Thursday, August 4th, 2011
51

The Mysterious Case Of The Craigslist Writing Gig Scam

This is how the Freelancer’s Panic works: Checks that are supposed to have arrived get lost in the jaws of payroll processing, leaving you without any money and, worse yet, a sense that no money will find its way into your mailbox, ever. Days are spent alternating between considering the poor life decisions that have led to this point and sending out mass emails to friends and strangers looking for any leads. Which is how, one day last week, I found myself responding to an ad on the “Writing Gigs” section of the Los Angeles Craigslist that was, most likely, a scam. I mean, it definitely was a scam. Completely. Only thing is, I can't figure out how I was scammed. Or why.

I’m not entirely sure what the ad said. Something along the lines of “looking for a product review writer,” I’m guessing. But that’s how the Panic works; emails get shot at every ad that doesn’t have the dreaded “no pay” written in the Compensation section. A few hours after sending a message, I received this email from someone named “Aaron Warden," with the email address newjob@qualityservice.com.

This job basically entails something similar to what a ‘mystery shopper’ does. However, all you are doing is calling a company that we provide the number for, pressing the correct (1) or (2) – which we specify, and simply discussing their products. The goal in this is to actually put yourself as the customer and ask questions that pertain to the products they offer (which we will tell you). Seems senseless – however, this is going to eventually improve the way people make choices.

After each call, I was to write up a short 200-word review about the quality of the customer service rep, focusing on if he or she were able to fully answer my questions: a basic “just the facts, ma’am” rundown of the conversation. This, I suppose, is where the “writing” part of the “Writing Gig” came in. But during those first few back-and-forths with “Aaron,” three red flags presented themselves:

• The initial email I'd received from Aaron was an easy-to-spot copy-and-paste job, a hallmark of Internet scammery. But hey, if I was going through tons of applicants for a shitty extra-money job, I’d use the Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V trick as well. Red flag considered and dismissed!
• "You will make $225 today,” was his seventh email to me. Given what I'd been asked to do, that worked out to about $56 an hour—pretty high pay for a freelance gig you'd farm out to Craigslist.
• I was being paid in cash. Aaron mentioned he’d had trouble with Paypal in the past (who has trouble with Paypal?) and was going to be working in my neck of the woods (Silverlake) at a local coffee shop anyway. He said he'd just call me in the morning and let me know where he’d be.

But still I agreed, while telling myself I’d bail at the first sign of something blatantly fishy. Him asking for my Social Security or credit-card numbers, say. Moments later, I got my first assignment:

FIT RX

The FitRX Weight Loss Retreat Spa is a premier live-in residential weight loss program with 7, 10, 14, 21 and 28 day weight loss retreats offered. Keep the conversation longer than 6 minutes (or more) and end the call in thanks. Make sure to find out what insurance companies are approved to pay for this.

FitRX is a legit company. And after getting through that first call, where I had to keep a rep on the line for six minutes by pretending to be a morbidly obese man coming to terms with the fact that something in his life had to change, to the point where my voice was cracking and I was on the verge of tears, the red flag of being paid too much for this job was dismissed. This was hard work! Next time you’re calling a customer service line for anything, see how long you can keep them on the phone. Besides the specific reason you’re calling—generally, one or two quick questions—you tend to run out of things to say within about a minute. Keeping the conversation going for six minutes(!) is the closest I’m ever going to get to being a detective stalling on the phone in order to give the tech guys long enough to finish the trace.

I spent the next four hours calling other places. A custom wooden shutter store to see what kinds of options they had for my very specific needs. (This scenario let me take on the role of classy businessman looking to spruce up his two-tiered sailing-themed office with bay windows that “face directly into the sun!”) A company that picks up your junk cars and promises to be “green” about it. A free service that matches you with universities in your area with your preferred majors. Every conversation was a hopscotch between following the instructions I was given (ex: “find out how long it takes for them to pick up your car”) and my own improvised acting skills as I attempted to keep the person on the line (“the car hit a squirrel and the transmission just blew up!”). After the call I’d write up the short review, email Aaron and get a new assignment. Keep in mind: I never emailed the actual reviews to him, just a notification that I was done. This is important.

After the five reviews, Aaron asked for my phone number and said he’d call me the next day with a meeting place. It has now been three days and I have yet to hear from him. He’s also stopped responding to my emails, including one in which I asked him, “Is this really a scam?” Which means, obviously, I’ve been duped.

But why? I can’t seem to find the angle to this one. Here are the six possible scenarios I’ve come up with:

1. This is guerilla marketing. They get me to call a store and, hey, if I’m interested in what they’re selling, I can buy it. Where this falls apart is the free service I used to match me with a college. They gave me the information as if I really were a prospective student looking for schools in my area that offer a Masters in Human Psychology for free.

2. They got free work out of me. Except that I still have the reviews in my possession, meaning they really didn’t get any “work” out of me. In fact, Aaron actually was the one who suggested I hold onto the hard copies of the work.

3. This is identify theft. But the only information he has is my name, email address and phone number. Can you take an identity with just that these days?

4. Aaron was a thief who wanted to keep me occupied while he tunneled into a nearby bank vault. Always a classic.

5. Dude’s dead. Maybe he died in a car accident on the way to the coffee shop, never to be heard from again, like in The Pledge.

6. This is the work of some insane person. Perhaps even now, Aaron is rocking back and forth in a one-room apartment somewhere in Riverside, huffing glue, cackling, and furiously masturbating to mental projections of strangers calling other strangers and attempting to keep them on the phone for six minutes. (This is my favorite theory.)

Google’s no help. There’s a whole bunch of “Aaron Wardens” out there, including one who appears to be training to be a meteorologist. A search for the email address brings up nothing (unless you’re reading this a few days from now, in which case it'll probably bring up this article). And the website for QualityService.com is parked by a company called World Media Group and hasn’t been updated since 2008.

Maybe this is a known scam that I'm too ignorant or naïve to figure out. But it will continue to haunt me until my dying day. (Or, at least for about a week.) What was “Aaron” trying to do? What did he get out of it? The mystery remains a mystery. But at least the Freelancer’s Panic was held at bay for a few days, replaced by complete and utter confusion.



Rick Paulas will now be searching the Casual Encounters section for work.

51 Comments / Post A Comment

riggssm (#760)

This was fascinating. I hope there's an update if you hear from "Aaron" again (… and none if you don't?)

katherine (#10,025)

I hear WikiLeaks has some issues with PayPal. Maybe Aaron is secretly Julian Assange (ew).

awlsome (#706)

Check your phone bill?

Maybe they provide the call center for those companies and in order to show they are busy and worth the money, they're drumming up questions.

Rick Paulas (#1,565)

VERY SMALL PROBABLY MEANINGLESS UPDATE: I just received a phone call from someone at FIT RX asking if I was still interested in the retreat. Being the easily-frightened man I am, I said "Sorry!" and quickly hung up the phone. So … that happened.

Dara@twitter (#21,257)

@Rick Paulas That opens up hypothesis #7: This is a scam to get your phone number to their clients, the companies you called (which might very well have more products to call you about in future). Check out the do-not-call laws for CA. Is it legal for telemarketers to call you if you've solicited information from them in the past?

@Rick Paulas He's selling leads to the companies you called. You're the lead. Six minutes is likely a quality metric they use to gauge interest. You didn't get scammed (quite.) The company you called did. You were just used as a warm body.

cory dodt@twitter (#12,071)

Could be a scientific experiment for a psychology journal? They mislead subjects all the time in an attempt to measure their reactions. If so, this would not be the weirdest experiment I've participated in, let alone the weirdest one I've heard of. In that case, expect to hear from Aaron sooner or later.

This sounds a lot like an Advance Fee scam. My guess is they're playing the long-game and roping you in instead of opening with the free money like they usually do. He'll try and meet up with you and instead of cash send you a cashier's check or something. It's odd that he had you do the work first, so it COULD be something else, but google "Mystery Shopper Scam" and check out scamwarners.com and you'll see similar craigslist scams. At least you're getting a story out of it!

putch (#7,673)

Looks like it's a known scam. You probably got weeded out after asking if it's a scam. The more gullible people probably would've been asked to do some shady western union shit: http://www.snopes.com/fraud/employment/shopper.asp

feebeeglee@twitter (#21,259)

Ah, The Red-headed League! Well played, sir.

Vicky (#7,168)

@feebeeglee@twitter Right?! Halfway through the piece I was saying (out loud, to no one) DO YOU LIVE NEAR A BANK? OH GOD DO YOU HAVE RED HAIR?????

You should call the bunko squad on his ass, immediamento. And take a long shower with bleach.

Geoffrey (#21,264)

Not the first scam traced back to World Media Group apparently — http://www.dnforum.com/f26/world-media-group-criminals-thread-400645.html

AnonymousHoward (#8,069)

Do the numbers he gave you match real numbers for the companies he asked you to call? Maybe the scam is getting you to stay on the line on a crazily expensive premium rate number for six minutes at a time? Do premium rate numbers work like that in the US, or is it obvious how much you're being charged to call?

Rick Paulas (#1,565)

@AnonymousHoward This could very well be it. The numbers were similar, but not exactly the same. I'll find out more when I look at the phone bill.

Rick Paulas (#1,565)

@AnonymousHoward Update on this: Just looked at the phone bill and all of my calls during and since are accounted for. No mysterious calls using my number, exuberant charges, and the numbers I dialed for the job are all listed as "Toll Free." So I don't think that's the solution.

Goob (#21,333)

@Rick Paulas But Aaron was giving you the phone numbers, correct? It very well could have been that he was getting paid per call through an affiliate company, regardless of whether or not a sale was made. One large (legit) affiliate company called CommissionJunction has a program called PayPerCall. Publishers (Aaron) are given specific phone numbers and when a call is made to them, they get paid. Typically it's anywhere from $5 to $25. I just had a look and a lot of campaigns use the 6 minute mark as a threshold for a pay bump. If anything, I'm guessing this is what happened. The whole "write a review" was BS to keep you going while he had you call all the campaigns he was approved for in your area.

That said, what Aaron did is against most affiliate's TOS. I just looked at CJ's campaign bank and couldn't find FitRX or TheDegreePath, so he probably wasn't going through them, but I'd still wager that this is what the deal was.

AnonymousHoward (#8,069)

@Goob @Rick Paulus. I hope it is something like that. Might explain the 'slightly different' numbers, some way of tracking calls coming in via an affiliate network. You could email and ask their marketing department.

Armak (#21,262)

Here's a thought— what if the "scammers" are in the business of selling "marketing services" to companies in which they promise a dramatic uptick of phone inquiries, emails, website traffic, etc? Then they "outsource" the work via craig's list ads so that random people like Rick do the work? I've heard of similar operations, though never quite as abstruse as this one.

scrooge (#2,697)

Aaron operates a small call-center company to which other companies outsource their customer service. They charge by the minute.

I think it's the same thing as email spam. The more they do this, the more suckers they find. You didn't bite so they gave up but they must be finding some suckers or there wouldn't be any percentage in this for them. There's also no risk. When's the last time you ever heard of anyone getting busted for petty internet scams?

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Our brain cells are forced to generate energy for the Matrix.

Olympia Press (#5,594)

I've had issues over the years with paypal on my erotic lit site, but in "Aaron's" defense, I've also had a few problems paying writers/others from my non-smut paypal account. Does happen (mostly when you're sending stuff "payment owed.")

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Congratulations, your voice is now being used in a porno.

Dan Kois (#646)

@MikeBarthel "The car hit a squirrel and the transmission just blew up, baby"

hey, maybe he's just a troll. He doesn't do it for the money, he does it for the lulz.

badmonkey (#21,309)

I think this is a referral scam. He contracts with _X_ to get them _N_ sales leads (or is drawing from a pool of "affiliates" for a lead aggregator). His leads are tracked by assigning him a temporary unique telephone number and extension at _X_. There's probably a minimum connection time for each sales lead (to prevent a call/hang-up scam), so Aaron told you to talk for 6 minutes (knowing that a Craig's list labor pool would only do maybe 1/3 of that really).

Let's say Aaron gets himself say 20 of these contracts a month (being very conservative here) to stay under each company's "scam radar". Each lead nets him say $0.50 CPL (cost per lead). He then drops ads in cities all around the country for free and from that gets 20 people to fall for it (nationwide, also very conservative) per day who each make 3 calls before giving up.

He's just made himself $30 per day with very little work of his own and no material cost. That's $210 a week or $840 for a 28 day month. Not a bad second job and if he really tries hard and saturates lots of online job postings he might be able to scrape away a living completely.

flossy (#1,402)

@badmonkey That actually does seem like a lot of work for $30/day.

I'm curious how much of your real personal info you gave up during your phone calls. Perhaps the goal is to collect info about you. I'd imagine that most of what you said was true. So for example everything for the weightloss camp was exactly you except the actual body weight.

Could it be possible that you divulged enough info on yourself through all the calls to help him in an ID theft scam?

Shirkimer (#423)

Aaron Warden was a young hitchhiker who was murdered over twenty years ago. Oh my god the calls were coming from inside your own house. No wait. The calls were outgoing, not incoming. Hmmm. Nevermind. Hey,what's your social security number, Rick?

If this is indeed a scam, you may not be the mark. One model he could be using is presenting himself to businesses as an online marketer. For only a small fee (or even no fee, perhaps he claims he just needs to get some references), he will help them set up an online campaign, all the business needs to do is put up the $5,000 for the media space. The next couple of weeks the phone goes off the hook, and the customers believes it's due to the campaing. Sales doesn't go up so they conclude that they won't use that agency any more, but they will still pay the bill, because they got what they paid for (they think). This is of course fine for our scam artist, who's already pocketed a neat $5,000 from each of the five companies you called for him.

An alternative explaination is that you, the person who writes this blog, is also writing a mystery novel, and is crowd sourcing a solution to a thought out mystery. Because, why would you link to every company you called (to convince readers this is real), but not the actual ad on CL? Good luck in any case :)

Also, I would double check if the companies were real or if the numbers you called costs like $100/minute or something…

Rick Paulas (#1,565)

@Vetle Engesbak@facebook The ad, unfortunately, has already been flagged and removed. I do have a screenshot I can email to you, though! Also, true or false: This would be the WORST mystery novel of all time.

Ins. Guy (#237,203)

@Rick Paulas, Vetle Engesbak@facebook is right on with his first guess. I am a small business owner and well aware of all the scams from "marketers". I just received the below email from someone @qualityservice.com. I do my own marketing, but I'm always open to things that actually work. I always Google everyone and do my research before ever contacting them. Here is the email:

We can provide you with Ten (10) signed policies with our targeted campaigns.
Every weekday, you will receive 2-7 calls from new customers seeking a quote on a new insurance policies. All customers meet your individualized demographics (ie. location, age, profession, income ect.), and are actively seeking new insurance policies.
We provide everything you need to drive your closed policies to the highest ever. Marketing lists; Artwork designing service; Online marketing; Email marketing; social media; landing page, voice casting. Regardless of the customers you need, we deliver daily.
To be eligible for our services we have just three requirements:
(1) You must be an established insurance shop
(2) You have no less the 1 year experience in the industry.
(3) Competitive rates
Getting started takes just a few minutes. After signing up, and your position is secured we can start your inbound customer calls within 24-48 hrs or when ever you prefer.

Terry Wilks
terryw@qualityservice.com
775-636-6478

So, Vetle Engesbak@facebook figured it out, you get the gold star. Yes, you were scammed out of your time, those companies you called were scammed out of their time and money. Don't know if it would be worth it, but calling those companies back to inquire about who they paid for their marketing around that time may make you feel better to pull there covers.

Take Care.

vickidanyedg (#21,403)

Hmmm. Nevermind. Hey,what's your social security number, Rick?

jfruh (#713)

For what it's worth, this got picked up by Ycombinator's Hacker News:

http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2847887

And the consensus over there seems to be that "Aaron" is part of working for some affiliate marketing company that's supposed to generate sales leads, i.e. they're paid for when someone calls one of these companies and spends enough time talking to them to indicate that they might be legitimately interested in buying their services. In other words, what you have here is the basis for the 21st century version of Glengarry Glenn Ross.

black copy@twitter (#21,440)

Rick, is this actually a rather ingenious double-bluff guerilla marketing tactic on your part, in which you weave this intriguing tale of mystery in order to drum up visitors to those companies you talked about and supposedly called at the behest of 'Aaron'.

Being such an odd story this has clearly got viral potential, I actually found it via his Lordship Matt Cutts who posted it on Google+. Not bad exposure there Ricky boy!

Of course I'm just playing devil's advocate here, I'm sure your story is true and the mysterious Aaron is out there somewhere cackling to himself manically and screaming from his window, "I fooled you all I tell you, and I'll do it again, I'll do it agaaaaaaiiinnnn woo ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaa!"

Mandy V.@twitter (#21,442)

Did you ever see 'The Spanish Prisoner'? My theory is he's setting you up like the Campbell Scott character to be his patsy. Everyone you called will end up murdered!

Samsbroke (#10,484)

You should offer to pay a bunch of other people to call the companies again, tell them what happened, and write a report on what they find out about this guy. Then maybe you could charge a nominal fee to readers who want to know how the story ends.

Aaron Warden (#21,450)

Hey Rick! Sorry I couldn't get back to you; email's been down. Had to leave town for a few days (family emergency in Tampa) but if you send me your bank info I'll get that money wired over ASAP. Thanks!

SeaBassTian (#281)

7. Choire and Alex are in on the scam and it's an obtuse ruse to get you to write a 999-word post to generate traffic for the Awl. Gotcha!

Suella (#20,564)

There are definitely many scammers posting in Los Angeles Craigslist. I was also a victim once. Bought a ticket which was not accepted at the box. Another possibility in your case is that these people run pay per click ads for businesses, they record your telephone calls, and charge their clients on the basis of calls received.

"He's selling leads to the companies you called. You're the lead. Six minutes is likely a quality metric they use to gauge interest. You didn't get scammed (quite.) The company you called did. You were just used as a warm body."

This is true, you were the lead he sold to a company.

Sounds like you fell for that old scam where they record your words in an effort to build a spoken dictionary. This happened to Alec Baldwin when he was in college and it came back to haunt him.

alexgeana@twitter (#22,035)

I think you just got a really bad client who didn't have their shit together. You just wasted your time, but there was no real lose of funds. That said. Time is valuable and I long ago learned that it's better not to pull the trigger on a time waster. The problem is, no matter how good I get at figuring it out. It's still a challenge, of needing to accept varied (if sometimes strange), work.

GailPink (#9,712)

I loved this story…so mysterious…

mcoorlim (#51,344)

Somehow this is going to segue into doing a porno shoot. The only things you can find on craigslist are tears and porno.

The scam goes deeper. The big crooks are World Media Group, LLC. But, you say, "World Media Group" is a big respected ISP. That's World Media Group, Inc.! Totally different. World Media Group, LLC, in New Jersey is an ISP that creates fictitious clients who do nasty things. "Not our bad…stupid clients", is their constant refrain. Nearly every WMG, LLC hosted domain is a scam. You know those fake prize announcement spams? That's them. The CEO of WMG, LLC has pulled his hair out for 10 years trying to deal with them.

But no more. I have a legal eagle buddy in the States that figured this all out. He filed a formal complaint with the FBI and ICANN (they claim the domains are bad clients, but they have no client specific reg info on file). That built a fire under them. Below is a copy of one of WMG, LLC's lame denial letters. HERE'S THE INTERESTING BIT! Is he right? Since he had this exchange with the guy, not.one of his email addresses has ever received another spam email. Think about that. 1). How many scams are they running that he is now spam free after really scaring the crook? 2). How dumb is the crook to discontinue spamming just one address, belonging to someone that's already on to him??? Big duh there. Thanks for giving the FBI another piece of evidence. I'll post the emails separately so this isn't too long.

Bottom line, when you do a whois lookup and you see World Media Group, LLC, that's not the ISP, that's the real owner of the domain and the people committing the fraud. They maintain a store front ISP biz to look good, but no one has ever been happy with that service, as it's just a cover and they try to rip people off that way too. The guy to put the heat on (and refer to these emails below- make a FBI complaint too- it worked!) is: Gary Millin . 10 years! It must end now.

This is the email that started it all off.

NJRCFL OFFICIAL COMPLAINT
Date: 04/17/2012 07:52:40 AM

The following:

WORLD MEDIA GROUP, LLC (NJ corporation 0400067460)
25 MOUNTAINVIEW BLVD
STE 204
BASKING RIDGE, NJ 07920

has been engaged in various forms of felony fraud for the last 10 years. We have recently shared our research with World Media Group, Inc., which they impersonate, and were staggered to learn that they have not been the target of enforcement actions during that time. Our research indicates that they own over 1500 domains which they use to perpetrate prize scams, phishing schemes, Nigerian letters, etc., all originating within the US. They routinely claim that the domains are owned and operated by other individuals, however, 1) the domains are legally registered to World Media Group, LLC, 2) they appear to host no domains engaged in legitimate activity, 3) case law allows for their being held responsible for those crimes, notwithstanding ownership, and 4) they have no visible source of legitimate income.

One must wonder if local authorities are complicit in these crimes. Why has the New Jersey Secretary of State allowed their registration of a name that violates the SOS' guidelines, and is designed to, and does, cause confusion among consumers? Why have none of these very serious felonies been investigated? Services they provide to the public are inevitably the target of complaints, so universally so that it is apparent that those services are advertised only as a cover for their illegal activities.

Attached are some representative emails showing the kinds of crimes they commit. If the local authorities refuse to hold them responsible for their crimes, then we shall start advising our clients about specific technologies they can use to actively defend their hardware.

Sincerely,
Aaron Cady
Director, Business and Legal Affairs
PFST, Inc., a Texas Corporation

Mam (#235,574)

For ANYONE reading this. YES. All a person needs to use your identity is a name, address, phone number– bonus's **criminal history, past employment. Using an email address can be an added bonus. They can pretty much get anything out of you from just the initial
: n, a & pn..Just a little bit of information. Don't fall for that stuff, ALWAYS do a lot of research on anything sounding strange. If you feel it seems to be strange,it probably is… It is a recession, everyone is looking for work and that includes genius's trying to feed their family. Nothing is to hard to do with the proper intelligence.. Do a credit check, ASAP!! Check strange emails.. Good luck to you :) (I just got turned down for a credit card I never applied for and probably made my scammer feel really dumb, my credit was worse than his lol)

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