have also been scammed the most. Many customers and shoppers who use these websites claim to have been scammed by freelancers who used accounts that were bought, stolen, or fake.
As an Upwork customer explained on the Reddit forum / r / Upwork:
“Yes, it actually happened to me a couple of times. One was a translator who really didn't know the language, [another] a marketer who threatened me. "
Source: Reddit / r / Upwork
The customer discovered that Upwork managed to close the account before reporting it. In other cases, however, some customers using Upwork have lost significant amounts of money due to identity fraud.
Another user stated:
“One of my customers hired several freelancers at the same time for a time-critical project. One of them was a scammer who milked the customer up to the maximum hours allowed but did not deliver any significant results. This scammer later copied my profile. By the time he went through his feedback, he cheated on a couple of other customers. I reported him. It took a few months but he finally got booted by Upwork, but not before cheating on a handful of other customers. "
Source: Reddit / r / Upwork
Stories like this appear regularly on Upwork's community forums, as well as in forums and articles related to other remote working environments such as TopTal.
Methods of Verifying Identity on Freelance Platforms
Many gig platforms and apps require some form of face-to-face interaction, which makes it especially difficult to commit identity fraud. Some also employ technologically advanced techniques designed to eliminate or significantly reduce the risk of identity fraud.
For example, Uber uses a system called Real-Time ID Check. Real-Time ID Check is based on Microsoft Cognitive Services and uses facial recognition technology to verify a driver's identity before the driver can log into the app.
We spoke about the company's ID verification methods, according to Michael C., a Baltimore-based veteran Uber driver. Real-Time ID Check is activated randomly via the Uber app. However, the identity will not be verified if the light is too dim, the face is not fully visible, or does not match what is recorded. If the driver's face does not match Uber's records, the driver can be disabled on the platform. Drivers can only be reactivated by calling Uber Driver Support and providing additional personal information that Uber has registered for each driver.
Most remote work platforms implement various identity verification tactics to reduce the number of account fraud incidents. Thanks to the size and popularity of the website, Upwork is a perfect case study for this. On the platform, freelancers often (but not always) need to verify their identity by providing a government-issued ID, an official payment method (such as a major credit card or PayPal account), a bank statement, a phone number, or official documentation submit verified a name and address.
The service also recently implemented an ID verification badge (similar to Twitter and Facebook) earned through video calls with Upwork agents to verify the ID picture with the supposed user.
It's not a perfect system, however, and noticeably less strict than the system currently in use by Uber.
Upwork support staff have confirmed in community forum posts that ID verification is not always required for freelancers to work on the platform:
Source: UpworkSource: Upwork
This means that some freelancers can create accounts and enter into contracts with clients prior to account verification, which can lead to fraud.
Other remote work platforms such as Freelancer, Fiverr, PeoplePerHour, Guru, and TopTal also have identity verification methods:
- Fiverr: Requires a one-time upload of government ID and a selfie.
- freelancer: Requires government identification, a photo of the user with a piece of paper with a key code, and copies of two bank statements or statements (or one of each). The verification must be done with a mobile device.
- PeoplePerHour: Requires government ID, a copy of a utility or bank statement, a photo of the credit card associated with the account, and a copy of a verified PayPal account.
- guru: Requires government ID, proof of address, and a recent photo. Guru canRequest identity verification on an ongoing basis.
- Top Valley: Thorough identity verification process that includes photo ID, social networking information, a possible criminal background check, family information check, and much more.
Those services that require identity verification usually request it during or shortly after the account is created. In some cases, re-verification can occur after a service updates or changes its verification policy. Following Upwork's new policy of verifying freelancers using video calls, many freelancers on the platform had to re-verify their accounts in order to obtain the new badge. In some cases, Upwork has suspended freelance accounts until the video chat review has been completed.
Most remote working platforms have a policy that identity verification is only required once. However, few openly state this as a written guideline. However, Fiverr is an exception as it states on its identity verification page that it will only ask for account verification once.
A one-time ID verification policy ultimately makes it easier for scammers to take advantage of remote work platforms and allows anyone to create a fully verified account and then sell it.
How scammers take advantage of open freelance platforms
There is now a growing market for sharing, selling, and renting accounts, especially Upwork accounts. (Some account sales have been shown to exist for accounts from another major remote work platform, Freelancer, but to a much lesser extent.)
Where are Upwork and Freelancer accounts bought and sold?
Most of the time, there are illegal account sales on dark web marketplaces. For example, anyone looking to buy illegitimate Uber accounts can do it for around $ 5. At Uber, most accounts sold are user accounts, not driver accounts. Even if users were able to sell their own or stolen Uber driver accounts, Uber's real-time ID check degrades the value of the driver accounts.
In contrast, the selling and leasing of Upwork and Freelancer accounts seems to be primarily done through the surface web, or the topmost part of the internet that most of us use. And one of the most popular forums for this type of activity seems to be a gaming website called PlayerUp.
In 2018, a website called UpBuy.in (also advertised as UpBuy.me) attempted to formalize the sale of Upwork accounts, but it apparently closed shortly after it launched. This website has also advertised itself in the Upwork Accounts section of PlayerUp, highlighting the much larger market of sellers and buyers that exist on PlayerUp.
Although intended as a tool for buying, selling, and trading accounts for video gamers, a large number of the PlayerUp community use the service instead as a medium for fraudulent identity fraud on professional accounts, or for buying, selling, and trading accounts for social media like Instagram and YouTube.
At the moment there are around 300 current and archived posts on PlayerUp that sell or request identity-verified Upwork and freelancer accounts. (We were unable to buy or sell posts for other major freelance platforms on this website. This shows, in part, the impact the size and popularity of a gig website has on account sales.)
The vast majority of these freelance account sales are for Upwork, which is the one we have focused on the most.
Upwork Account sellers tend to advertise a few key areas of their account in order to convince potential buyers:
- Confirmation status
- Age of the account
- Number of positive feedback or ratings
- Job Success Score (a metric used by Upwork to rate freelancers based on customer satisfaction)
- Account location
- Total revenue
- Average monthly income
- Number of active and billable contracts
- Number of completed jobs
- Remote control of a PC via a VPN and Teamviewer to access and operate the account
Those who sell freelancer accounts look for similar criteria, but the number of accounts from this platform available for sale on PlayerUp is far fewer, so far less data is available.
Sellers can also use PlayerUp as a secure middleman payment system, although some may seek payment through Payoneer, another middleman payment service, or simply PayPal. Middleman payment methods are common on dark web marketplaces and allow both parties to exchange funds while remaining completely anonymous.
Outside of PlayerUp, some account buyers and freelance platform identity scammers are using a more direct route. Some choose to contact freelancers with verified and active accounts directly through social media such as Facebook or LinkedIn.
As an active Upwork user, this has happened to me twice in the past few months.
In one case, an Upwork user from Russia who already had a verified account tried to contact me so that I could share my account with them. This is due to the nationality preferences that apply in Upwork and Upwork's selected market and are only created for US customers and freelancers. With millions of Upwork users worldwide, many of whom are in "preferred" countries, many other freelancers on the platform have likely been contacted in this way as well.
How much are remote accounts for freelance platforms worth?
There is a huge difference between the value of remote freelancer accounts and what sellers charge. Account sellers on PlayerUp can enter any price they want and mark posts as "Sold" after a successful transaction. Buyers can create posts to purchase accounts for any amount and mark their posts as "Sold" when they make a purchase. This makes the account request price the most reliable data related to selling accounts.
Based on a review of over 280 PlayerUp posts (at the time of writing), the average listing price for an Upwork account is just over $ 1,330. However, the average price for accounts marked "Sold" is $ 610.
The type of services offered by the account, such as programming, translating, or writing, did not seem relevant enough to most sellers of the account or had a major impact on how many potential buyers responded to a post. Fraudsters can acquire verified accounts and then change the registered skills and business model of the account. However, an account for Upwork can be blocked during this activity.
Many Upwork Account sellers have not been able to determine where the account is registered and verified. Most often, however, we observed jobs that were identified as created and reviewed in both the US and many European markets, including the UK.
Too little country-specific data does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the popularity of the various account regions. Most of the posts got at least a few replies, while some posts got no replies at all. We also found that a number of posts have received replies from many of the same user accounts, which may indicate some additional buying and selling losses.
Posts can stay active for months, although most older posts are blocked after an uncertain period of time. However, we haven't found that the age of a post has a huge impact on the number of responses received.
Most of the replies to posts were received within days of their publication. Many posts received little or no replies despite a comparatively low asking price, while others (like the one promoting an account based in Macedonia) received a large number of replies within a few days.
Due to the nature of the PlayerUp service and the way the sale of black market accounts tends to work, the data collection beyond asking price was overall inconsistent. For example, many sellers did not quote a price in their posts and instead asked potential buyers to submit an offer via a private message (usually Skype). Some sellers also stated that they sold several dozen accounts in batches for the same price, which means our data may be too low based on the number of accounts advertised.
A good amount of activity is also pouring into account leasing, an area where we didn't go too far due to limited data volumes. However, many posts discuss renting the accounts for several hundred dollars per month with an initial entry fee. How sellers work out the rent payment system without being scammed themselves is difficult to determine.
In addition, it is next to impossible to verify an account's sales, so the list price is the most accurate number for this type of market. Anyone using PlayerUp can mark a post as "Sold", while many freelance account sales are likely to be without the "Sold" mark.
Who will buy freelance platform accounts?
Buyers around the world are likely buying freelance platform accounts, but our review of PlayerUp posts and responses, as well as other research, suggests that most buyers are from just a few regions:
- Africa (various countries)
Chinese and Russian buyers seem particularly interested in renting Upwork accounts and accessing the sellers' computers through VPNs and Teamviewer or other desktop sharing software. This post on the Upwork Community forums from a high spending Upwork client seems to highlight the issue:
It should be noted that Upwork is not banned in China and Russia. However, Upwork implements location verification methods that are not publicly advertised. It seems that these methods can be bypassed using VPNs and desktop sharing software.
Many Chinese and Russian buyers may also use this method to fool Upworks customers about the Time Tracker app, which is used to periodically take pictures of freelancer's desktops. Customers can more easily spot fraud when buyers in China or Russia use their own computers to complete hourly projects. As a result, using remote connections to another computer can make fraud detection difficult.
Buying accounts appears to be popular in Kenya and other African countries as well. A 2017 article in the Kenyan online newspaper Standard Digital examined how many young Kenyans use online remote working platforms to make a living. Although the article did not specify which platforms young workers in Kenya were using, the limited number of such websites likely means that they are primarily targeting Upwork and freelancers.
The article highlights a trend that shows that many young Kenyans are choosing to buy accounts rather than trying to go through the verification process. “Online writing accounts can be acquired either by purchasing or opening an account. Most people prefer to buy [accounts] because the process of opening an account is very rigorous and competitive, ”the author wrote.
While PlayerUp was the source we found and investigated, the depth of account fraud is likely far greater on Upwork and other sites with gig economy features. We have reason to believe that there are more covert marketplaces, probably on the internet or other private websites. Many are likely hosted in the countries where buying accounts is the most popular.
Consequences of identity fraud on remote platforms
It is unclear to what extent identity fraud is a problem on remote work platforms like Upwork. We asked Upwork for a comment on how we deal with identity fraud, but we haven't received a response at the time of posting. However, it's especially easy to find Upwork customers and buyers complaining about fake profiles and fraudulent account usage dating back several years.
In addition, PlayerUp is increasingly used as a medium for buying and selling Upwork accounts. The PlayerUp website went live in 2015, while the first Upwork-related post wasn't published until 2016. There were only a small number of posts in 2017.
In 2018, there were an average of 5.5 jobs per month related to buying and selling Upwork accounts.
However, in the first six months of 2019, there were an average of 36 Upwork accounts buying and selling posts each month (a total of 217 posts between January and June). In the first six months of 2018, on the other hand, there were only four jobs, which corresponds to an increase of over 5,300 percent.
The increasing number of PlayerUp posts related to identity fraud on Upwork accounts seems to suggest that a stable and growing market is well established despite Upwork's account verification methods. This puts Upwork customers at risk and creates integrity problems for the Upwork service. It is also a red flag for other free marketplaces: the more popular a service becomes, the more it has to consider identity fraud in its system.
Some Post responses suggest that there are also risks for buyers who might themselves be scammed if they try to secretly buy or rent accounts.
Sellers are also at risk, especially if they intend to rent accounts. Buyers who gain access to accounts may be able to take full ownership of the accounts by changing passwords and other registration information and locking out the original account holder.
How Upwork and Remote Gig Platforms Can Protect Buyers
Upwork's fight against identity fraud seems to have no clear end, at least not without a major change in the way the service verifies freelance identity. It's also an issue that existed long before oDesk and Elance merged to create the Upwork brand in 2015. However, since Upwork is a publicly traded company, it may face additional scrutiny - and more severe consequences - if it continues to struggle to curb the brand on account fraud.
The company, as well as other gig economy platforms like Fiverr and Freelancer, may need to implement ID security measures similar to the system currently in use by Uber. Moving to a more stable and regular ID verification process can annoy some freelancers while also having to admit its longstanding problems with account fraud (something Upwork previously refused to do publicly). This will likely come with additional costs that Upwork will either have to bear itself or pass on to the users of its platform.
However, stricter identity verification methods can go a long way in creating a more trustworthy service for customers and help keep buyers from fleeing to Upwork's competitors.
We have collected data from PlayerUp.com through the Upwork Accounts and Freelancer.com Accounts sections. The data was collected and updated over several days in July 2019. We have gathered information from over 280 posts in the Upwork area and over 90 posts in the Freelancer.com area, including mail details, mail replies and the location of the account to be sent, inquire about the price of accounts, status of the account sale (sold / not sold) and the total number of posts used to buy and sell accounts.
Freelancer.com posts were not properly distinguished from a video game listed on the website, resulting in far fewer posts related to Freelancer.com sales than originally displayed. As a result, we've excluded Freelancer.com from most of the data analysis and discussion in the article.
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