Real-life terror is the worst. Fiction can be terrifying, but it’s just that – fiction. I’ve been writing for most of my life. I spend a lot of my day in a basement, or in a quiet space. Sometimes I’ll write outside, sometimes I’ll write inside. At the end of the day, I’ll write anywhere the mood strikes me – because I need variety. If I’m in one place for too long, I feel overwhelmed, or like I’ve drained the creative juice from the space. That probably isn’t an uncommon feeling amongst writers. At least not amongst those who work from their home, instead of commuting to an office space that is spent relegated to a cubicle.
Before I started my 9-5 as a writer, I had picked up a lot of freelance writing jobs. There are a ton of tools and resources out there for freelancers, but most-interestingly Craigslist is one of the biggest resources for freelance gigs. That is especially true for those who are just starting out. After all, before you go viral, have any name recognition, or a resume to speak of – freelancing is a great option.
I’ve always been drawn to these freelance gigs because they are easy to apply for, usually require no interview, communication is typically done exclusively through email or even Craigslist email, and as far as a “per hour” rate – if you’re good enough at writing copy – a really decent wage, or supplementary income can be turned over.
I have to admit though, when I first started freelancing – there were some really sketchy jobs that I took. Everyone paid via PayPal, and the turnaround time was relatively short on all of these gigs. Most of the time, they were sketchy because it was a lot of ghost writing for people located all over the place, writing essays for college students, or even putting together research for those getting their masters degrees. For somewhat obvious reasons, mostly due to the fact that we’re talking about cheating and plagiarism, there wasn’t a ton of exchanging names.
I can definitely understand. At the time, I was just happy to be making some income while I continued seeking a more legitimate career as a writer. It’s been a couple years now, but what happened to me about 3 months after I started freelancing is something I’ll never forget.
The 1st Email
The first email came into my inbox around 6am. Not entirely uncommon for a freelance gig, given the fact that a lot of the people who are seeking freelance writers are either night-owl college students, or people from different time zones entirely.
It was from a Craigslist email, and there wasn’t any name attached to it. Like responding to any Craigslist ad, there wasn’t any information regarding the persons actual email address or identity.
The email read very simply, “Thank you for your response to my ad. I’m looking for someone to write some unique pieces for me. All sorts of different topics and subjects. Let me know if you’re flexible.”
I responded to the email within ten minutes because the pay had said $50 per assigned piece, and well, I was a broke freelance writer looking to gain some notoriety and cash.
The 2nd Email
His first response came at the same time his first email had come, the next day. He asked for my PayPal account information, which was just an email address, and he asked for discretion when writing pieces. He told me that he was from France, and that 6am would be the time that I should expect emails. He also asked me to be turn articles around quickly after he sent them at 6am.
Sounded simple enough. This isn’t really the shady part. Like I said, working with people outside the U.S., or working with people that you don’t know the legal name of – is somewhat commonplace when it comes to freelance gigs like this.
The 1st Assignment
The next morning I was waiting at my computer around 545am. I wanted to be alert for the first assignment, to prove that this was something I could handle. After all, I was under the impression that this was something I might be doing for a period of a few months, or longer the way the individual I had spoken with had talked.
Right at 6am the first assignment arrived. It was a ghost writing assignment, and the message asked me to re-write a story that he had linked me to in the email. He had also given me a few additional sources. They were news stories about a domestic incident in Los Angeles. There wasn’t really anything abnormal about it. If you’ve ever read the police beat in any newspaper that is exactly what these sources looked like.
I quickly re-wrote it and emailed it back to him. He thanked me for the very quick turnaround, and the quality of the piece. I responded to his email by asking at what point in the month to expect payment for the pieces I wrote for him and how frequently we would be writing moving forward, after the first assignment went so well.
The 2nd Assignment
He responded to my email from the previous day when he sent the next assignment on day 2. I hadn’t heard back from him the first day, so I was awake and ready to go at 6am. The email came precisely at 6am, and was another domestic incident. He included in the email that he would be effectively paying me $50 every day, until the project was complete.
When I looked at my PayPal account that morning, there had been a $50 deposit at 6am from the email address email@example.com. Strange, yes, but the strangest email I had ever seen or received payment from..?
Not by a long shot.
The 30th Assignment
For the next month the work kept coming. Every morning at 6am I would receive a payment and an assignment from this email address. I wasn’t going to complain about the work. The assignments took a maximum of 25 minutes and were all police beat assignments.
They were mostly all domestic incidents, with a few instances of child abuse scattered in there. That though, was when things started to get a little strange. I received my email at the usual time, but instead of it just being a link to a police report, one of the links sent me to an obituary.
Even stranger was the message attached: “We’re exploring a new revenue path, Josh. Let’s see how well you re-write an obit. I’ll double the payments starting tomorrow if you do well.”
The obit was for the victim of a domestic incident. At this point, I figured the site I was writing for was some sort of domestic violence awareness publication that was spreading the message of victims. It seemed reasonable enough. I did my best to put together a good obituary-style article, and moved on with my day. Like every other assignment to that point, it only took about 25 minutes.
The 31st Assignment
My work on the obituary was received really well. He paid me the $100 the next morning, along with another obit for the 31st assignment. The assignment was sent with a brief email attached that read, “Thanks, Josh for all of your hard work. It’s paying off. Here’s a link to your work so far.”
The link that was attached was bad, and went nowhere. I didn’t get a virus, or anything like that, but it simply went to a dead end on the Internet. I wasn’t surprised. Maybe it was just a mistake, or the site wasn’t up at the moment, for whatever reason.
The 32nd Assignment
When I woke up to start the next morning, I noticed that I had received a ton of emails overnight. Some of them were spam, but most of them were from PayPal. Over the course of the night before, I had received more than 40 payments of $50, and $100 from “thecoverofnight.”
I received a normal email from him at 6am, but this time there was a lengthy email attached to it. It read:
I just wanted to say thank you again for all of your hard work to this point. I gave you a bit of a bonus for your efforts to this point, and I apologize for my sporadic nature of our communication thus far. The link I sent you wasn’t ‘live’ when you received it – but it will be tomorrow.
Unfortunately though, we won’t be working together anymore beyond this last assignment. However, for this last assignment, I will ask that you be especially creative and ultimately discrete. I will send you one last payment tonight, and then I will just ask that you delete our correspondence if you have retained any of it to this point.
We all die, and I like your writing so much – that I would like you to write my obituary for me. I don’t have any family with your skillset, so it’s only fitting that you put together my obituary. I’ve attached some information in a word document that will help you with your assignment.
Could you also write me a brief re-write of this police report?
All the best,
The ask was a bit strange, too, but given the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have their obituaries prewritten for them – I wasn’t surprised. The first thing I did was re-write the police report. The report said that a woman who was going through a divorce placed a call to 911 around 9pm the night before. When police arrived, there was evidence of a struggle, but both the woman and her husband were missing.
When I opened the document that he had sent me to write his obituary, my stomach turned. It was a letter professing his love for his wife. However, his wife was divorcing him after rekindling a relationship with her high school sweetheart. He detailed how they reconnected on Facebook, and that the “digital age” was to blame for his failed marriage.
They were married at 21 and were 26 living in Los Angeles. I’m still not sure to this day if my stomach turned because I felt genuinely bad for the guy, or if I was simply connecting dots that I didn’t want to connect. I wrote the obituary though, and as payments kept coming in to my PayPal account, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What is wrong with this situation?”
Later That Day
Later that day, I happened to be talking to a friend from LA, who also is a writer. Similar to me, she had been freelancing a lot and we actually were connected because of a common client a few months prior. She asked me if I had worked on any good projects lately, or if I had any entertaining stories because we often exchanged painful/funny experiences as a freelancer.
Whether they were bad clients, great clients, weird clients, or just weird content, we would often share those experiences. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment to tell her about the project I had been working on over the last several months.
Once I started tell her about it she wanted to see the emails for herself. So, I printed them off and started faxing them to her. It took around an hour to fax all the documents, but when she got to the last document she told me there was something seriously off about the situation, especially given the fact that I was receiving thousands of dollars in that last 24-hour period.
She called the police on my behalf and then shortly thereafter, the police contacted me. They asked me if I could give them access to those emails I had sent and received with this person. Of course, I gave them access, but since I didn’t have a real name, there wasn’t much I felt I could contribute to whatever was happening.
They didn’t tell me much of anything – as they pointed out that it was an ongoing investigation.
One Week Later
Throughout the course of the week, my only thought was about the money. That seemed to be the sketchiest part about what was going on. There was no name association, and that one day had seen around $5,600 go into my account. The cops hadn’t given me any specific instructions about what to do, or not do with that money, but I figured at that point that the money was best left alone.
It sat in my account for a week, and the following Monday – my friend texted me. She said, “Look at that link the creeper sent you. It’s all over the news.” I quickly clicked up the link that he had sent in one of our final emails and that was the moment that everything started making sense.
The domestic disputes I had been writing about were of men and women going through divorces. In 28 of the 30 instances of domestic violence, the website had gone through and turned the women into the villains for leaving their husbands or filing for divorce.
The format was simple. There were 30 links on a fairly simple homepage. They were listed in order as “Case 1,” “Case 2,” etc. When the link was clicked it would take you to a page, which would show my article or the ghost written police report, along with “proof,” beneath it. After each article, it would read in bold letters:
And this is why they had it coming.
The last case was the only exception. It was the only exception because I found out that it was his story. He attached his obituary beneath it, made the entire website live, before taking his wife’s life, and his own. Beneath the obituary that I had written, he added a note that pointed out that he was the victim, and that there were thousands of men just like him – being victimized by Facebook, and the women in their lives.
In the next week I had to go out to make a statement regarding my experience, and in the process I spoke with several investigators who said that the evidence he “provided” was entirely false and stolen information. He had been planning the entire “project” for months, and emptied out his personal savings account on creating this digital wall of shame.
That’s what the investigators had recovered when they went through his computer. They found that the goal of the site was to shame women who leave their husbands. A very depressing experience, to say the least, but one that really made me think about taking freelance gigs that don’t come with full-blown contact details.