I Tried to Make Money Online and All I Got Was This Nagging Feeling I Was Getting Scammed

Here at Google-X, we’ve covered many different ways to make side money using just a computer and an internet connection. This kind of work usually involves completing small assignments, taking surveys, doing online research, or getting paid to offer your opinion on a service. The jobs don’t pay a lot, but they promise ease and flexibility.

I’ve always been intrigued by these online “micro” jobs, so I decided to sign up for several of these services and check them out for myself. I wanted to know: How easy was this money, really?

Spoiler: Many of the popular sites in this realm are not reputable, and if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll likely end up wanting to smash your keyboard in frustration before you ever make a penny.

MicroWorkers

MicroWorkers is a site where you get paid to complete very short tasks, such as downloading apps.

Before you can do any work, you have to sign up and then take an “admissions test.” You have to pass this test in order to qualify to be a worker on their site.

The test asked very simple questions in the same style as an SAT english test. I had to read passages and analyze them, select the proper words to complete sentences, and choose between verb tenses so as to make sentences intelligible. It was incredibly easy, and I was done within five minutes.

But, there was a hiccup. I was told that I hadn’t completed the test in the required 10 minutes. I promise you, even though I’d bet my life it took me less than five. I tried again, this time answering the questions in under three minutes. Again, I was told that I’d taken too long.

I realized it would be a long, tedious, infuriating process just to get signed up for the site.

When I did some research and learned that their average job pays about 30 cents and takes 3 minutes, I gave up.

One final thing I noticed about this particular site, which gets almost a million visitors per month, is the large amount of open jobs that simply request that you retweet a particular tweet. Coming on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the 2016 election, this should make you even more suspicious of how easily social media sites can get manipulated. Not every “popular” social media message got that way organically, that’s for sure.

Survey Junkie

Survey Junkie, as you probably guessed, pays you to take surveys.

After registering, I had to complete a series of questions so they could get to know me better.

What followed was roughly a million questions. They asked about my job, the size of my family, my ethnicity, if I have pets, where I live, what kind of things I buy, what kind of entertainment I consume, what kind of phone I have, what kind of clothes I wear, and on and on.

It’s overwhelming. I got fed up when they asked personal questions about my health history, as if I was filling out forms for a doctor’s visit. Who might they be giving this information to?

In the name of finding out if I’d ever be able to actually earn some money at the end of this long process, I answered honestly and soldiered on. I was done after about 20 minutes, and I was mercifully put through to a page that showed all the available surveys.

I clicked on the very first one listed, excited to finally earn some money. I then had to complete another round of “tell us every single thing about yourself, including everything you’ve ever bought or will buy or have ever thought of buying.” It was tiring, but I wanted that dollar!

Alas, it was not to be. After completing the survey, I was redirected back to the main page. There was no acknowledgement whatsoever that I’d just graciously shared my opinion for the last 15 minutes on everything from the last time I used CitiBank to whether I preferred dogs or cats. I was starting to highly doubt that this would be an efficient way to make money.

I think the most depressing part was figuring out that it would take about five hours of survey work to earn $10, which is the minimum amount required for a payout. So, even in the alternate universe where I could actually get paid for my work, it would be a long slog to see any benefit.

UserTesting

UserTesting is a site that comes up time and again in “how to make money online” internet searches. Of all the ones I’d tried to that point, I had the best feeling about this one.

As is implied in their name, UserTesting pays people to test out the user experience of websites or apps. They pay $10 each time you complete a set of tasks while speaking about your experience into the microphone of your computer or phone.

The idea was intriguing, and seemed easy enough. I’m a power user of websites and apps, I work in technology, and I like talking to people. I figured that I’d finally found a simple path to making some good money in my free time. Oh, how naive I was.

The first step toward becoming an approved user tester is to record yourself doing a test review. I had to download their proprietary software and I was warned to “close out any tabs that might have private information.” This is not a process for those who are distrustful of what tech companies are doing with your information.

After watching an intro video, I started my test. I had to find a map on a museum website and talk about my experience as I went along. I finished it all in about 15 minutes.

I was told that someone would review my video and that I would hear back in a couple days. That made sense, as I figured a human was watching the video and making a judgement call about whether or not I was a good candidate.

I was surprised to get an email six minutes after completing my test which informed me that I didn’t meet their requirements. I was very confused. There is no way a human had the time to evaluate my video. And what criteria did I fail on? There was no way of knowing, and no contact email to appeal my case.

I hung my head, opened a new tab, and tried another company.

Figure Eight

Figure Eight is a company that asks users to complete tasks so as to “tune machine learning models.” They had a clean website and an intuitive user interface, which gave me hope. Maybe this would finally be my breakthrough!

I gave them all my identifying information, confirmed my email by clicking on a link they emailed me, and then clicked around to find their available jobs.

My two options were: “Categorize Popular Product Names” and “Question and Answer Type Classification.”

The former paid three cents, the latter, four cents. So, I decided to go for the big bucks and classify some questions and answers — whatever that means.

Unfortunately, I never got to find out. When I clicked on the survey, it asked me to sign in again. I was already signed in, but so it goes. At this point I was half delirious from all my other experiences and was starting to lose my faith in humanity.

I entered my email and password, clicked submit, and was told that my username and password combination was invalid. I double checked the information that I had written down and used to sign up just seconds before, and entered it again. Denied. I tried several more times before giving up.

That elusive four cents would forever remain out of my reach.

Wonder

Wonder is a site that pays you to answer research questions.

In order to sign up, I had to give them my email, phone number and birthday. Following this, I told them my job, the subjects I’d be interested in researching, how much money I was hoping to make, and the days and times I would be available to work.

Finally, I was given an aptitude test where I had to answer SAT-type questions. They gave me a complicated science paragraph and asked me to summarize the conclusion, then I had to read sentences and fill in the blanks using proper grammar, before ending with some basic math questions.

I was told that they would get back to me in “a couple weeks.” Well, that was a month ago ago, and I haven’t heard a peep. I’m a Harvard grad with a strong research background, so I don’t think it’s because my skills weren’t up to snuff. Maybe they just don’t have enough work to go around? I’ll probably never know.

When I log in to the site, I’m met with a message telling me that my application is being processed and that they can’t answer individual emails about application status.

Another swing, another miss.

Just Answer

Just Answer is a site similar to Wonder, but with more of a focus on helping people with their homework.

The process of signing up for JustAnswer was like a part-time job in and of itself. I had to answer nine identity verification questions.

I had to fill out a full resume and also provide them with my Social Security number and address, which is frankly pretty sketchy. If you get nervous about sending your personal information into the nebulous void of the internet, this site is not for you. Praying that I’d finally be able to earn a few bucks, I gave them what they wanted.

I signed up as a homework expert, with a focus on helping people with writing assignments that were on average three pages long. I wrote hundreds of those in college, and I write for a living, so I figured I’d be a no-brainer candidate.

They said they’d get back to me in two weeks, but they never did. My follow up emails went unanswered.

RapidWorkers and ClickWorker

RapidWorkers and ClickWorker are both similar to MicroWorkers, where you get paid to complete short tasks.

They asked for a bunch of personal information, let me sign up, but then told me there were no jobs available. In both cases, when I logged out, I was unable to log back in.

Opinion Outpost

Opinion Outpost took the prize as having the most taxing sign up process of all. That’s saying something.

After registering with an email and a phone number, I was directed to fill out a “welcome survey.” I had to tell them an awful lot about where I live, what line of work I’m in, what my job responsibilities are, how much I earn, and more.

Next came an endless litany of questions about my buying habits. Things started to get psychological at the end. “Do you find shopping to be a calming experience?” I was asked. I wish there was an option to say, “No, but compared to this survey, anything would be calming.” Do you own a motorcycle? What kind of insurance do you have? Do you find military leaders trustworthy? What kind of shoes do you wear? Do you buy toiletries for your family? And on and on.

The most disheartening part was when I noticed the progress bar at the top of the survey. Every few questions the bar would advance, but then after a few more questions the bar would retreat. It was like working out with one of those cruel trainers who tells you, “Ten more pushups!” but then once you get to nine they say, “Okay, five more and you’re really done!”

After about 20 minutes, the welcome survey mercifully ended. I clicked the button that said it would take me to my first paid survey. I was not surprised to be met with a screen displaying this sentence: “There is nothing available right now, check back later.”

It didn’t say when. It didn’t say if my answers qualified me for work. Just “check back later.”

The only button to click at that point was the one that said “finish my profile.” Wait, didn’t I just do that? I clicked anyway, since I had no other options. At that point, I was logged out and asked to log back in.

I never did.

Do These Companies Just Want to Profit From Your Personal Information?

As someone who’s deeply immersed in the online advertising world at my day job, something about all these sites was making my spidey sense tingle. What if they’re just trying to collect information about you that they can then link to your email account and sell to third-party services? There are companies who will pay a pretty penny for such bundles. Let me explain how this could work.

As I detailed, all these sites collect basic personal information like your email address. Many of them also require a phone number, a physical address, or even a Social Security number. On top of that, several of them make you fill out insanely detailed questionnaires before you can try to start earning money.

Throughout all these steps, the websites tend to work smoothly. I have yet to experience any hiccups while giving them my personal information.

Then, when you try to actually take surveys or do user tests, things bog down considerably. You’re hit with error messages, “404 Not Founds,” and “try back again” laters. You’re told that someone will get back to you in two weeks. You are told. It all gives me the uneasy feeling that these sites are a whole lot more interested in collecting your data then in helping you make money.

Then, if you dig into their privacy policies, things get even more interesting. Hiding in the fine print, you’ll find stuff like this (from Survey Junkie): You hereby grant to Survey Junkie a perpetual, irrevocable, unlimited, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide, royalty free, right and license to edit, copy, transmit, publish, display, create derivative works of, reproduce, modify, distribute, and otherwise use, modify, or distribute your User Content in any manner, without compensation or notice.

Whoa. Basically, they can do whatever they heck they want with your data, and they don’t have to pay you for it or tell you they are doing it.

Or how about this part of ClickWorker’s privacy agreement: You hereby consent to the disclosure of Your Personally Identifiable Information and other data as set forth in this Section 7 and in the Company’s Privacy Policy. For purposes of this Agreement, the term “Personally Identifiable Information” shall mean information which can be used to distinguish or trace Your identity, such as their name, Social Security number, biometric records, etc. alone, or when combined with other personal or identifying information…” (emphasis mine)

How would they even get a biometric record? Was ClickWorker going to ask for my fingerprints at some point? The whole agreement gives me the heebie jeebies.

There is also the issue of cookies. Most of the sites revealed to me, either via pop-up or hidden in their privacy notices, that they were tracking me via cookies. Cookies are small data files stored on your computer that the site uses to analyze your activity. Again, this information can be shared with or sold to third parties. They can tell advertisers about your browsing behavior in order to show you more compelling ads, for one thing. And the tracking doesn’t just end on their website. You take those cookies with you around the web, and the tracking continues.

To be clear, cookies are used widely across the internet. But given my experience with these sites, I am less than trusting of how they would be using the cookies they collect.

Finally, a couple of the sites I visited, some of which get hundreds of thousands of visitors per month, were not secure. Meaning, when I got to the site, I got the following warning from my Google Chrome browser (this is an example from JustAnswer, the site with 17 million monthly users who required I give them my Social Security number):

And when I logged into the aforementioned RapidWorkers, I got a “Not Secure” warning in the URL field.

As I’ve established, pretty much all these sites do is ask for sensitive information! If you’re going to wade into the murky waters of these micropayment jobs, make sure the site has proper security protocols in place. If you’re using Google Chrome, you can check this by making sure it says “Secure” in the top left corner of your browser’s URL field after loading a web page.

In the end, I couldn’t find anything online that confirmed or denied my hypothesis about these sites selling large quantities of user data. I maintain that it’s plausible. Selling data and emails is big business, and these sites position themselves perfectly to collect the maximum amount of user data possible.

If I’m right, all you are doing when you sign up for the vast majority of these sites is helping them make money off of the forms you fill out and the questions you answer.

Summing Up

I think the ultimate lesson here is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you’re willing to put in a ton of time and effort, and give up a lot of personal information, then check every day to see if there is work available, well, maybe you can make a few bucks off these sites. You’ll definitely have earned it.

In my opinion, you’d be much better served using your free time to invest in yourself, get an online credential, learn new career skills, or sign up for a service that’s very well known and pre-vetted by millions of people, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Another surefire way to make side money would be to get a job in the gig economy at a massive company, such as driving for Uber or Lyft.

I left this whole experience feeling pretty down on the state of the micro-work economy. The only positive I can think of is that there’s a lot of room for improvement. Some intrepid, noble entrepreneurs will make a lot of money once they build versions of these sites that are not scammy and have good user experiences.

Until then, I advise you to not waste your time.

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