As the current gig economy hums steadily along, Intuit, parent company of TurboTax and compiler of employment trends, estimates that about 34 percent of the contemporary U.S. workforce is considered “freelance”, and that by the year 2020, that number will rise to 43 percent. Freelancer, in this context, refers to a self-employed individual that is paid by the job, or per gig; they include graphic artists, programmers, musicians, Lyft and Uber drivers, writers, plumbers, psychotherapists and many others that fall in between. With this increase in freelance workers come new challenges and hazards which, unfortunately, include identity theft. Freelancer identity theft is an emerging threat. All gig workers need to be aware of the risks and need to know how to protect themselves in order to avoid becoming victims.
Though identity theft can befall anyone at any time, of modern gig workers, those who promote and are hired through online platforms appear to be particularly at risk. In these cases, identity theft is not as straightforward as an assailant lifting a freelancer’s social security number and activating a prepaid credit card. In these cases, the thief assumes and maintains the victim’s identity online and solicits work.
Established freelance copywriters often create their own business web pages to feature their writing samples, build credibility and drum up work. In addition to writing samples, a web page like this would also contain a photo, contact information, experience, education and previously completed jobs. All of this data is visible to anyone who cares to look and, to a would-be thief, this page is a virtual goldmine.
As an alternative or supplement to an individual business web page, many writers use third party host sites that aim to pair writers with the appropriate clients, usually for a commission fee and, as unfortunate writers are finding out, these sites can be used as vehicles for hijacking identities. Anyone, particularly a cyber pirate, can create a profile as a writer on such sites, but instead of divulging his or her own personal information, the nefarious thief will use the identity of a legitimate copywriter, one who had already established a presence online. A simple Google search for “freelance copywriter for hire” will produce hundreds of thousands of marks, and once marked, the writer has already provided all of the data the thief needs, right down to the photo and writing samples on the writer’s individual business web page, in order to set up an account and begin accepting offers.
The costs of this type of identity theft can have profound effects on one’s professional reputation, financial opportunities and client relationships. In the world of freelance, your name is your brand, so if a stranger apprehends the name that you worked for years to build bylines under, obtains work under that name, then either profits from your dedication and experience or performs poorly, you have not only lost potential income, you’ve lost face without even knowing it.
By nature, freelance work is risky; the Freelancers Union, an organization that represents freelancers of all platforms, reported that clients neglect to pay freelancers, on average, approximately $6,000 annually, so adding identity-lifters into the equation means potentially crippling financial losses.
A few freelance writers have even been threatened with legal retaliation for taking payment on jobs that were accepted and later abandoned by their criminal doppelgängers, leaving them entangled in lawyer fees and struggling to prove their own identities.
This unfortunate turn of events can leave gig workers traumatized and without recourse. The only defense, in this case, is a good offense. To prevent this from happening, freelancers should:
- Google their names in conjunction with terms like “freelance opportunities” or “freelance for hire” in order to check for irregularities online. If an imposter is found, the freelancer should contact the host site and explain the situation, requesting they remove the illegitimate profile or job posting. The identity-theft should be reported to the authorities as well, though tracking down and contacting the identity thief is ill-advised and often fruitless.
- Be vigilant in noting discrepancies. For instance, if mail you normally receive, like routine monthly bills or bank statements, suddenly stops coming, it’s likely someone posing as you has changed your address. Contact the post office to see if a change of address form has been filed in your name.
- Pursue identity theft monitoring and maintenance that alerts you in the event of any suspicious activity involving your name.
The face of the American workforce has changed, and with more than a quarter of that workforce working as freelancers and often online, that face is blurry. If you are a gig worker, be aware of the risks involved in modern freelancing and take the appropriate actions to ensure that nightmares like these do not keep you awake at night and haunt you during the day.