Friday, August 29, 2008

Scams as Far as the Eye Can See

As a freelance writer you may or may not know that it is up to me to drum up my own business. Consequently I send in well over a dozen job applications each week along with my responsbilities writing for my current employers. Unfortunately there is not much in the way of a regulatory board or group for most of these jobs. Typically they are small contract jobs for start-up businesses or subcontracted work on the behalf of a web developer to provide content and filler for new websites.

It's rare to actually have a legal contract drawn up and payment is typically through an intermediary such as Paypal.

As a result of this system's informality there are many ways for a scam artist or unscrupulous businessperson to take advantage of a writer. I would say that at least half of the applications which I send in are openings for scams. Many of them are ingenious, some of them are downright hilarious because of the convoluted backstories some of these people expect me, the writer, to swallow.

I've often thought that someone who has the technological know how as well as the ingenuity and drive to put together a completely autonomous mailer program that makes the fake job postings, sends personalized responses to applications, and then steals the writer's work or money has too much time on their hands. Someone capable of doing all that is easily qualified for a high-level IT job that would provide significantly greater dividends than what they would get through scamming people. Plus there's the peace of mind you get when you've not done anything likely to warrant armed police busting down your door and throwing you into a cage with murderers and rapists.

Suffice to say, I've been burned my share of times too. So I've decided to post some of the more ingenious, or at least more entertaining, scams that I come across in my work in the hopes that you won't be taken in by this sort of thing.

My first story is the only scam which successfully got me. Thankfully no money was stolen, but I was tricked into doing roughly $400 dollars worth of work for free.

I applied to work for a website which hosted both phone and online psychic hotline service. It was called, though that name is now defunct. They were interested in developing a database of articles on various new age and supernatural topics. I was one of roughly 20 people who were hired. We were all contacted by an intermediary by the name of Amy.

She outlined the format that would be required for the articles, we would be paid $10 for each article as well as credit for the work. I went to work and submitted somewhere in the area of 40 articles on various topics. I was told the check was in the mail after I'd submitted 30 my first week. After finishing the other 10 a week later I asked them about payment as my check had not arrived. Amy said she would get back to me... She never did.

No one at Psychicrx was available to speak with me, though my articles had been posted by their employees. After about three weeks of getting no where I received an email from one of the other writers. That writer noticed that the introductory emails Amy sent to each of us used a mass mailer which listed all our names and email addresses. The writer then used that to contact all of us as we were not in communication at that point, we didn't know each other or realize that we were all being cheated.

At that point we pooled our resources. One person managed to find the address and phone number of the Psychicrx offices, Miami of course, scam capital of the world. Another contacted the head manager of the company. Her first question was how had we gotten that phone number. That should've been a strong warning right there. She said that Amy was no longer working for the company and had left abruptly over a month ago, all our emails to her went to a derelict address. The manager promised she would see about getting us paid and asked for 2 days to bring it to her boss's attention.

After two days time the company was called again, a new person answered the phone, saying that the previous manager had resigned the previous day.

This went on for the course of another week, each person resigning having a more grand title until they told us the CEO of Psychicrx had resigned. At that point we were looking into bringing a class action suit against them. When threatened with this we received an irate email saying that because we had behaved irrationally and harassed their offices, they were withholding payment. When we reminded them of their contractual obligation to pay us, they simply pulled down the online forum where our articles had been posted. The only problem was that our contracts stated that we were due payment for every article accepted by psychicrx or it's appointed representative regardless of what they did with them.

Psychicrx tried too little and too late to say that they did not accept the articles, but public records showed that this Amy character was in their employ. All of us had copies of our email correspondance with her to back that up as well. Technically she was the Psychicrx representative.

It was at that point that psychicrx disappeared entirely. Their website was pulled down, for "maintenance", and has been down for the last 4 months. The office in Miami they used is now disserted. It turns out the name of the person who rented out the office as well as paid all the utility bills was fake, as was their contact information.

You may be wondering how we were able to pursue this so exhaustively if we were scattered across the country. It turns out that one of the writers was the sister of the District Attorney for South Florida, who chose to pursue psychicrx to make an example of all the scam companies that people Miami. In this we were very lucky, without such a one in a million occurrence we would all still be waiting for our payments, mad as hell, and completely helpless.

You may think that this was a victory on our parts. But not really. The scam artists got away. They will simply procure another office somewhere using false information and put together another moneymaking site. They all still have copies of our work and will post them as their own property when they can, and will simply start the process all over again. This time they may be more lucky, the people they scam may not be as tenacious or as well connected.

As a preventative there are a few things you can do to protect yourself. First you can copyright all your work prior to submission to a new employer. It may take a little extra time, but for a prospectively lucrative commission, it's worth it.

Second you can obtain multiple contacts from your employer; phone number, physical address, email, cell phone, fax, etc. The more ways you are able to contact your employer, the more difficult it is for a dishonest employer to break off contact or try to get away. Make sure that contact information is legitimate as well by using it. Fax him one thing, email him another, call him up with a question and send a letter by snail mail. It will give the employer the message that he can't ignore or get away from you. If it's a scam your employer is likely to panic and cancel the deal before you invest too much time and effort.

That's all for today. I hope to have more in the way of scams to look out for soon.

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