One of the most challenging tasks for any freelance writer is finding gigs…and it’s even harder when you realize there are scams out there just waiting for you to fall for them. Some freelance writing scams are simply clueless people who have no idea how the process is supposed to work (but are still bad gigs to take), or business people who are overly eager to cut costs. But, others are intentionally designed to steal your work, or even your money.
Here’s how to spot 10 of the most common red flags telling you that great gig you’re thinking about is really a scam.
1. Refusing to discuss payment methods
How the job pays, whether it’s through PayPal or another online service, credit card, or bank transfer, is a fact you should know up front…before you start working. You should also know how much you’re getting paid, and when. Most legitimate freelance job offers will state this information right in the listing, or during initial contact. Steer clear of any gig where you’re told something like, “We’ll discuss payment arrangement later, we just need you to get started now.”
2. Unprofessional communication
Not all authentic gig listings are going to be letter- and grammar-perfect. If the client was great at writing, they probably wouldn’t need to hire a freelance writer. But be wary of gig descriptions that read like text-speak, or that lean heavily on gimmicks in an attempt to “sell” the job.
3. Amazing offers out of nowhere
As a freelance writer, chances are you have a dedicated website for your services. You may also have profiles on popular freelance boards like Odesk and eLance. But, if you’re emailed directly with a job offer from someone you don’t know, haven’t interacted with, and don’t have any mutual acquaintances, be suspicious. Legitimate clients on job boards will contact you through your profile…and you should have a contact form on your website, rather than listing your email address outright, to help avoid spam job offers.
If an unsolicited offer seems legitimate, don’t click on any links in the email. Instead, research the sender and contact them separately to ask if they’ve sent the offer.
4. Expensive job listings
If you’ve looked around at freelance job sites, you’ll probably notice that some of them will give you access to their “verified” or “premium” job listings…for a fee. This is usually a monthly charge, and you’re unable to even look at the listings unless you open a paid account. But, typically, those “premium” listings are simply reposted entries from free job sites.
Good freelance job boards may charge a fee for premium memberships with additional resources, such as extra bids…but they won’t charge to view the jobs themselves.
5. Overpayment by check
The overpayment scheme is not exclusive to writers but writers do get targeted. Here’s how it works: The client sends you a check that “overpays” by thousands of dollars, and asks you to cash the check and wire the money back to them, minus the agreed-upon project payment. Then the check bounces, and the writer has lost the entire amount.
If you receive a check and the client claims there’s been a mistake, don’t cash it. Ask them to cancel and resend the check.
6. Free custom samples
There are quite a few of these scams around. The job listing promises lots of paying work, and all you have to do is write one custom sample article for free so they can “review your style” and make sure it’s what they’re looking for. The problem is that, once you write this free sample, you’ll never be assigned the rest of the job.
And the reason is that the client isn’t actually hiring any writers. They’re collecting “free samples” from a bunch of writers, and using them as free content. As a rule, never work for free…not even to write a custom sample piece. You should have your own work samples to share with clients. If they want something unique, insist on being paid for the sample work.
7. The fine print
Be wary of clients who ask you to sign their own contracts. Many freelance writers have gone ahead and signed, with an agreed payment they’ve discussed with the client beforehand…only to receive a much lower payment once the project was completed. What happened? They failed to actually read the contract before signing, and the client wrote the lower amount in.
Ideally, you should have your own contract for freelance work. But,if a client insists on you signing their contract, make sure to read it carefully and thoroughly first. No matter which party ends up providing it, you should always have a contract in place for any freelance writing job.
8. Better rates next time
Another common scam that clients use to save money is to offer freelance writers laughably low rates for the first project, or “compensation” instead of actual payment (like a percentage of royalties on a ghostwritten project), with the promise that the rates will go up for the next gig. Only the next gig never materializes…because the client simply looks for another writer who will accept initially miniscule rates.
Make sure you have set rates as a freelance writer, and stick to them unless you’re offering a reasonable discount for first-time or high-volume clients in order to generate repeat business.
9. The editing that doesn’t end
There are picky clients…and then there are those who request revision after revision after revision, no matter what you turn in. These extreme editors will take their time reviewing your work, and they’ll always find something wrong. Ultimately, they want you to become frustrated enough to offer a big discount just to close the project…or simply walk away, leaving them with perfectly acceptable content for free.
To avoid this, set limits on rounds of revisions in your contract and charge extra for additional editing beyond those rounds.
10. Flat-out not paying you
Finally, some clients will avoid the cost of quality freelance writing by doing a virtual runner. Once the project is complete and it’s time to pay up, they’ll delay payment, make excuses, hedge, or simply ignore your messages, hoping you’ll give up and go away, writing the project off and leaving them alone.
While there aren’t many options with these clients, the best practice is to always require half of the agreed project payment upfront. This way, no project will be a total loss. Small claims courts typically have mixed results with these situations, but you can continue to contact the client and hope they’ll decide to pay up…eventually.
Melissa Rudy runs a freelance writing business, Words by Melissa, from her home office in Cincinnati, Ohio. She primarily serves up web content and blog posts, but is also comfortable tackling press releases, emails, social media posts, and other marketing text. Before starting her freelance business in ’07, Melissa worked in e-commerce and technical writing for several years. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a bachelor’s in English Literature & Journalism.