How I Ignored Every Rule Of Freelancing And Became the CTO of a Freelance Platform

Early December 2016

It’s been 3 months since the start of my journey. I’ve just run out of money and was supposed to go from India to Malaysia. Everything was going according to my plan. I knew I was going to spend my savings in the first 3 months and had to find a freelance gig so I could travel off that. 

And so, I take a train from Varkala to Kochi, Kerala state. The money I’ve got left is going to be just enough for a bus to get from the airport to Kuala Lumpur. 

I’m almost done with a small project, and I ask the client to pay at least part of the money, so I wouldn’t be completely penniless throughout the first couple weeks in Malaysia. 

I arrive at Kuala Lumpur and find a hostel where we agree I’ll be giving concerts a few days a week in exchange for a free bed in the dormitory and breakfast consisting of fried eggs and jam on toast. 

One day I was sitting with my laptop on the hostel rooftop. A black-haired woman approached me and asked what I did. “I code”— I said, — “Develop websites and mobile apps”. 

“Oh!, – she says, “That’s exactly what I need! I’m looking for a developer who could make a couple of fixes on my website, and then I’ll need to develop an app”. 

Okay, I say, no problem. 

She is 37. From Romania. Her name is A, she is skinny almost bony, has black hair. Her distinctive English accent sounds like a mix of Italian and Slavic. She tells me a story that led her to that exact hostel. She was on Penang Island in Malaysia, where a biker stole her purse along with all the money and credit cards. So now she had to issue a new card from her Singapore bank and wait for it here. 

And she needs a developer because she’s right in the middle of a legal process with an Australian agency she’s been working with for the past 5 months, that’s been charging her $10 000 a month but did nothing and only fed her with excuses. So now she’s suing them for the money and the moral damages. 

She then provided me with all the accesses and in 15 minutes I was done with the first, fairly simple, fixes. We agreed she could pay me by the hour.

We met 2 weeks after I came to Malaysia. But in 2 weeks I had to return back to India. I’ve completely ran out of money and started using my credit money. 

Early January 2017 

I spent the whole month in India waiting for the first payment for the tasks I’ve completed and expecting additional info and accesses which I needed to start actively working. I wasn’t looking for any other project, because A was just about to send it all out and I didn’t want to take too many overlapping projects. 

During my last week in Varkala A finally managed to buy the needed domains and new hosting, and I could start working. She’s been trying to send me a few hundred dollars but it wouldn’t work. There always were some kinds of problems with the Western Union. My 30-day Indian visa was running out, so I decided to go back to Kuala Lumpur. My credit card debt was growing and I thought I could volunteer again in that same hostel and save a little. I wasn’t too happy spending the credit money. 

A. sent me a ticket from Kochi to Kuala Lumpur the night before the flight, and I flew back to Malaysia. I settled at that same hostel and started volunteering just like I planned. 

From what A. explained, she had deals with several airlines, including Air Asia, the one that issued a free ticket she sent me. 

In about 5 days after my arrival, she finally managed to transfer $500 to my Payoneer through her mom’s card. At last, I had money to return the debts to my friends and the bank. 

I would continue working on her projects, and we agreed I would work for her 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. She was supposed to pay me $1250 by the end of the month, of which I already received $500 but was waiting for the remaining $750. 

A. offered me to meet her business partner, Mo, who lived at Penang island. 

Mo was a very nice and friendly person. He was a Malaysian Chinese, a master of Chinese metaphysics — feng shui, BaZi, Qi Men and other arts he’s been practicing for 27 years while also running a successful business. In their with A. mutual business, he’s responsible for everything related to metaphysics, and A. does digital marketing. 

When I came to Kuala Lumpur this time, she’s just found two more people to join the team: Max and Nati, a married couple from Argentina. Max and Nati worked as administrators at the same hostel I volunteered for. They’ve already spent a year there and their visa was running out. They were looking for a job that would let them travel at the same time. So A.’s offer was an incredible opportunity for them. I felt pretty much the same way. Now, I could work and be paid on a steady basis without being tied to any particular place. 

Max took on the responsibilities of A’s travel website. I started to teach him how to work with WordPress. 

I flew to Penang island, met A., she paid for all three days of my stay at the hotel and food, and introduced me to Mo. Every day I visited Mo at his house where he was teaching me the basics of Chinese metaphysic arts and showed how to calculate the BaZi tables. Mo made the best first impressions. He was 54, looked 35. 

During my stay on the island, we talked over the new conditions of our cooperation and agreed on $1980 a month since my new responsibilities included not only the development but also teaching Max, finding the designers and front-end developers and pretty the whole project management. 

By the end of the month, I was supposed to receive $750 from A. that she owned me for the job I’d done in January and another $1980 for February. 

While we were still in Penang, she said she went to Hong Kong a week ago to start a company to manage her travel business and to transfer the money from Singapore bank to Hong Kong. So there shouldn’t be any problems or delays with the payments. 

I returned to Kuala Lumpur alone to continue working on the projects. A. stayed in Penang. 

Mid-February 2017

And so, I’m back in Kuala Lumpur, working. A. also flies in. She says that her lawyer is coming from Singapore in a few days and he’s bringing $3000 for me. Great news, but in three weeks since he’s arrived in Malaysia he can’t manage to find the time to get to our hostel because of a million reasons. One day he’s too busy at the court because he’s working on a case for a very rich client who wanted to commit suicide and that’s why the process goes on until late at night. One of these days A. shows up. She’s very emotional and shows me a Facebook message from her lawyer. He says he’s “in deep sh*t” and will explain everything later. I’m not happy about it at all and ask her to find a way to pay me the money she owed. 

Her mom sends me $2500 from Romania via Western Union. I go to a Western Union branch to get the money but it turns out the tracking number A. gave me doesn’t exist. She calls the customer service and they say that the money got blocked in Bucharest since her mom has already attempted several big transactions to address me and this time Romanian side got suspicious about why she’s been sending so much money to Malaysia. 

A. has been trying to solve the problem and unblock the transaction but gets no luck. Nervous, I again ask her to figure something out because I never got the money neither for her lawyer nor from her mom. She asks her cousin — a doctor who lives in London — to transfer the money with Moneygram. He sends the money, this time she’s supposed to be the recipient. We go to the Moneygram office but they ask us to come back later. The next day, they can’t find the tracking number. It’s changed due to a phishing danger. Now the money coming through three different channels is just hanging in the air. 

My 30-day permit to stay in Malaysia is almost over. A. says that there is a possibility the money in Bucharest may be released. But I’m the only one who’d be able to receive them. I decide to wait another day realizing that I’m basically breaking the law. I google Malaysian laws along with some stories of other travelers who’ve overstayed, and figure nothing that bad will happen in 1 day.  

I’ve found the information that in case of overstaying for up to 7 days, I’ll just have to pay a fine of 30 ringgit ($8) for each day of the overstay. If I stay longer than that, there is a good chance I can end up in prison for 5 years. Well, one day, won’t hurt anyone. 

My former colleague, Svitlana, comes to Kuala Lumpur and settles at the same hostel. Svitlana is a front-end developer, and she’s a perfect match for one of A.’s project I’m working on, so I introduce them. 

March 10th, 2017

My 5th day of overstay. Morning. 

I can hardly keep calm. I’m almost completely out of money. I’ve emptied down my credit card. And I have to leave Malaysia immediately. I have barely enough money to get to the airport and pay the fee. 

I tell A. I can’t wait any longer and that I’m leaving. She says “Okay, sure”, and offers me to go to Hong Kong where I can get the money she’s already transferred there from Singapore. She says she’ll settle everything over the phone, so I could go to the bank and withdraw $7000, for her and myself. I agree, of course, but ask her to get a ticket to Hong Kong for me. She says “No problem”, and sends a message to her friend Katrin who usually arranges all the tickets for her. 

According to what she’s said and her Facebook feed, in my 35 days in Malaysia, A. has traveled to three different countries: 

  1. Hong Kong where she starts a company and gets an account at Citibank. 
  2. Afghanistan to meet with the representatives of Ariana Airlines, and manages to do the round-trip in 24 hours. She posts awesome pictures on Facebook. 
  3. The Maldives, where she signs an agreement with local airlines. 

Three hours before the flight to Hong Kong 

I still don’t have a ticket. We’re in the hall of Birdnest guesthouse. I’m sitting at the table with Max, Nati, and A. She’s stressed out and trying to figure out the situation with the ticket. I can’t wait. I say that I’m leaving now because the road to the airport will take another hour and I hope that while I’ll be on my way, the problem will be solved. Max lends me 250 ringgits, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. 

I arrive at the airport. One and a half before the flight, there’s still no ticket. I have a plan B — my old credit card issued by a Ukrainian bank with a damaged magnetic stripe, which I can’t use to withdraw cash but still can purchase a ticket online. I decide to get the ticket online but it turns out they stop selling the tickets online 2 hours before the flight. My only option is to buy the ticket at the registry but I don’t have enough money on my primary credit card. I text Svitlana and ask to borrow $110, I have another $50 left, so that should be enough. I go to the cashier and they ask me to show the return ticket because if they sell me a ticket to Hong Kong without a return flight, they can get fired. Sh*t! 

I nervously text A. She makes a fake return flight reservation through Expedia and asks Max to send it to me. I show this ticker to the cashier. It worked. They sell me a ticket to Hong Kong. Half an hour before the flight.

I run to the customs  — a line. Time flies by and waiting seems to take forever. My turn, I go to the inspector. He looks at my passport, then at me and asks: “What are you doing here? You’ve been here for 35 days instead of 30”. 

I tell him I’ve been waiting for the money and couldn’t leave, and that’s how I got the overstay. I try to explain the situation, but he is not convinced. “Let’s go to the boss,” he says. 

We come to his boss’s office. He says to sit and wait while doing something on the computer. I say I can be late for the flight, and he responds that it’s my fault. In 5-10 minutes he tells me to write an explanation of why I’ve overstayed. Asks why my name is Anvar. I tell him my dad was from Uzbekistan. 

  • Muslim? – he asks. 
  • Yes. 
  • Sunit? 
  • Yes. 
  • Good. 

He puts a stamp on my passport, writes something there but doesn’t make me pay the fee. 

20 minutes before the flight. 

I run to the gate. I made it. 

A. made a reservation in a Hong Kong hotel for me in the morning and promised to pay for my stay. When I arrived, it turned out the payment didn’t go through, so I had to pay with what was left from my own money. 

I arrived Friday night and was supposed to get a call from A. in the morning and go to the bank to receive the money. After that, I had to meet her, Max and Nati at Dubai Airport and go to the Maldives to focus on the project since the deadlines were close. 

Saturday morning. I woke up at 7 a.m. so I wouldn’t miss the phone call. I spent the whole morning texting back and forth with A. She says the bank needs some additional papers from her, and after they get them, I can go and take the money. Everything’s postponed till Monday. I am shocked and need to scrape some money to get through until Monday. My tiny hotel room costs $34 per night, other $10-12 I’ll need to buy food and water. 

I message my friends Alex and Nastia, and borrow again. My debt by this time is around $1500. 

A. texts Svitlana behind my back and asks her to lend me $200. Says she’ll give them back tomorrow. I am so mad at her. I apologize to Svitlana and tell her not to worry. If anything happens, I’ll return the money myself. 

A. also asks some American friends to send me the money through Western Union. But the attempt is unfortunate. Her friend doesn’t send the money. On Monday everything delays till the next day again. This repeats until Friday. On Friday I realize I’ll have to wait till Monday again. 

This week, some friend of A’s from Italy sends me a Moneygram transfer from Italy, 210 euros. I send $70 to Max and Nati so they’d have what to eat. They still haven’t received the money. Not from the lawyer, nor from mom, nor from the doctor-cousin from London. 

In Hong Kong money disappears in the blink of an eye. Everything is expensive. It’s already the second week of my stay in Hong Kong. 

This day comes. I check out from the hotel and go to the bank with all my belongings. I wait for Megan, a bank employee. I will have to sign the papers, get the money and go to the airport to fly to Dubai where I’m supposed to meet the rest of the team. 

Beginning of the second week in Hong Kong

I come to the bank a little early and decide to grab lunch. In the meanwhile, I get a message from A. She asks me to come to the bank 30 minutes later. I go to the bank, wait for another 30 minutes and text her asking when will someone meet me. I go to the nearest park, play my guitar for another half an hour and go back to the entrance. Another half an hour later, I go to another park, come back, no one’s there. Four hours later no one showed up. I am furious. I go back to the hotel and check back in. 

My second week in Hong Kong is passing. Bank is delaying the meeting. I have no idea what’s going on and what to do next. I have to leave Hong Kong because the visa here is for 14 days only. I have just enough money for a ferry to Macau and back but I get the lifesaving $100 from Google Adsense. Now I have enough for the visa-run and to get through another couple days. I successfully cross the border and return. I don’t take anything with me, leaving everything in my hotel room. 

Beginning of the third week. 11 a.m. 

I am at McDonalds drinking coffee, scrolling through my Facebook feed. I see a post written by a girl who used to volunteer at the hostel with me, Lucy. She writes that there is a woman who’s been living at the hostel for a couple months now without paying. That she pretends to be a tough businesswoman, hired a few people (Max, Nati and me) to work for her but doesn’t pay them, so those people (us) are in limbo. Also, she writes, that woman makes fake posts about her travelling. Lucy’s friend has calculated that it was impossible to fly to Kabul and back as fast as that woman presents on her Facebook page. Also, he discovered, the photo of her wearing a bursa she posted, wasn’t real. And he had found the original. 

Lucy mentions A.’s friend — Katrin, and says she’s nothing but a fake account that has been liking and commenting on all of the posts A.’s made. 

After I see Lucy’s post, I check some of the latest posts on A.’s Facebook page, and see for myself: she took all of her pictures from the internet. Lucy was right. Everything was fake. 

I realize now, that there is almost zero chance I’m getting paid in the end. At that point, A. owes me $4350, and my debt is about to cross a $2000 line. 

I also think that, most likely, I’ll have to return to Ukraine now, and find a 9-to-5 job to work to pay out all the debts. What else I realize is that now when I know what’s been happening, I’m curious about what happens next. So I come up with another plan: to buy music equipment and try making money off music. In Hong Kong it may be a profitable idea. And, in case it doesn’t work out, I could always sell the equipment in Ukraine for the same money I spent here, and pay the debt off. 

I text A. and tell her that I’m sorry but I have to go back home to handle my debts, and I can’t wait any longer. She calls me back (which was weird), says I’ll get the money on Friday, and I agree. But, in the meanwhile, I decide to check out my new plan in action. 

March 24th 2017

I message my friend Sasha from Kyiv and ask him to lend me $700 to buy music equipment. I also borrow $500 from my aunt to purchase a ticket home if nothing works out. 

I receive the money and go to a music store where I purchase a guitar amp, a microphone, a mic stand and all the cords I needed, and the very same night I go to play in an underpass in Tsim Sha Tsui district. I make around $20 in the first hour. Not enough to live off that, but still something, so I feel a little more motivated.

Next day I made $45, and got the hope that under these conditions I could manage to make a living and even pay off the debts. Although, I’ve calculated that I need to make at least $100 a day to do that. 

It’s Friday. Traditionally, A. asks me to wait until Monday. SHe says she’s coming to Hong Kong to solve the issues with the bank herself. I agree but tell her I’m not doing any more work on the project until I get the money. I still play guitar on the streets. I’ve been playing for 5 days now. In total, I’ve made $120. 

March 28th 2017 

Monday. A. messages me and says she’s arrived and is heading from the airport right to the bank. As soon as she’s done there, we’ll meet and head to the airport. From there, we’ll go back to Kuala Lumpur to meet Max and Nati and, finally, go to the Maldives together. 

That day, except for playing on the streets, I dedicate all my time to a detailed analysis of everything connected to A. I feel like in a cyberpunk movie. 

I’m in a 7-million people Asian megapolis, the district I’m in looks a Babylon inhibited by Chinese, Indian, Arab, African, Philippine and European people. I’m in a tiny cold room on the 10th floor. I’ve got no money, but the internet connection is superfast and I’m on my laptop, collecting all the data I can get on someone who appears to be not what they’ve pretended. I analyze the Facebook feed, personal messages, photos, flights, and accounts that have liked and commented on her posts the most. 

After 2 hours of research, here’s what I’ve found: 

  • Almost every photo from A.’s Facebook page related to travelling was stolen from somewhere online and cropped a little so it wouldn’t show up in automated Google image search. But if you scroll down the page and look through the results manually, it can still be found. 
  • When she was supposedly travelling from Kabul, she posted on her Facebook page she was departing, and 3 hours later texted me she’d already arrived in Kuala Lumpur. A direct flight takes 6 hours. She said she had a joint flight through Pakistan which would have taken her 9-11 hours. Meaning, she didn’t go to Afghanistan.
  • I make an assumption she didn’t go to Maldives and Hong Kong either but I can’t find proof. Maybe only some fake pictures from those trips. 
  • Three of her besties on Facebook are fakes. Two of them have joined Facebook on the same date. None of them have any posts other than those in which they’re with A. They all have the same writing style. They all like and comment every A.’s post and sing praises to her, mostly they sound like this: “you’re the best boss”, “way to go”, “show them what you’ve got”.
  • One of these fake accounts is her lawyer who’s been trying to deliver me money from Singapore for three weeks and never got to me. I find the real person from his profile photo on LinkedIn, he’s an underground Japanese director. The fake has the director’s last name, and his first name is a woman’s name. 
  • Another fake person is Katrin, A’s friend who’s been getting her the flight tickets but couldn’t get me a ticket to Hong Kong. Now I get why. 
  • The third fake is ripped off some Japanese actor. 

Now I doubt A’s mother ever sent money through Western Union, and cousin tried to transfer anything through Moneygram. Most likely, if A. didn’t really go to Hong Kong, she doesn’t have a bank account here, and my illegal overstay in Malaysia was all for nothing. And my 3-week stay in Hong Kong and my debt that grows each day don’t make any sense either. 

I can’t express how angry I was when the reality of this whole story hit me. The thing I couldn’t understand the most: why was she doing this and what was she trying to achieve? My work was only 50% finished, she can’t make money off me, why bother? 

I read about pathological liars, and that this might be a sign of schizophrenia. My brain at this point is finding more and more clues: how aggressive and sometimes even hysteric she was, how mean she was to people, and especially the staff, and all her rants about how she had a mission to change the world. I also remember she said her arm was numb, which can also be one of the symptoms. I also add up all her fake accounts to the equaision and imagine how she talks to herself using all four of her profiles. It gets scary. 

I decide to share all of my discoveries with Max and Nati. They are still at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur. They add up some facts to the picture and confess they’ve been having similar thoughts but didn’t want to look suspicious and were afraid to say something to me. Now, the three of us are convinced A. isn’t really in Hong Kong. We are trying to guess where she really is. Max is convinced A. will pay us because the day before she asked him to make a website for her business partner Mo. Also Max things she went to Mo to get the money for that website. 

I still don’t believe I’ll receive the money, so I go to play on the streets again. 

That night A. says that she’s solved the problem with money but she still needs to sign some papers, so tomorrow, on Tuesday, she’ll go to the bank again, first thing in the morning, and will be done with all the remaining issues. She’s lying. We’re 99% sure at this point, she wasn’t in Hong Kong. But we don’t have proof yet. 

March 29th 2017 

Tuesday morning. I wake up angry and annoyed at myself for not solving the situation when I should have, and getting into such trouble with (possibly) unstable person. I take a shower and I get an idea: to use her IP-address to figure out her physical location. I have access to all of her websites, so I code a script and place it on one of her websites. 

On Friday I told her I wouldn’t be working on her projects until I get the money but now I need her to go to the website so I could catch her visit. I need to somehow lead her to that. So I make a minor change to the project and make sure it causes an error to grab her attention. I text her I’ve fixed something on the website and ask her to take a look. She notices the error and texts me back. Oh, yes, I’ll fix it. She swallowed the bait. I’ve got her IP, OS version and all of her browser parameters. 

According to her IP-address, she’s on Penang island. Max was right. 

Tuesday afternoon. A. messages me she’s dealt with the problem and sends me a ticket to Kuala Lumpur. She tells me to take a flight, and she’ll come a little later. Okay, I don’t care which city I’ll be flying from back home. So I pack my bags real fast, check out from the hotel, and spend my last $30 to get a cab to the airport. 

March 30th 2017 

Early Wednesday morning.

I arrive in Kuala Lumpur and get stuck at customs. The inspector takes me to his boss because I have a mark about overstay 3 weeks ago in my passport. Before that A. told me once she’s talked to her friend from the migration office and he told her I wouldn’t have any issues if I come to Malaysia again. Here it is. 

The boss asks me what I’m doing in Malaysia again, and I tell him I’ll be flying to Kyiv from here. Where’s my ticket? I don’t have one yet. He says to go buy the ticket and show it to him, so I go online and buy the ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Kyiv in 5 days. I show him the ticket and they let me in. 

I arrive at the hostel around 2 a.m. A. ‘s already there. I ask her how she managed to get here so fast. 

  • You were still at the bank when I was getting on the plane. – I say. 
  • Oh, that’s one hell of a story, I had to take a joint flight from Bangkok. I’ll tell you everything tomorrow. 
  • Ok, – I say. I don’t show her I know she was on Penang island. 

Next morning she gathers everyone on the rooftop and pays me and Max. I’m shocked because I get everything she owes me including the $200 she borrowed from Svitlana for me. Now I had completely no idea what was going on. The only things I understand that everything around her was built on lies, and that she probably got the money from Mo and promised him to make a website in return. 

In a few days I find out that British girl Lucy wrote her Facebook post for me to see it. But I wonder why she didn’t just write me a personal message. 

Another girl says A. has also been offering her a job. But it turned out they had a mutual acquaintance who used to work with A. on TV back in Romania. She said that even then A. had some mental issues. This girl also says she’d met a local journalist in India who used to write articles for A’s travel website and didn’t get the money and tickets to Bali she was promised. 

In a few days A. flies to Pakistan. But her IP-address shows she is in the nearby district of Kuala Lumpur. 

April 4th 2017

I’m back in Ukraine. 

Since then, A. goes to Seychelles, Dubai, and Qatar. Again, her IP-address shows she’s in that same district, or even in Chinatown which is very close to the hostel and where she can be noticed by someone from the hostel. 

She owes me money for Hong Kong. I tell her since she doesn’t transfer them, I won’t be doing any work. She calls me, cries on the phone and asks me how much I need to finish the project (one of the most important projects for Mo). I remind about the money she owes me for Hong Kong and $1000 on top of that. She agrees and tells me she’s gonna send a wire transfer. 

It’s been 2 years. The transfer’s still pending.