Online contract work sites are a great way to make extra cash - if you can avoid the scammers invariably drawn to them.
The View from Here: Work online, but stay on top of the risks
Thanks to the internet, it's no longer necessary to haul your weary body into an office every day, a cup of lukewarm Starbucks coffee in your hand. A proliferation of sites now make it possible to bid on contract work as a way of supplementing your income.
But, like everything else to do with the net, it's a case of buyer (or seller) beware. These sites are a great way to make extra cash - if you can avoid the scammers and chancers that are invariably drawn to them.
The way it works is this: someone looking for a service - it could be a small business needing a website design, or a student needing their thesis proof-read - puts out a tender. Anyone who thinks they can fill the brief is welcome to bid. Usually, the lowest bid wins, although some sites also encourage bidders to emphasise the quality of their service, not just the price.
Among the largest sites are Guru and Elance, both in the US, and the UK's PeoplePerHour. The claim to being the biggest online jobs site, however, goes to freelance.com, which is based in Australia. Freelance.com says it has up to 500,000 prospective workers, from IT consultants to personal assistants to humble copy editors using it to find extra employment.
The site received a recent endorsement from no less than Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist. "I can use freelancer.com to find someone to do my logo and manage my back room," he wrote.
"And I can do all this at incredibly low prices."
I expect Mr Friedman used some imaginative licence in his description - even though he didn't personally outsource his skills on the site. If he had, he might have encountered a man in Pakistan with the user name "Pinky", who tendered for a writing project based on a budget of US$250 (Dh918.28).
The brief was vague. All it said was "Web-based content writer needed". This sounded easy. I put in a pitch and soon heard from Pinky. It turned out he wanted 250 articles of at least 500 words in length. Which worked out to be around a buck an hour. I think I could earn more working in a Chinese iPod factory. I turned him down.
The next job I pitched for was to proof-read a university dissertation for a user named Magnus in Australia. "Job should only require a few hours as it is light proof-reading," read his description. I entered a bid and a few days later, heard from Magnus. I had the job. But the brief had expanded a little.
The dissertation, which arrived in my inbox in a Word file, was near perfect. It did not require proofing. What it needed was to be entirely rewritten because, as Magnus put it, "It has to get through Copyscape". Copyscape, of course, is commonly used to detect plagiarism. In other words, the job was not to proof the document, but to make changes that would hide the fact that Magnus was ripping off someone else's work. Exit Magnus.
A better prospect is the PeoplePerHour website. It restricts how little an employer can put up for a job, eliminating the Pinkys. Although a few chancers get through, most of the jobs advertised seem legit. The main disadvantage is that it is not nearly as egalitarian as Freelance.com. Almost all bids requested are for UK-based workers only.
Outright scams are also a hazard. Several posters on PeoplePerHour's forum have complained that after submitting a bid, the client asks for their bank details to make a payment. The usual process is to use PeoplePerHour's own escrow system. Which raises the suspicion that these sites are also being used by online con artists to mine for personal information they can use for data theft.
The trick to avoid dodgy job postings seems to be similar to that of eBay - check the ratings of the poster. Freelance.com, PeoplePerHour and other sites usually provide a feedback system. A contractor can rate an employer on promptness of payment and the employer can rate the contractor on adherence to deadline and quality of work.
PeoplePerHour also tallies how much money a client has paid out. A record of regular payments is usually a sign that the employer can be trusted.
Like any new service that springs up on the internet, the early days are likely to be anarchic. But it is also clear from postings on blogs and forums that many people manage to navigate these jobs boards and supplement their incomes with regular extra work.
Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.