Are online freelancing platforms creating ‘digital sweatshops’?

12 04 2016

Image: marisaorton, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In an effort to tear myself away from my time-sucking, one-woman mission to save humanity from the perils and pitfalls of online freelancing platforms, I haven’t blogged here for a long time, so hello!

However, today, while flicking through Asia Research 2016 magazine for an entirely different reason, I came across an article that I found very interesting, so I wanted to share it with my followers (crikey, there are 622 of you now!).

The article, “Exploring the global flow of digital labour,” (see page 10 of digi-mag) describes a project by Professor Mark Graham (Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford) and collaborators to investigate the structure of virtual production networks in Africa and Southeast Asia.

In the article, Professor Graham questions whether virtual workplaces, such as Upwork and, really are addressing unemployment gaps through globalisation of the labour market, or whether they are exploiting people in low-income countries in what he terms “digital sweatshops”. Indeed, data from oDesk highlighted in the article suggests that the demand for virtual employees comes from wealthy western countries, while the labour itself comes from low-income countries, with “labour sellers” acting as middle-men in emerging economies.

Here on my own blog I have expressed my concerns about the exploitation of cheap foreign labour through online platforms, particularly when it involves unethical practices such as plagiarism, copyright theft and black hat marketing. It seems I’m not the only one who is worried about these things, and whether governments and freelancing platform companies are doing enough to safeguard workers who receive minimal pay and next to no social protection.

Partnering with the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada, a goal of Professor Graham’s research is to identify areas where policies might be implemented or improved to help young and other vulnerable people benefit from the online workplace, and to protect them from digital exploitation.

I look forward to reading more about this work!

Warwickshire Life 6: Genetic Modification and the Great British Potato

24 02 2014

potatoesUnfortunately my sixth offering for Warwickshire Life’s online magazine was published a little too late for National Chip Week (last week!) but never mind! This article looks at the humble spud, and some of the challenges that face British growers. In particular, I highlight some new research published by members of The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, which describes work to develop and trial genetically modified potatoes.

You can read my article here: Genetic Modification and the Great British Potato.

Fake Freelancer Profile uses Photograph of Missing Woman

5 02 2014

AsaffronUpdate 12 Feb 2014: This user profile has now been deleted. Success!

Update 17 Nov 2015: Information about the genuine freelancer affected by this story has been removed on their request.

My quest to get the many fake profiles on shut down ramped up a gear today, as I made a very disturbing discovery indeed. I’ll explain…

The Freelancer profile ‘Asaffron‘ has been on my Watch List for a few days now – I was initially suspicious because some of the user’s feedback was negative and criticised ‘her’ professionalism, but when I dug a little deeper I found that the content of Asaffron’s profile was plagiarised from the Elance profile of a genuine freelance writer from the US.

I managed to find this writer on Twitter and gave her a heads-up on the plagiarised Freelancer profile. She wasn’t happy, as you can imagine! In fact, she posted a cease and desist project, specially for Asaffron!

But it doesn’t end there.

Madison ScottThough the text of Asaffron’s profile matched the Elance bio, the photos didn’t match. So who was the pretty, smiling young woman with flowers in her hair?

Luckily, Google Images has a nifty reverse image search function that is just perfect for this sort of detective work, so I uploaded Asaffron’s photo to the search engine and hit Search. I wasn’t quite prepared for what I discovered!

Turns out, the girl in the photo is Madison Scott, a young Canadian woman who has been missing since May 2011. Maddy, who was 20 when she vanished, disappeared after camping out at a party by Hogsback Lake, near her hometown of Vanderhoof, BC. She hasn’t been seen since. You can watch a documentary about Maddy’s disappearance here (53 mins):

Of course, it is entirely possible that the person behind Asaffron’s fake profile didn’t know that the photo they’d chosen to hide behind was a missing person, but whether they did or didn’t, it highlights just how serious this problem of Freelancer identity theft is becoming. This isn’t some harmless little scam, ‘borrowing’ an identity to make out that you are more qualified than you really are, or that you are from a native English-speaking country when you are not.  At best, this is copyright and identity theft. At worst, as we have seen, this has far more serious ramefications.

Find out more about Maddy Scott at

LogoBee posts for January

31 01 2014

Here are the links to the blog posts I have written for graphic/logo design company LogoBee this month:

Warwickshire Life 4: Love your Greens

24 01 2014
© Brian Robert Marshall. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Oil seed rape. © Brian Robert Marshall. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

My fourth contribution to Warwickshire Life’s online magazine is a report on the Brassica Growers’ Association conference that I attended earlier this week on behalf of the UK Brassica Research Community.

Read the full article and learn more about the Brassica industry here: Love your Greens.

To find out more information about the Brassica Growers’ Association, click here:

LogoBee posts for December

31 12 2013

As well as some PR work for LogoBee, this month I’ve contributed several articles to their logo design blog. Here are the links:

5 ways to check if your Freelancer is fake

16 12 2013

When you sign up for a account, you are required to agree to the site’s terms and conditions and a code of conduct, which includes:

  • I will not falsify my own or any other identity and I will provide true and correct information
  • I will not create multiple accounts
  • I will not use the Site to generate false feedback

But some people are abusing these terms of trust and falsify information to try and improve their chances of being awarded projects.

It’s not always easy to spot these scammers, but here are a few tips to help sort the wheat from the chaff.

If you’re thinking of using Freelancer to find a worker, please bear these tips in mind when selecting your provider!

1) Check feedback

A handy feature of the Freelancer profile page is that you can sort a user’s feedback ratings from low to high. Do this to quickly check if a person a) *has* negative feedback, and if so b) what the negative feedback says. Genuine misunderstandings do happen, but if I had the choice of hiring someone with a clean sheet versus someone with negative feedback, I’d pick clean sheets every time!

But negative feedback isn’t the whole story – you also need to check a user’s *positive* feedback! Why? Because scammers sometimes try to hide or dilute negative feedback by having multiple user accounts and using one account to leave positive feedback for the others.

Does a user’s positive feedback come from lots of different people, or do the same usernames crop up again and again? Do those usernames appear on my Watch List of fake profiles? Does this feedback relate to what seems like genuine projects, or are they ‘custom’ projects with very little visible information? Be suspicious!

2) Check a person’s nationality/hometown

To improve the chances of being picked for a particular project, users will sometimes falsify the country flag on their profile. I see this a lot on writing projects where the buyer will only hire people from the UK, US, Canada or Australia.

There are some tell-tale signs. One (surprisingly!) common error is that the user’s profile will give their correct city but the wrong country. Recently I have seen users claiming that Marbella and Lahore are in the UK (Marbella = Spain, Lahore = Pakistan), and Craiova, Brasilia and Mirpur are in the United States (Craiova = Romania, Brasilia = Brazil and Mirpur = Bangladesh).

Another word of warning: buyers can require users to pass an English test before they can bid on a project. In theory, this is supposed to ensure that only users with a certain level of English can bid on projects for which good spelling and grammar is important, and ‘certifies’ a user’s skills with a profile badge. In practice however, the answers to these tests are all over the internet!

3) Google the profile text

Go to a user’s profile page, highlight the first few lines of the description on their overview page, and copy it. Now paste into Google. Any hits?

Of course, you’ll find the various regional versions of that same Freelancer profile page, but check to see if the same text comes up anywhere else; on a LinkedIn profile, or another freelancing website perhaps? If so, do the profile pictures match? Is it the same person, or has the Freelancer user just stolen text from a real person? You can read about a particularly good expose of this scam here:

4) Check the profile picture

It almost goes without saying that fake profiles often have fake profile pictures. Sometimes these will be generic logos, celebrities (I have recently found Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart loitering as awful writers on Freelancer!), and sometimes they will be stolen from other websites or online profiles.

One thing you can try is to copy the profile picture image URL and run it through a reverse image search such as TinEye or Google Images. Unfortunately, TinEye can’t check Facebook profiles, which is where I suspect a lot of images are stolen from, but it did help me prove that the account Rachel902 was fake and I successfully got it shut down (see here:

Another observation… I know there is a lot of global movement these days, but I didn’t realise how many young, pretty, blonde-haired white girls live in Bangladesh and Pakistan….! 😉

5) Check the English

Of course, even people genuinely living in English-speaking countries may not be able to write or speak English well, but if you are looking for an English writer or a proofreader, why on earth would you pick someone with poor skills?

Take this user as an example: writemedown. ‘She’ (is it really the girl in the picture??) claims to be a professional content writer and has all sorts of strings to her provierbial bow. In her resume, she proudly declares: “I won the contest of writing which were held under B.A.C. and holds the certification of excellence in writing.”

This makes absolutely no sense! I certainly wouldn’t trust this so-called award-winning writer to do any work for me! (Or I would seriously question the validity of the award!)

Sometimes the English looks good on the overview page (often because it is stolen from elsewhere), but don’t forget to check other areas of a user’s profile. Good places to look are: any samples uploaded to the user’s resume, any responses they may have given to feedback (especially negative), and the resume section.

Any other handy tips from my fellow Freelancers?

LogoBee posts for November

30 11 2013

Here are the links to the graphic design articles I’ve written in November for one of my Canadian clients, LogoBee.

LogoBee posts for October

31 10 2013

It’s been a busy month for me this month, so only 4 LogoBee posts published for October, but here they are!

Beware the fake Freelancers

30 10 2013

Update 12 February 2014: This account has now FINALLY been closed! Only took 4 months! 

If you’ve read my last few posts, you’ll know that I’ve got a bit of a bee in my bonnet at the moment about users on who aren’t quite what they seem. You can view or add to my growing list of suspicious profiles by going here.

But there’s one particular finding from my research that I want to share with you today: the Freelancer user ‘Jilimo987‘.

I was immediately suspicious of Jilimo987. For starters, the smiling brunette’s hometown and country was given as ‘Mirpur-1, United States’. I noticed just today that this has now been changed to ‘Mirp’, but no matter – Mirpur is in Bangladesh not America.

Secondly, Jilimo987’s English is terrible and she has that tell-tale Asian accent to her writing, particularly in her responses to some of the negative feedbacks she has received.

Thirdly, and most tellingly, Jilimo987 links to the EZine author page of someone called Christa O’Conner, claiming that this is evidence of her writing portfolio. If Jilimo987 = Christa O’Conner, why then does she spell her name on the Freelancer profile as ‘Christia O Corner’? Bit weird, don’t you think?

So, I googled Christa O’ Conner, the owner of the EZine page, to see if I could find out more about her. It didn’t take long for me to track her down on social media.

So I messaged her and let her know about my suspicions.

The real Christa was NOT happy, as you can imagine!! As it happens, the real Christa does dabble in freelance writing and while she has profiles on oDesk and ELance, she confirmed for me that she has NEVER set up a profile on It seems that someone, somewhere (Bangladesh, perhaps?!), has stolen photos from Christa’s Facebook page (including one of her and her baby son!), is linking to her EZine articles and claiming they are theirs, and using Christa’s identity in order to win projects on And they have been doing it since May 2012.

This could be incredibly damaging to the real Christa’s reputation as a genuine freelancer, and I suspect this is not the only example of this scam on I have informed a member of staff who visits this blog, so I sincerely hope that the person behind ‘Jilimo987’ is brought to justice. I’m no legal expert, but surely this identity theft is illegal??

It’s also really creepy. Happy Halloween, y’all.

Update November 5: This profile is still online, still has a photo of Christa on the front page, and still links to Christa’s EZine author page. One small mercy is that the photograph of Christa’s baby son has been removed (to be replaced by a screen shot of the EZine page…). I have reported a violation again!

Update November 20: This profile is STILL online. The photos of the real Christa have all now been removed and replaced with logos, and the user no longer misspells ‘Christia O Corner’. BUT the profile still links to the real Christa’s EZine author page and now has a certificate (fake?), bearing Christa’s name, claiming to have reached platinum author level. The profile text has changed, but a quick Google search reveals that it has been copied and pasted word-for-word from the LinkedIn profile of someone called Amy Covington. Reported again!

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