How to Spot a Risky Freelance Job By David H. Levin and Angela Hoy

Any business might occasionally take on contracts that it later regrets having accepted. Other companies may offer too-good-to-be-true terms in the hopes of obtaining free labor. Avoiding these risky “opportunities” is a challenge, especially for the freelancer. The following warning signs should make you think twice about pursuing a particular freelance assignment.


Withholds Contact Information
A client’s reluctance to provide an address and phone number tends to frustrate an effective working relationship. It may also cast a shadow on a client’s motives and make it impossible to find the client who hasn’t paid their bill.

Requires an “Audition”
When a client requires a professional to “audition” for a project, this suggests lack of regard for your professionalism, and might be a pretense for obtaining your work for free. Some firms have required editors to “audition” by editing different chapters of a book (or pages of a website). Each editor was assigned a different chapter or page. Once the firm had enough editor auditions, the entire book was already edited – at no cost to the firm. And, of course, nobody was ever hired as a result of the “auditions.”

Ignoring Your Qualifications
If the client seems indifferent to your qualifications, this is another indicator of lack of respect, or that the client may plan to use your work in some sinister way.

Business Doesn’t Have Obvious Profit Potential
Does the client have a dubious profit-making enterprise? Often, the work a client is requesting may be for business purposes. But if it’s a type of business you can’t conceive as being profitable, you might justifiably wonder whether the client will have trouble paying you.

No Contract
Any firm that agrees to hire someone but refuses to provide a contract should be avoided.


Sketchy Project
Clients who have limited experience working with freelancers might be unaccustomed to carefully defining what they want, or they may only provide part of the project’s information when obtaining a quote, hoping to get more work out of you later for no extra money. You may then be expected to realign your work with a moving target, without raising your fee to compensate for the churn. Get everything in writing. Any deviation from the project should require an immediate increase in your fees.

Unrealistic Deadline
Whenever a client requests you drop everything else to work on his project, or when he provides an unrealistic deadline, you should proceed with caution. Some unsavory characters demand the work almost immediately, hoping to get the finished product before you realize you’re being scammed.

“It’s a really easy job!”
Such a remark may be a ploy to get you to accept a paltry rate. Even if the comment was made in earnest, you’ll need to set it aside in forming your own assessment.

Work to Be Submitted to a Third Party / Intermediary
Some clients may want your output to be “refined” by a third party. This could work in principle, provided the client ensures that everyone shares a common vision for the work. However, a client who lacks such a vision may be trying to compensate by hiring two brains instead of one. This undermines your control over the quality of the final product, while still leaving you accountable to the client.


Payment Amount Ridiculously Low
The client’s financial constraints don’t make your work any less valuable. You are a professional, a fact sadly underappreciated by many who would seek your services. Don’t work for less than your desired hourly rate.

Payment Amount Unreasonable High
If the offered pay seems unreasonably generous, the client may be ostensibly offering a high figure just to lure you in. Once you’ve bitten, you may be hit with a flurry of conditions and, again, you may never get paid.

Unreasonable Hourly Rate
If the offered hourly rate implies a larger total fee than the client might expect, it may indicate that he doesn’t understand the entire project (or, again, that he’s trying to lure you in with the promise of a large paycheck that may never materialize). The client may later balk at the final cost. To avoid any misunderstanding, ascertain the client’s expectations regarding your fee, and get it in writing.

Payment Only “After Delivery” of Final Product
You should withhold delivery of the final product until the final installment of your fee is received (and the check clears the bank).

Pay Contingent on Future Sale or Publication
Never let your future paycheck depend on someone else’s ability to sell/publish the work. The prospects for such a sale are more remote than many people realize. If you accept such a job, you’re not likely to ever be paid.

David H. Levin does freelance editing, proofreading and software development. He has also written and published two books on chess and one on bridge, and is a frequent contributor to’s Freelance Forum. To learn more, visit his website at, or contact him by email: spress (at)

Angela Hoy is the publisher of