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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
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.