Warning About oDesk Freelancer Hiring

Before reading about the dangers of hiring an oDesk freelancer, check out my new guide for starting your blog to learn how to go about properly creating your own blog.

Some of you may have noticed that it’s been a little while since I posted any blogging tips. Basically it’s a combination of running out of topics to cover and wanting to actually transition this into a real personal finance blog.

Going forward this will likely be one of the last post for this series, but if anything ever comes up than warrants a post I’ll probably write about it.

If you’re new to this series, check out some of the previous blogging tips posts:

This particular topic came to me both from my daytime work and while outsourcing some help on my own blog. While freelance outsourcing sites like oDesk can be quite useful, they are open to all kinds of abuse.

What to Watch Out For When Hiring Via oDesk

Over the years I’ve contracted out a lot of work online. When you do website marketing for a living, it’s inevitable that you need to pass on some kind of work. So I figured I should pass on some of that experience to all of you.

Here are some specific things to watch out for when hiring contractors on oDesk. While this post is focused on oDesk, a lot of it probably applies to other freelancer hiring websites too.

Contractor Feedback Ratings

When you find people to hire on oDesk, it’s only natural to pay a lot of attention to the applicants’ feedback ratings. It’s like contacting a job applicant’s references without all the phone calls. In theory it’s a great system. Unfortunately oDesk developers have setup their system in such a way to limit their customer service requirements.

In a system where all project feedback is public, there is bound to be a ton of people contacting website support to whine about removing ‘unfair’ feedback. I could see that turning into a big customer service headache as they could rarely determine who was really at fault for negative feedback. While that is understandable that oDesk would want to reduce man hours, it ends up screwing over employers. When a contractor receives feedback that they don’t want to display on their profile, they actually have a button to hide feedback. I guess it’s along the same lines as leaving a job off your resume when you had a bad falling out.

The only good part of this system is that it does show that the contractor has made the feedback private. So you can just assume there were some pretty negative things said in that feedback. If a contractor has any hidden feedback, that’s a big red flag for me. I’ll usually skip right over that contractor unless they happen to have a rather impressive portfolio. Even then, I’d want to hear their side of the story about that feedback…not that they’d really tell you the truth if they were at fault. The best strategy is to completely avoid contractors who hide any feedback.

Contractors Faking Hours

This has got to be my biggest pet peeve about hiring on oDesk. If you hire someone on an hourly basis, the system actually saves screenshots of all logged work and measures the mouse/keyboard activity. Again it sounds like a great system. That is until you realize how easy it is to abuse.

The dishonest contractors simply load up a page that is relevant to the project and turn on some of kind of keyboard or mouse faking plugin. At a glance it looks like they are quite busy and putting in a lot of hours. Looking a little closer shows that it isn’t necessarily the case. I’ve had programmers with a lot of screenshots showing coding. Somehow the screenshots never happened to catch him in the middle of typing a line of code. It was all just screenshots of completed code. Then factor in how far behind schedule is and you’ve found a scammer. You’d think you could take that evidence to oDesk support and get a refund. Not the case though.

oDesk support claims to not handle disputes involving work quality. To me that just sounds like an easy out to allow contractors to log excessive time and line the pockets of oDesk. Any time I’ve disputed this kind of thing, they never care about the employer. So one of your only bit of leverage is threatening negative feedback, which they can just hide.

Undeserved Good Feedback Ratings

Since oDesk support doesn’t care about protecting employers, it is in your hands to try to get a refund if someone does try to rip you off. This can be easier said than done. Never will they actually admit to doing anything wrong. Instead they will try to offer a lowball refund for 10-15% of the faked hours they logged. In exchange they want good feedback. Yes, they want to keep a big chunk of the money they stole from you and get rewarded with good feedback.

If they do offer any kind of partial refund, that is essentially an admission of guilt. That is when you have to push harder to get most of your money refunded. Once that happens, you could give in to their demands and give them good feedback. There’s no chance of that happening with me though. If they’re going to steal from me, I’m going to lie about giving good feedback and then give them the feedback they deserve after getting a refund. The downside of warning people like this is getting negative feedback as an employer which can’t be disputed either. Luckily I suspect contractors tend to overlook employer ratings.

In short, don’t trust feedback ratings too much as they can be manipulated. I’m sure some employers give good feedback just to protect their own ratings.

Users with Multiple Profiles

Now what do you think a scammer does when they know they are risking having bad feedback on their account (or at least signs of hiding feedback)? They diversify to limit their risk. If they have backup accounts they can turn to, it doesn’t matter as much if their account is suspicious. That contractor you are considering hiring could very well have a few other accounts full of hidden feedback.

To combat this I generally avoid hiring anyone with too small an amount of history on their account. If you’re hiring from a risky source, you have no choice but to be extremely careful. If you’re going to take a chance on a risky contractor, be prepared to lose some money that you might not get refunded. Personally I’d rather protect myself, especially after learning the hard way.

Language Barriers

The thing that sets oDesk apart is that the majority of the contractors are outside of North America. For anyone looking for inexpensive help, that’s awesome. The wages those contractors charge is a fraction of what you’d pay otherwise. Some people may feel guilty about paying such low wages, but with the currency conversion they’re actually making relatively good money.

The downside of these contractor demographics is that English is not often not their first language. Sometimes this is not an issue as their English is quite good. Other times though, this can cause all kinds of problems.

First of all, if their work involves any writing or communication, weak English skills could end up producing low quality work. It’s not necessarily what you want representing you or your company. That low quality work may affect the end results of your project.

Secondly, if their English skills are lacking, there can be misunderstandings about the actual requirements. You might think they completely understand what you have explained, only to get a report of their work showing that they completely ignored some instructions. Usually when this happens, there was just some details lost in translation.

Excessive Applicants

Simply posting your job on a site like oDesk can be overwhelming. Last week I posted a job for my employer and in just 5 days I’ve had nearly 200 applicants for this project. Weeding through that many job applications is a massive chore. Making it worse is the fact that the majority of the applications are saying basically the same thing.

To the contractors, applying for freelance jobs is all a numbers game. Apply to enough projects and someone will hire you. With that in mind, they try to spend minimal time applying for each job. You’ll be lucky if the applicants even skim through your job description. More likely, they will see one of the keywords in your listing and apply without even reading the full job title. So don’t expect a long description or lots of listed skills to weed out people at all. This will only lead to even more applicants.

I would give you advice on how to properly screen applicants but I’m still figuring this out myself. Lately I focus on the ones with the most work history hours and highest ratings. Then I dig into their profiles for any red flags. If it all looks good I do a quick interview on skype. That will give me a good idea about their communication skills and actual competency. With live chat they can’t just quickly google the answers to your questions.


As you can probably tell, oDesk is the site I love to hate. As useful as the site is, it’s far too easy to run into problems. Even after using the site for years I manage to still have difficulties. I might be better at getting my money back when issues arise but it’s still frustrating. Hopefully this post will help you avoid some of those complications with odesk freelancers.

Have you used oDesk for any outsourcing? Or are there other sites you prefer to use?

Note: oDesk is now UpWork.