The Signpost

Disinformation report

How paid editors squeeze you dry

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By Smallbones
Red, black and white placard warning sign displayed in a public facility, with surrounding text "SECURITY WARNING"
Keep an eye on your wallet

The Signpost has identified an extensive scam perpetrated by a company that calls itself "Elite Wiki Writers" or "Wiki Moderator", among many other names. Some of the other names they are suspected of using include wikicuratorz.com, wikiscribes.com, wikimastery.com, and wikimediafoundetion.com.

Annie Rauwerda described the general situation in a series of tweets a year ago. Her recommendation:

You should know that 99% of all "Wikipedia editing companies" are scams that charge you $1000 for articles then never write them. Do not give them your money
— Annie Rauwerda

That "99%" may be an unscientific estimate, but it's not far from our own estimate of over 95%. Wikipedia has made great strides in fighting this type of paid editor. But we've barely made a start with another part of the problem.

Shaun Spalding, legal counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) told The Signpost

The volunteer community is extremely diligent about finding and deleting any promotional material that marketing companies try to post on Wikipedia. Thanks to the community, paid editing firms rarely succeed in influencing the actual content on Wikipedia. There are paid editing firms that we are aware of with a 0% success rate. Unfortunately, victims of these scams don't know this, and many paid editing firms act in a predatory manner taking advantage of this. If anyone receives an email or social media message from someone offering to make a Wikipedia page for you, then it is almost certainly a scam.

My advice is to be extremely skeptical of anyone claiming that they can guarantee to make a Wikipedia article for or about you, even if they claim to be an administrator. It is likely that they are not telling the truth. The portfolios that they might send you as "proof" of their experience are almost certainly fabricated. As are the physical addresses that they list on their websites; they don't list their real addresses because they don't want to get caught by the Foundation. There are no paid editing firms that have a relationship with the Wikimedia Foundation.

To maintain the privacy of the victims of the scam, we have not linked to any website that might embarrass them, and have not revealed their names without their permission.

Both "Elite Wiki Writers" and "Wiki Moderator" list the same address, 99 Wall Street in New York City — which appears to be a maildrop rather than a real office — and a second address in Skokie, Illinois. The company appears to have preyed upon more than 100 customers in 2023, according to a customer list obtained by The Signpost.

These customers include many small businesses (such as a single-store painting supply company), writers and artists, churches and religious publishers, a couple of lawyers, some little-known financial firms, nonprofits, a private detective agency, young entrepreneurs, former government officials and retired military officers — the whole range of people who would like some publicity and aspire to a Wikipedia article.

These people are certainly victims. Less than 5% of them succeed in getting an article on Wikipedia. Prices start at about $750, and quickly escalate to $1,500 or $10,000 — or more — as the "Elite Wiki Writers" claim that extra work is needed, or requirements have been raised by Wikipedia. We estimate that the proceeds of this scam in 2023 were at least $500,000, and perhaps well over $1,000,000.

The low number of them posted as actual articles (as opposed to drafts or user pages) could be from a lack of trying. There's little evidence that many of their proposed articles are written up as drafts at all, and if they are, they're commonly left without improvement until they are deleted automatically.

In 2021, three editors who claimed to work for Elite Wiki Writers (or related firms) did post a total of 71 articles as drafts or articles, in a clumsy attempt to become rule-abiding "declared" paid editors. They were globally locked by stewards following a sockpuppet investigation, where 41 editors were blocked and confirmed as sockpuppets of CharmenderDeol. The reason the three declared paid editors were globally locked is likely that they were sockpuppets secretly controlled by undeclared paid editors.

How can you tell who is honest?

How is somebody who wants to pay for an article on Wikipedia to know which websites are legitimate and which are scammers? As a rule, potential customers of these firms should be very skeptical of "Wikipedia editing firms" who advertise on the web. They nearly all show some signs of a scam.

For example, in this archived homepage of Elite Wiki Writers, you'll see several drawings and illustrations taken from Wikipedia, including the Wikipedia trademark known as the "puzzle globe" — albeit one much the worse for wear.

Placeholder alt text
Wikipedia's puzzle globe symbol is a trademark. Permission to use is governed by WMF trademark policy.

A good first question for a potential customer to ask Elite Wiki Writers might be: "have you complied with the license on those illustrations and do you have permission to use the trademarked puzzle globe?" If they answer "yes" on the trademark, you can contact the Wikimedia Foundation's legal department at one of the email addresses listed here. If they answer "no", you'll know that they don't follow the rules.

Spalding says:

You do not need to pay someone to get a Wikipedia page; the majority of firms that want you to pay them to get one are scams. They will not succeed in delivering a live Wikipedia page. The very small handful of legitimate marketing companies and reputation management firms engaged in this work are subject to the new "Marketing Company Mediation" provision added to the terms of use when it was updated in mid-2023. The updated terms of use have enabled the Foundation to increase our enforcement of the community's undisclosed paid editing rules in the last six months. We will continue to refine and resource this enforcement in 2024.

These are some tips to help people identify paid editing scams:

  • If they reached out to you (via email or message) rather than you reaching out to them, it's likely a scam.
  • If the company doesn't have all of their user account names posted on their sales pages, then it's likely a scam since this is required by the terms of use. This goes for websites as well as things like freelancing profiles on Upwork.
  • Since these companies tend to lie and impersonate existing long-time editors, even if they mention their accounts, one should be additionally skeptical.

These are my most impactful suggestions for people who want to "do something" to help the problem:

  • If someone is scammed or has been scammed in the near past, they might be able to charge back the fraudulent transaction on their credit card
  • If someone receives a spam email from someone offering paid editing services, they should report the email to their email provider as spam to prevent it from going to others.
  • If someone receives a LinkedIn or social media message with an offer for paid editing, they should report the profile to the social media platform.

We have been here before

Scams by "paid editing companies" have been happening on Wikipedia since at least the 2015 Operation Orangemoody scandal, which was documented by the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as by the Guardian, Independent, and Signpost.

The Orangemoody scam worked like an extortion racket. Targeted articles would be nominated for deletion, or denied approval for publication. Then other editors, presumably working for the same firm, would offer their services to reinstate the article and "protect" it from deletion or unwanted changes — for a monthly charge. In reality, they couldn't protect anything, they didn't protect anything and their victims had no way to get the money back. See this warning for further details.

So another sign that a company might be scamming you is if they promise to "protect" the article. See Wikipedia's policy Ownership of content for why this is not allowed.

The current scam is much simpler, and doesn't involve extortion. The company advertises on their online sites, via email, or approaches people through social media sites such as LinkedIn.

They then quickly write a low-quality article, sending the customers a copy of the text. The scammer bills them, telling their victims that approval of the article by Wikipedia will take some time. Once they've received payment, rather than going through the effort of trying to publish the article (and the risk of getting caught), the scammer may simply abandon the article, keeping the money. When the customers complain, the scammer blames the delay on Wikipedia, or tells the victim that other paid services are needed to ensure publication.

What can a fake administrator tell you?

While researching this article on wikimoderator.com, this reporter was asked to chat online by a purported "Sr. Wikipedia administrator." The transcript of the discussion, generated by the website, follows. Only the names of this reporter (Visitorxxx) and the "Sr. Wikipedia administrator" (GreySWA) have been changed. A link to a real administrator's page has also been removed. The real administrator denies any association with the firm, and says they have never edited for pay.

Chat Transcript with Visitorxxx

Chat started on 02 Nov 2023, 12:38 AM (GMT+0)
12:38:35 *** GreySWA joined the chat ***
12:38:35 *** Visitorxxx joined the chat ***
12:38:42 GreySWA    Hi there!
12:38:44 GreySWA    How are you?
12:38:44 GreySWA    Are you looking to create a personal or business Wikipedia page?
12:39:40 Visitorxxx I'm just interested - how do I know you are a "Sr. Wikipedia Administrator"
12:39:51 GreySWA    Sure
12:40:02 GreySWA    May I have your name, please?
12:40:21 GreySWA    I can share my Wikipedia ID with you
12:41:14 GreySWA    My Wikipedia ID: (link to Wikipedia administrator's userpage removed)
12:41:36 GreySWA    Now may I have your name and details?
12:42:23 Visitorxxx I just want to be sure I'm dealing with a reputable person here
12:43:05 GreySWA    I can understand, I've been on Wikipedia for 17 years now and I have published over 900 pages.
12:43:34 Visitorxxx Are you really a Sr. Wikipedia Administrator?
12:44:12 GreySWA    Yes, I guess so
12:44:34 GreySWA    I provided you my ID, You may take a look yourself
12:46:12 GreySWA    I didn't catch your name.
12:47:16 Visitorxxx I'm looking up your history. Are you a paid editor, or does somebody else handle that?
12:47:54 GreySWA    We have a team of 10-15 editors and administrators.
12:48:49 Visitorxxx Wikipedia editors and administrators?
12:48:59 GreySWA    Yes
12:49:33 Visitorxxx Can you give me one that has made a paid editing declaration?
12:50:05 GreySWA    No. Unfortunately, I can not.
12:50:53 GreySWA    You're asking for all of this sensitive information yet not even telling your name.
12:52:11 Visitorxxx I just don't want to have anything to do with a disreputable organization. I'd want any article I pay for to be strictly above board
12:53:10 GreySWA    There won't be any mention that It is a paid article. It will be independent.
12:53:35 GreySWA    Part of the fee goes directly to other administrators to approve your page.
12:54:19 GreySWA    Hence, There is no mention that it is a sponsored article or that you paid for it.
12:55:32 Visitorxxx I think I'll go check around to see if another company looks better. Can you make any recommendations?
12:56:27 GreySWA    Sure, You may have a look around and do your due diligence.
12:57:13 GreySWA    Sorry, I don't have any recommendations.
12:58:29 Visitorxxx OK, thanks
01:03:51 *** Visitorxxx left the chat ***

Later, on the site elitewikiwriters.com, a different website apparently owned by the same company, I was invited to chat again by somebody giving the same name (shown as "GreySWA" above). That transcript shows much the same wording in places, possibly indicating that the same sales script was used.

The transcript indicates that the company was breaking many of Wikipedia's rules. According to the policy for paid contribution disclosure, every paid editor must declare when they are being paid and include the name of their employer, the client, and other affiliated parties. There are no exceptions for the client or the employer. Administrators who edit for pay must also declare their paid status.

Some questions a potential client might wish to ask are:

If they answer any of these questions "no", then they are likely trying to scam you.

How they were ripped off

Many of the apparent scam victims on the Elite Wiki Writers customer list feared harassment, or were too embarrassed to be quoted by name in The Signpost.

One victim, who did not wish to use her real name because she feared harassment, we will call "Melissa". When asked how she learned about Elite Wiki Writers, she told The Signpost that she was first approached on LinkedIn. "It was a fake photo and profile," she said, which has since been removed. She was sold the basic + startup package last fall, which was to include a personal Wikipedia page and a page about her business, costing over $2,000.

Another victim — let's call him "Jared" — asked not to be identified, but gave The Signpost an extensive interview. Jared is clearly a notable subject for a Wikipedia biography. He's had two successful careers: the first as a lawyer and judge, then as an author.

He told The Signpost that he first ran into the article about him in Wikipedia several years ago, some time after it was first published. He didn't like the tag on the top about a possible conflict-of-interest by an editor. As time went by it started to look out-of-date, and he especially didn't like the photo. He would also have liked to see more about his career as a lawyer and a judge. But mostly he just wanted to see something that his grandchildren could read and be proud of.

He was approached out of the blue on LinkedIn by a woman who offered to rewrite the article for a fee. He must have asked too many questions, and she eventually dropped the discussion. Then a new person appeared on LinkedIn to help rope him in. After some discussion about the article, the new guy said that he was moving to Australia, but gave Jared a contact at Elite Wiki Writers.

Celeste Mergens founded the nonprofit Days for Girls in 2008, and was its CEO until she retired in 2022. She's since written a book on the organization and its work, and is already promoting it with a book tour. Unfortunately, she's not familiar with Wikipedia's rules. She thought having a biography of her own on Wikipedia would help book sales, so she contacted Elite Wiki Writers, who promised that she would not have to reveal that she paid for the article because they "use legitimate Wiki-moderators". She even got a $100 discount off the $750 fee for sending in a detailed draft.

Yvonna Cazares is a community organizer who has previously held several community-oriented positions in California's state and local governments. Her first contact of any sort with Elite Wiki Writers was when she was approached on LinkedIn. She told The Signpost that her main interest in Elite Wiki Writers was having them provide editorial services for a book that was near completion. They offered her a Wikipedia article as part of a package deal. The editorial services are a sideline that is not currently offered on the Elite Wiki Writers website. But following the online chats shown above with "GreySWA", they offered this reporter the same type of services.

Elite Wiki Writers offered Cazares several book editing packages, costing up to $8,500. Due to the low quality of the services and high cost, she soon believed that she was being scammed. She had difficulty getting a bank to accept a credit card payment, even though she had previously seen no problems with her credit card. Many credit card issuers have an effective system for avoiding liability for fraudulent credit card transactions. Charges coming from merchants who have had too many recent customer complaints can trigger a refusal of the transaction during the time you're waiting on the phone. Apparently, this is what happened to one of Cazares's transactions. She later tried to cancel her previous transactions, and with determination and some luck she is now off the hook. Luckily, she had saved the documentation on all the credit card payments and refusals.

Both Mergens and Jared had similar difficulties with credit card payments, even though neither had any previous problems with their credit cards.

Mergens agreed to have the company write the article about her, but later was told that "Wikipedia moderators" now require eight citations, three more than the draft then had. And they would be willing to write the needed stories and quickly place them in top quality publications for only $5,000 apiece. Mergens settled for three "C-level" articles for only $1,500 apiece.

The surprises kept coming. She was dissatisfied with the quality of the new draft — and the inaccuracies in it — and she only saw one new source in the draft. After she was offered another discount, she attempted to pay with a credit card. But the payment wouldn't go through. So another credit card was used, but the invoice arrived with the name of another company.

Then Mergens discovered multiple complaints on an online customer review site against Elite Wiki Writers. Finally, she was able to totally cancel the order, and get most of the credit card charges reversed.

Melissa also had troubles with her credit card. Elite Wiki Writers sold her additional services — for almost $4,000 — to ensure that the Wikipedia page could go live and "be protected". The services supposedly included eight ghostwritten articles to serve as citations, a Google Knowledge Graph, wiki linking, and a semi-protection lock. After being charged for this, an additional $400 was charged to her credit card "for taxes" without notifying her or getting her permission.

She was shown a mockup of a Wikipedia article on a non-Wikipedia page. She asked how she could edit it and was told that Wikipedia would charge her $5,000 to have external admin access to the page.

After demanding the refund of all credit card charges, she has been harassed and needed to block Elite Wiki Writers employees on her telephone.

Jared told The Signpost that Elite Wiki Writers did not tell him that he would have to be disclosed on Wikipedia as paying for the rewrite. They did tell him that Wikipedia required five citations and that they could provide these quickly from reputable news sources for an extra fee. He did his own research and provided Elite Wiki Writers with articles about him from local newspapers and major news sources from his state, but they did not use those sources.

After he first suspected that he was being scammed, he learned that Wikipedia required that he be identified as paying for the article. He asked Elite Wiki Writers about it, but they wouldn't give him a straight answer. At that point he decided to cancel all payments.

Cazares posted a complaint at Trustpilot.com. Then she emailed Elite Wiki Writers: "I feel completely taken advantage of, I spent so many hours and energy. Please stop doing this to people. I am not a wealthy person, but regardless, we are all people with dreams that we are trying to actualize. I'm so disappointed in myself."

They emailed her back, blaming her.

She told The Signpost: "This company needs to be exposed and people need to be aware. Most importantly, people who have been scammed should know they are not alone and it is not their fault that somebody misled them and took their money."

Protect yourself, protect Wikipedia

Everybody associated with this scam, except for Elite Wiki Writers, comes out a loser. Wikipedians are victims because the encyclopedia's trademarks are used without permission. Volunteers' time, Wikipedia's most valuable resource, is wasted sorting out hundreds of poorly researched articles, looking for one just one or two notable subjects. Much valuable time is taken from some of our most senior and energetic editors, working on sockpuppet investigation and deletion discussions. Administrators' names and reputations are dragged through the mud. Nobody on Wikipedia benefits from having scammers operate here.

The main victims, of course, are the scammers' customers. People with very little knowledge of Wikipedia and its rules are recruited via email, social media sites, and the company's own websites and then lied to. They are told that they can get a valuable article about themselves on Wikipedia. They pay their money and then they wait a few weeks, a few months, perhaps forever.

Potential customers can protect themselves by asking normal questions about who they are dealing with. Get names of the people who contact you and of their bosses. Check if they are using the puzzle globe Wikipedia trademark. Also write down telephone numbers and addresses and save invoices and other documents. These are just the steps you should take for any large transaction.

To screen people who contact you about a Wikipedia article or to help prevent them from scamming others, see this section above.

If you think you are being scammed ask these questions:

If they answer any of these questions "no" then don't believe another word they say. You are almost certainly being scammed.

S
In this issue
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Discuss this story

Great article. I've seen these advertisements, and of course knew what they were offering was not deliverable, as most if not all Signpost readers would. However the general public won't know this, at least a significant portion will take the adverts at face value. Perhaps sharing this article through the "socials" is the way to go. All the best: Rich Farmbrough 15:50, 31 January 2024 (UTC).Reply[reply]

Thanks, Rich. Yes I'd love to see this spread via social media, the mainstream press. Help save some people from being scammed, and help Wikipedia at the same time. Smallbones(smalltalk) 16:08, 31 January 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Robertsky and Smallbones: I know a specific newspaper that might be very happy to report on this, given their portfolio... : ) But seriously, should we contact them? Oltrepier (talk) 14:54, 5 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Great reporting! It also seems worth noting that the LinkedIn page for Elite Wiki Writers (archive) claims that they have "51-200 employees" and were founded in 2011. Regards, HaeB (talk) 19:26, 31 January 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]

You can learn some more about them at WP:PAIDLIST#Sybex Lab. Elite Wiki Writers is just one of their many fronts. MarioGom (talk) 21:53, 31 January 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Schemes like this, sadly, are probably not on FBI's list of priorities due to other stuff like business scams to the tune of half a billion dollars a year. And in the U.S., sub-national police and AGs really don't do much about internet crime as far as I know. My own state AG's official website for internet crime says "our efforts are limited by the office's lack of original criminal jurisdiction" and refers the reader to the FBI. Maybe things are better elsewhere. ☆ Bri (talk) 06:22, 1 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I don't entirely disagree with @Bri: on the effectiveness of reporting to the authorities, but I doubt that it hurts anything either. Don't put all your trust in the government to get back your money for you. You need to take steps to protect yourself, first, last, and always.
And a word about WP:No legal threats is needed here. It doesn't do anybody any good, to spout off on how you are going to report a crime, and it could get you blocked here. But when you registered for Wikipedia, you don't park at the door your right (and sometime duty) to report crimes. In short don't talk about it, though when you think it is the right thing to do, just report the crime to the authorities.
You might think that, in the US, you should report to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission aka the FTC. From what I've seen, they take a lot of time trying to come up with the right general policies, publish these policies widely, then perhaps make a big splash with a few big cases. Which big cases? A fairly partisan group of 5(?) commissioners ultimately decides. In short, I think they'll come up with good ideas and policies most of the time, but aren't going to have speedy or effective enforcement. IMHO.
The FBI runs the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). It looks like it's fast and confidential to make a complaint. I don't know how effective it is. It may be the best you can do. Smallbones(smalltalk) 16:49, 1 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Hey Shaun, I think your statement concerning the low likelihood of paid editors actually influencing content is way too optimistic. Multiple sting operations have demonstrated that it is possible to get even quite absurd, or absurdly promotional, content into Wikipedia. I recall one focused on Bollywood and one on German politics that was demonstrated on German TV – the paid content was only removed after the programme aired. A former Wikimedia official in Germany (has?) had a successful paid editing firm for years ... Will look up the Signpost report later when I've got a mo. Regards, --Andreas JN466 10:08, 1 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Signpost references:
The Bollywood sting operation was by an Indian journalist who said in 2020 that paid editing in the Wikipedia biographies of minor Indian celebs was well organised, lucrative and pervasive. I can email you details if you are interested; I don't think it was covered in the Signpost. I don't know whether his claims were accurate either, but I would imagine that because of the smaller volunteer pool paying attention to pages of Indian singers, actors, etc., capturing them would be easier than it would be for equivalent European or North American minor celebs. Andreas JN466 13:29, 1 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I had a sense that the Indian promotion was well organized a few years ago when I was more active at the conflict of interest noticeboard but never saw independent investigation about it. Would love to see that link. ☆ Bri (talk) 15:32, 1 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]
For the kind of company discussed in the article (e.g. Sybex Lab, Abtach), their success rate is extremely low. Most of their articles never reach mainspace, the few that do usually do not last very long. That does not mean, however, that there is no other UPE content making it into mainspace. There is certainly a large amount of it, both from more sophisticated actors as well as the long tail of freelancers. MarioGom (talk) 16:54, 1 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]
fun stuff. ltbdl (talk) 15:16, 2 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]
  • I think you got it! The only thing that surprises me the least bit is the $500 price point. But that really shouldn't matter to them - when you are only selling a puff of hot air, the margin is always 100%.
  • There could be a contending view though, the basic format is used by other companies (or at least I think they are other companies). Lots of people know the basics of this scam. The only way to combat it may turn out to be "let everybody - including their customers - know how it works." Smallbones(smalltalk) 22:06, 2 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]
    I think most of this "market" is about 2 companies in Karachi, Pakistan (Abtach and Digitonics). Most websites of this kind are connected to one of these, just fronts. There are many other UPEs and scammers, but this particular modus operandi is particular to a very small subset. MarioGom (talk) 18:50, 3 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Break

Help stop paid editing! If you have ideas on how to better stop paid editing, please leave them at Wikipedia talk:Paid-contribution disclosure. If you have particular incidents you'd like to discuss, please note them at WP:COIN.

There's another notice near the top of User:Smallbones. Either or both of these used together could get the main point across if admins want to protect themselves from being falsely named in an extortion scheme.

While I did briefly see this case last month, it's pretty old news that scammers claim to be admins. And very few admins are or have been actual scammers. The whole thing was addressed at Wikipedia:Administrators'_noticeboard/IncidentArchive1144#Another dumb AfD scam. I think the best way for admins as a group would be to confirm a rule that no admin can accept paid editing work (with a few crystal clear exceptions like a) work on behalf of the WMF or a chapter, b) as Wikipedian-in-residence at a bonafide GLAM). It would just make it easy for us to tell the world "Don't even think about a Wikipedia admin doing paid editing for a scammer. It will never happen (again)!" To be fair I've only seen about 4-5 cases documented over 20 some years. Smallbones(smalltalk) 02:08, 5 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Does the reverse happen? People paying to get their Wikipedia article removed (because it is mainly about something embarrassing they did in their past)? Prolete (talk) 20:53, 9 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Absolutely. I've on more than one occasion seen someone stating they're someone's "official representative" or the like. They're more often trying to whitewash an article than get it deleted entirely, but when those efforts are thwarted, they sometimes then start asking how they just delete the whole article. (Of course in those cases, one must be cautious; sometimes there really are legitimate BLP problems and those shouldn't be overlooked just because they're raised clumsily.) Seraphimblade Talk to me 21:46, 9 February 2024 (UTC)Reply[reply]





       

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