Resources: Why Indies Should Not Use Elance

So recently I needed some HTML and CSS work done on my blog template, and I picked precisely the wrong time of the month to ask my friends who speak the language fluently enough to do what I needed done because they were all busy with other projects. No problem, I thought, I'll just find a freelancer online. After all, that's kind of what I do, tapping indie artists to do indie work for me at indie prices. I have a whole page and everything.

What I didn't understand at the time, though, is that there's a fundamental difference between tapping someone through, say, DeviantArt to do work for you via Paypal versus using Elance, and that difference largely revolves around the fact that Elance feels that you owe someone money (and by extension Elance, because they take their cut) whether they do any work for you or not. And while this business method may work great for people with lots of cash jingling in their pockets, it's not such a great system for indies.

So here's a run-down of my no-good awful terrible shitty experience with Elance.

Step 1 was posting a job and hiring a freelancer. I'm not going to link to details because once I start doing that, the reader will be able to see the freelancer I ended up in dispute with and I don't wish any ill-will on him. My beef is with Elance, just to be totally clear.

So anyway: I posted my job details and hired the lowest-bidding freelancer to update my template to my specified needs for $100. A few days passed after which it shook out that there had been a misunderstanding between the freelancer and me over the scope of the job. The freelancer asked me to give him more money to cover the work as he now understood it, but an amount was not specified. I didn't feel comfortable with agreeing to an unknown sum to be paid through unknown channels, so instead I informed him that I would cancel the job, re-post it, and he could re-bid for what he felt the job was genuinely going to cost to do. And then I did so.

For whatever reason -- I will not speculate on motives because I don't know them and they're outside the scope of this post -- when I canceled the job and re-posted it, he chose to dispute the cancellation. And then bid on the re-posted job while the first one was still in dispute. I was genuinely puzzled at this behavior, and didn't feel comfortable awarding him the second job while he was disputing the first one, and meanwhile a freelancer with stronger ratings and (seemingly) a better grasp of the job details had underbid him. While I was still puzzling over this development, the first freelancer began sending me hostile emails accusing me of making things "complicated", and making me deeply averse to dealing with him further.

Unsure of how to proceed, I called Elance and spoke to their help center. I informed them that the freelancer disputing my first job was sending me uncomfortable emails and that I didn't want to work with him further. I asked if I needed to wait for the dispute to end or if I could go ahead and hire a different freelancer to complete the job. The help center assured me that I didn't need to speak to the hostile freelancer any further and that I could absolutely hire someone else to complete the work. They in fact outright encouraged me to do so.

So I did hire the second freelancer and he finished the work wonderfully and everything was lovely.

But the first job was still in dispute. A few days later I received an email from Elance telling me that I needed to submit to a "Dispute Assistance conference call" where a Elance associate would help me and the freelancer come to an agreement over the dispute. I was instructed to provide my phone number and a time available for them to call me -- and I was not given any kind of assurance that my phone number wouldn't be shared with the freelancer as part of this process.

I wrote Elance and informed them that (a) I was not comfortable submitting to a conference call with someone who was sending me hostile emails and (b) the work had already been completed, so that there was nothing to "resolve". I wanted my money back out of Elance's escrow holding, and (presumably) the freelancer wanted the full sum for a job he didn't do and for work that wasn't completed or submitted to me. I had no work to offer him in exchange for those earnings, so there was no compromise I could come to -- either I got my money back or I didn't, and I would prefer that Elance make that decision on their own rather than ask me to submit to a phone call with someone that they already knew -- because it was in my file with them -- was sending me hostile communications.

I was so shaken by this that I took the first opportunity the next morning to call Elance and reiterate that I did not want to be in a conference call with someone sending me hostile emails and that I did not want to provide my phone number to Elance. The help center informed me that they could not speak to my specific case -- they don't have a phone department for that -- but that they could speak to the resolution in a general sense. The help center associate assured me that if I hadn't received any work from the freelancer, and if the work was already completed, then my case would be closed soon and my money returned to me from the Elance escrow. I thanked them and hung up.

Two days later I received an email from Elance stating that the only way a case can be resolved is for either (a) both parties to agree to a resolution over the phone, meaning that I would have to submit to a phone call with a hostile party who might then have my phone number and more means with which to harass me, and for a "resolution" that he seemed highly unlikely to agree to, or (b) to submit to binding arbitration which would cost me $133 dollars, regardless of whether I won or lost. This meant I had the following options:

  1. Convince freelancer to drop the case, get $100 back. Net loss: $0
  2. Win arbitration, get $100 back at a cost of $133. Net loss: $33
  3. Draw arbitration, get $50 back at a cost of $133. Net loss: $83
  4. Lose arbitration, lose $100 at a cost of $133. Net loss: $233
  5. Concede case and pay freelancer the $100. Net loss: $100

Number 1 involved putting myself in a place of emotional stress, seemed highly unlikely to achieve the desired results, and involved a multi-week process that would automatically end in arbitration (according to the Elance email) if a resolution wasn't reached or if the other party failed to show up. Numbers 2 through 4 involved a lengthy arbitration process for something that had already been going on well over a week and was causing me serious stress and adverse health effects. Number 5, while the second-most expensive option had the obvious advantages of:

  • Agency. It was the one choice I had complete control over. 
  • Immediacy. It was the one choice that wouldn't take weeks to resolve. 
  • Known Quantity. It was the one choice that didn't hinge on chance or others. 
  • Safety. It was the one choice that didn't involve giving out personal information. 

And you'll also note that it's the solution in which Elance gets the biggest cut, since Elance splits the cost of the arbitration. I don't think that's a coincidence. But third-party arbitration is at least fair and balanced, right? Probably not. A 2007 Public Citizen report found that arbiters rule against consumers 94% of the time. And the net-ARB arbiter that Elance uses has raised serious questions about who even owns the company, let alone how fair their rulings are. There are allegations online that the Elance arbiter predominantly rules against the client so that the freelance gets their fee -- and Elance gets their cut.

But, hey, maybe I could take a third option (or in this case a 6th), and do an end-run around Elance and their probably-illegal TOS, right? I contacted Paypal, since I paid Elance with my Paypal account, and they encouraged me to dispute the charge, and to do it through my credit card (which I use to fund my Paypal account) since my bank has stronger protections for non-delivered services. Paypal also noted, while rooting around in my account, that somewhere in the Elance sign-up process that I clicked through, I had somehow given Elance permission to take money from my Paypal account any time they wanted, without further authorization needed from me. This shocked me, since I usually read stuff pretty closely before clicking through; I harbor a suspicion that the relevant disclaimer was probably cloaked in legal double-speak. Hastily, I revoked that access via Paypal and hung up to call my bank.

My bank, when queried, also encouraged me to dispute the charge. There were just a couple of concerns. One was that when the bank pushed on Paypal, who was then supposed to push on Elance, there was a non-zero chance that Paypal might automatically shut down my Paypal account as a protection against fraud. (The automated system sometimes flags disputed accounts as 'compromised' -- i.e., hacked or stolen -- and shuts them down permanently to protect Paypal from further loss.) Which meant that all my Paypal history would be gone, my donation links would be dead, and I'd have to open a new account and re-verify everything from scratch. My bank warned that they'd seen this happen a reasonably-concernful number of times.

The other concern was that if Elance tried to push back on the TOS and stick me with a bill for arbitration anyway, or turned me over to a collection company, there wasn't anything my bank could or would do for me. They would absolutely dispute the existing charge -- and would also send me reams of forms to fill out over a process that would take a number of weeks -- but they couldn't do jack about any new charges Elance tried to tack onto me. Nor could they do anything to protect my credit rating if Elance tried to muddy that up. Stellar. Which is not an indictment on my bank, just an observation that we live in a truly messed-up country when it comes to matters of finance.

In the end, I fell back on #5, for all the reasons outlined above. It was ultimately easier and cheaper to be scammed out of $100 than to have to face weeks of conflict and emotional turmoil, reams of paperwork, potentially losing my Paypal account as part of an automated fraud protection, and dealing with creditors and credit rating agencies. Elance got their cut, which was all they ever wanted from me, but they won't get a penny more and they've been blocked from ever accessing my Paypal account again. And while I did have a wonderful experience with my second freelancer, I recognize that I just plain got lucky.

Because according to the Elance TOS, your freelancer can deliver you nothing more than this...

....................../´¯/)
....................,/¯../
.................../..../
............./´¯/'...'/´¯¯`·¸
........../'/.../..../......./¨¯\
........('(...´...´.... ¯~/'...')
.........\.................'...../
..........''...\.......... _.·´
............\..............(
..............\.............\...

...and still get paid, if the binding arbitration by a potentially biased and anonymous third-party that you paid $133 for decides against you.

And that's why I don't recommend Elance for indies.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

You can certainly see your expertise in the article you write.
The sector hopes for even more passionate writers
like you who are not afraid to mention how they believe.
Always go after your heart.

My website: seo software services

Scribblegoat said...

Gah ... that's really disappointing to hear. I've had such good experiences with Elance's customer service when acting on behalf of a friend who had just passed away that I was thinking happy things about them. I find it just completely unbelievable that they couldn't assure you your phone number was safe. Not in the sense of not believing it but in the sense of "wtf?"

While I hate to benefit from your no-doubt-incredibly-draining experience, it does give me some peace of mind ... I just let a customer stiff me $200 rather than go through the wrangle with her, though in my case it was the opposite situation (stopped contacting me after I completed the work and I tried to be nice and split some payments out to make it easier ... which meant that her money came out of escrow so I couldn't actually get a penny). Now I'm glad I let it go. I can't believe they can't assure that they don't give out personal information ... gah. That is so invasive.

FWIW, there are some good freelancers on Elance! But there's also quite a large number of very good reasons why I still maintain an Etsy shop for my services too, and that in itself is a poor referendum. :)

So sorry you got a sucky one, Ana.

EdinburghEye said...

Thank you for the heads-up.

That's a really extraordinary and double-plus ungood state of affairs.

(In all honesty, I think presuming it was an honest misunderstanding on the first freelancer's part, they may deserve to get some money for whatever part of the work they did even though you cancelled. But not the whole fee. And hostile emails are a big No. And Elance sucks.)

A few years ago I bought some seeds via Ebay. I picked a "shop" that guaranteed delivery on a week's turnaround, because I had left planting late and now had less than a month of good sowing time.

After two weeks, I sent an email to the shop with a complaint and bought the seeds somewhere else. A few days later I got the packet of seeds I'd ordered from the *first* shop, with a rather stiff note saying "Hey, I was OUT OF TOWN" or some such. So when I did feedback, I scored the first shop "Neutral" because they'd been three weeks late though their shop promised a week or less.

First shop owner promptly messaged me to let me know he intended to black-mark me as purchaser, which would count against me much more than my neutral against him, because I had less than a hundred Ebay transactions and he had thousands. He said he was offended that I'd given him "neutral" when I had got my seeds. Then he said that he would agree not to black-mark me as purchaser if I would withdraw my "neutral" feedback and the transaction would just be no-rating either side.

So I wrote back to him saying I thought it would be unfair of him to do that, because I'd paid promptly for the seeds (since I *had* ordered them, and it is not really a big problem to end up with twice as many seeds as I'd planned). But I couldn't stop him, obviously, because I did not intend to withdraw my neutral rating just because he was blackmailing me: as a point of principle I did not intend to submit to blackmail.

And then I waited. And oddly enough, he then just marked my transaction as "neutral" too. And shortly afterwards Ebay withdrew a seller's ability to black-mark a purchaser, which suggests to me that quite a lot of sellers did this thing of "if you downrate me I downrate you WORSE" and people had complained about it to Ebay.

I lost access to Paypal, by the way, when I withdrew my credit card details after my account got hacked. Paypal had refunded the money (it wasn't my fault) but I got unnerved for a while and decided I would rather my credit card wasn't on Paypal. And then I found that Paypal had blacklisted that card so in order to get Paypal back I would have to get a new credit card. Which means I now can't use Ebay, mostly.

Lonespark said...

That idea is the best of ideas. Arizona used to have a "plain English" standard for their environmental regs that seemed like a very good idea, too.

Lonespark said...

That idea is the best of ideas. Arizona used to have a "plain English" standard for their environmental regs that seemed like a very good idea, too.

Andrew Glasgow said...

http://xkcd.com/325/ <- This seems relevant, especially the title text.

Andrew Glasgow said...

http://xkcd.com/325/ <- This seems relevant, especially the title text.

depizan said...

That's truly bizarre. *boggles* Also makes me suspicious that Elance has as yet unseen ways to screw people on the other end as well. Mostly because I expect a company that's found a way to screw one set of people rarely stops there.

depizan said...

That's truly bizarre. *boggles* Also makes me suspicious that Elance has as yet unseen ways to screw people on the other end as well. Mostly because I expect a company that's found a way to screw one set of people rarely stops there.

firefall said...

This, absolutely

firefall said...

This, absolutely

Silver Adept said...

That sucks. One of my "when I'm in charge!" things is that all legal contracts will be required to use language that a six year-old can read and understand completely. And companies will be required to keep the digital equivalent of a six year-old to write their contracts with.

It's a very screwed up system when the cheapest and easiest option is to let yourself be scammed rather than to get the proper result.

Silver Adept said...

That sucks. One of my "when I'm in charge!" things is that all legal contracts will be required to use language that a six year-old can read and understand completely. And companies will be required to keep the digital equivalent of a six year-old to write their contracts with.

It's a very screwed up system when the cheapest and easiest option is to let yourself be scammed rather than to get the proper result.

Ana Mardoll said...

This.

Ana Mardoll said...

This.

Post a Comment