Stealing Your Professional Identity: Online, It’s Just Too Easy

Increasingly, professional services are available through global online platforms. It’s a popular concept and Upwork is a leading example.

Upwork is a global freelancing platform with twelve million registered independents (sellers) and five million registered clients (buyers). The result of a merger between two mega-sites (eLance and oDesk), Upwork is probably the world’s largest such platform.

Through Upwork, businesses find and work remotely with independent professionals all over the world. Hirers can find freelancers in the areas of app and software design, engineering and data science, business and administrative services, creative services such as writing and graphic design and even in legal.

To ensure freelancers are billing fairly and paid properly, Upwork uses a time sheet application to track time worked, and also takes work-in-progress screenshots. Payment to freelancers is instantaneous. Once a job is completed, payment is transferred to the freelancer instantly. For the freelancer this is ideal – no invoices, no waiting for payments, no uncertainty on whether you are getting paid.

My experience with Upwork

My experience with Upwork was neither a happy nor a typical one. And by the way – this actually could happen to you! Read on to find out how and why…

At first, a bit about myself, in case you don’t know me. I’m a professional engineer and a lawyer. I have developed two innovative platforms, My Legal Briefcase and Aluvion Law, and I teach a course at Osgoode Hall Law School in Legal Information Technology. As a speaker and an authority I’ve been referenced in many magazines and newspapers, and I’m fairly active on Twitter, Linkedin and as a blogger. Plus, I’m South Asian.

My theory is that my atypical credentials and background coupled with my online presence may have made me a target for identity theft. Here’s how it unrolled:

  • In November 2015, a potential client spotted “my” profile on Upwork and sought to engage me for legal services
  • But when he asked for a Skype call with “me” – the stolen-identity me – “I” refused
  • He thought something was off, and reached out to the real me directly, off-platform
  • You can imagine my surprise and dismay as I learned about the Upwork profile.
  • The identity thief had made a considerable amount of money impersonating me for a full year. Under my name, they reviewed and edited legal agreements and contracts, offered counsel, and carried out assignments.
  • Talk about irony! An identity thief pretending to be a lawyer!

Reporting identity theft to Upwork

My client immediately contacted Upwork’s Customer Support Department, where he reported the fake identity and fraudulent acts. He told the agent that I had confirmed I was not a member and had nothing to do with the profile.

Here’s the unpleasant irony – I had to prove who I was, while the person on Upwork hadn’t.

My client and the Upwork agent flagged and reported the profile as inappropriate, and it was taken down. But not immediately. In fact, I had to escalate the matter to the V.P. Counsel before I got a response.

Identity theft is on the rise ­– are we ready?

With the increase shift to online business, identity theft is a rising issue, especially in modernized countries. In 2009, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reported a loss of over 10 million dollars related to identity fraud, from 11,095 Canadian victims. This is 10% more than what was reported in 2008, a steep annual rise. As lawyers, many of us are familiar with real estate fraud, or with bad cheque scams where client seeks representation for a debt collection matter. Often times the fraudster are so compelling, they have cheques that look authentic and appear to tick off all the boxes that lawyers would ask.

But how many of us ever consider that someone would steal your identity and credentials to practice in our names? Have you?

Here are a few suggestions to address identity theft, plus preventive steps to taken from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre and my experience:

  • Flag and report the profile to the platform’s help or support centre.
  • If it becomes a more serious issue, contact your local police force and file a report.
  • Report identity fraud and theft to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
  • Always be cautious of unsolicited emails and other suspicious methods of contact.
  • The best defence for identity fraud, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, is to make yourself a difficult target by managing your personal information prudently and limiting the amount of information you post online. I am not sure how you can do this and promote yourself online at the same time but that is their suggestion.

What is the impact on our profession?

Clearly, increased vigilance is required. What I understand is that the Law Society of Upper Canada does period check online forums to see if the lawyers’ themselves have authorized their profiles, but undoubtedly they can only do so much. And there are many platforms similar to Upwork! The onus is therefore more on the lawyer to monitor their identity online.

As an example, whenever a new client calls me, I ask where they found my contact information. It’s always good to know where and how people find you online.

But as I alluded to earlier, this can happen to any lawyer, because freelancer profiles on Upwork don’t shown up on a Google name search. You can’t monitor by Googling your own name. It was only when someone familiar with Upwork came to me that I discovered the problem.

What’s the onus on Upwork et al?

What is the onus on the platform to ensure that its clients are qualified to do the work? Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

There are no checks and balances, except for a rating system that indicates how hirers feel about the services offered. But the more complex or sophisticated or regulated the service is, the more that rating is of little assurance. And certainly in the case of legal services, most clients are not well qualified to judge whether the provider offered good advice, or whether they are properly qualified or licensed to do so in any given subject or geographical area.

To this date, Upwork has been absolutely silent about the identity of the person who impersonated me.


  1. Samantha Collier

    Great post. I’ve contemplated using Upwork (and other similar sites) but never thought about privacy issues.