True Story: How Our Brand Was Impersonated by Hackers on Upwork (& 5 Red Flags to Know When You’re Talking to Them)

Julia McCoy
6 min readApr 19, 2017
Credit Kristi Siedow-Thompson

Update: as of July 2019, the fraudulent criminal activity is still happening! We are very frustrated by this. We have reported it to Indeed, Upwork, and the platforms where this is currently happening (we just heard Craigslist, as well!). Note: if you have been invited to a job by someone using our name but NOT using an email at our domain (expresswriters.com), and they ask for sensitive information, DO NOT give that out! And please report that job listing immediately to the platform. I can only hope these platforms listen and start taking action to stop these scammers.

What do you say when your brand is so cool, it starts being “impersonated” by a group of hackers?

I know, not so cool in reality.

Back in late 2016, this actually started happening to us.

Facilitated, allowed, and actually encouraged by the freelance platform known as Upwork, our brand has been and is the target of a group of hackers there that we can do nothing about, because they’re “international” — actual data from a police report filed by a victim.

Upwork won’t do anything permanent to ban them, either. Multiple people have flagged job ads by the scammers. I’ve contacted Upwork. They won’t do anything. The scammers using our company name, and my personal picture, as well as variations of the names of the staff that work here, to start conversations with real freelancers looking for work on Upwork and engage in an “interview” that includes a request for personal, confidential data (social security numbers, selfies with driver licenses, to name a few — eek) and then either attempt to steal the identify of or unpaid writing work from unsuspecting freelancers.

We’ve had hundreds of live chats started on our site about this issue, and frankly, I’m officially done with seeing dozens of poor freelancers get scammed.

At the risk of seeing our name associated with the word “scam,” I’m putting the word out:

There’s a group of hackers using our name on Upwork and other platforms to hurt freelancers. We’ve done everything in our power to stop them, but the perpetrators are overseas and even a filed police report hasn’t been able to stop them.

And if you’re a freelancer, it’s important to be aware of it and not fall a victim to it.

I’ve asked a victim of the actual scam to share some exclusive information with us on what to look for (scroll past the red flags, interview quote by

), and I’ve also talked to multiple people that escaped narrow brushes with the scammers for the following 5 Red Flags. Please pay close attention.

5 Red Flags: Our Hiring Process vs. The Scammer’s

  1. The person hiring isn’t actually me (Julia), Josh (our CTO), Rachel (our social media manager), or any of the staff listed on our About page.

Them: Someone in “HR” or “Editing” at “Express Writers” posts a “well-paying,” hourly job with a month-long, $3000+ commitment, posted and advertised by “Express Writers.” That someone representing “us” goes by a lot of names.

Us: PSA: Editors at Express Writers never hire new staff. The only people in HR are myself, Julia McCoy, and our Content Manager (check our About page for her full name). If you are not interviewed by either myself or the Content Manager, you are not being interviewed by someone at Express Writers. The scammers have used “Rachel McCoy” and my picture, but don’t be fooled.

2. Forms asking for a lot of personal data.

Them: The scammers use a jotform to collect a lot of personal data before you’re accepted into the team.

Us: We never use jotform. I personally interview each candidate and ask for completion of a written and proctored test. To join the team after tests are passed, we’ll just need an email address. That’s it.

3. Won’t hire till freelancer sends very confidential information.

Let’s be clear: we never, ever ask for driver’s license and standalone social security numbers. So don’t give those out. Ever.

4. Skype conversation requests from someone other than the two people identified in our HR.

Them: These scammers are using my picture in a Skype profile with my picture, but not my correct Skype profile, to start Skype conversations with “interviewees” that look like the following (btw. I would never leave out punctuation or butcher my grammar. *shiver*):

At the risk of getting added by strangers, I’ll share my actual Skype handle: it’s expresswriters. Remember that currently, I am the only one at Express Writers performing the actual final interview that gets you in the team. So, you won’t be added by anyone other than me when you’re being interviewed. And no one can fake my real handle.

5. The job posting offers a large sum of money upfront.

We don’t offer $3k etc. contracts to writers upfront. We just don’t. Freelancers can make that at our firm in a matter of time, but we don’t advertise job posts with that amount for false hopes. We also don’t pay out $50/hour to any staff, currently. We offer a clear ad hoc, per 500w pay rate, and suggest volume based on availability when we post jobs. So you’ll never see a job posting at these rates by us.

Here’s a screenshot of one of the scammer’s actual job posts:

Additional Red Flags Shared by an Actual Victim,

I’m going to give the mic on additional flags to an actual victim targeted by these scammers, Stephanie Caudle.

“ Here are just a few flags you should look out for to avoid scammers:

  • Vague Details About The Project
  • Requests For Personal Information
  • Always check to make sure you are actually on the website you are being “redirected to” — and it’s not a hidden link

My identity scam came with a million and one layers. I was contacted via Upwork by an individual who pretended to be a copywriter from ExpressWriters. Since I knew Express Writers was a credible company I didn’t really find it too odd for them to be reaching out to me via Upwork. They told me I had been selected to apply for a job directly with their company and asked that I provide them with a copy of my ID, a picture of me holding my ID (I know super weird) and of course tax forms. This should have been a huge red flag simply because Upwork already had all this personal information for me but again I provided the information because I knew express writers was legitimate. I ultimately was given a link to a dummy version of express writers and submitted all pertinent information. Needless to say a few weeks later as I was preparing for the holidays this one mistake came back to haunt me when a friend of mine at Textbroker told me that I had been in “constant contact with them” over the week when I had not.

Remember: Upwork is not always in favor of the freelancer and doesn’t have security methods in place to protect you the writer.”

Other information about this scam:

, a very smart hacker, broke down what she thinks is going on. It sounds very accurate.

, who kindly gave me exclusive material for the interview shared, went through the horrible debacle of actually having her identity stolen. Her story on Medium is here.

--

--

Julia McCoy

Adapt to AI, or die. E/Acc. From exiting a 100-person SEO content agency to leading the AI content frontier at Content at Scale w/ a bunch of bright foks.