Warning Signs of a Potential Deadbeat

Karen S. wrote in last week, asking:

Thank you every week for an always informative newsletter! I have a question that I suspect concerns many writers and that I hope you’ll answer in an upcoming e-issue. How can we find out whether businesses and groups that solicit writing via the Web are legit and really do pay?

One way to avoid getting scammed by a potential client (who may be a deadbeat) is to Google their name with terms like “owes me” and “scam”. However, every deadbeat has a first victim and there are signs to look for before and while you’re working for them.


The publisher/editor is hedgy about providing a firm payment amount and/or date, or refuses to do so outright.

Refuses to offer a “no later than” payment date in their contract (i.e. “Pays on publication or by MM-DD-YY, whichever comes first”.)

Claims they pay on publication, but refuses to “guarantee” a publication and/or payment date.

Has a ridiculous “gag order” clause in their contract, saying they can sue you if you ever write / say anything negative about them, even if it’s true (yes, one serial deadbeat actually had this clause in his contract – and gullible writers signed it!).

Promises to pay “up to” a certain amount of money (“up to” could also mean zero!).

Offers to pay you in stock options, or give you “equity” in their company. (This one always makes us laugh. If they don’t even have money to pay for content, how can their stock options / equity possibly be worth anything at all?)

Urges you to “hurry up” and write a new article that is “extremely urgent” when they already owe you money for a previous one.

Orders several articles at once with immediate due dates, with payment due only after most or all the work is completed.

Orders several articles at once with immediate due dates, yet refuses to pay you a deposit on the massive amount of work they’re contracting you for.

Has a bad score on the Better Business Bureau website, along with legitimate complaints from subscribers, advertisers, and/or contractors themselves.

Has complaints posted by other writers on writing websites like WritersWeekly.com. (Remember, some competitors post anonymous, false complaints online in an attempt to harm the competition. You can usually recognize a legitimate complaint by the professionalism of the post, along with the details provided. WritersWeekly does not investigate anonymous complaints, nor ones we suspect are false. It’s pretty easy to spot the difference.)

Is located overseas. (Sad, but true – it’s much more difficult to obtain payment if a deadbeat is located in another country.)

Refuses to put any terms in writing; insists on phone correspondence only. (ALWAYS get it in writing! Yes, email is legitimate proof of an assignment and payment terms.)

Does not state their mailing address on their website.

Does not list an email address anywhere; only provides an online form to contact them.

Refuses to provide you with their full name (i.e. only signs their emails with a title like “Editor” or “Mr. Smith”).

Uses a free website host or a free email service. (Sure, lots of legitimate firms use these but professional, stable publications usually have their own domain, and use it for email as well.)

Gets defensive when you ask about payment terms.

Gets defensive when you ask about a late payment. (Whatever you do, do NOT continue to write for someone who owes you money! Many victims have admitted to me over the years that they continued to write for a deadbeat while hoping and praying they would eventually get paid for everything. A common ploy among deadbeats is to suck as much labor as possible out of each victim before they move on to the next.)

Blames your writing quality on the late payment, or tries to “turn the tables” on you when THEY haven’t paid YOUR invoice.

Is narcissistic and snotty when corresponding with you in an attempt to make you feel inferior.

Starts spewing profanity.

Tells you the “check is in the mail” more than once, or states/writes obvious lies about payment being made.

Tries to claim you deposited the check and they “can prove it”…but refuses to provide proof.

Misses a payment date by more than ten business days.

Is late on more than one payment.

Threatens to sue you for exposing their late- or no-payment practices.

Threatens to destroy your reputation online.

Makes any threat at all in an attempt to silence you.

Closes one website and immediately opens another. (This is common among scammers and, unfortunately, some writers agree to write for them despite knowing this, hoping the deadbeat has changed their ways.)

Remember, if your creep meter starts to spike, you need to become ultra cautious. Most victims of deadbeats tell me they recognized something was wrong early on but they were too excited about getting an assignment to focus on the growing negatives and warning signs in the relationship.

Angela Hoy is the co-owner of BookLocker. WritersWeekly.com is the free marketing emag for writers that features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday. According to attorney Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print, BookLocker is one of the top-rated POD publishers in the industry.