So, you’re looking for clients to establish your freelancing career. You build a website, answer ads from online job boards, and create a professional social media presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. You start taking on small projects for relatively low fees, but hope your growing portfolio will generate interest from higher paying clients.
Then one day, you receive a message from a potential employer offering to pay you a very high rate for a project that falls right in your area of specialization. Great, right?
Well… maybe. A lot of freelancers have gotten legitimate job offers this way that showed them how in-demand their skills are in their industry.
Unfortunately, a lot of freelancers have also become victims of scams that not only roped them into bogus projects but also caused them to lose time, money, and even personal information. And sadly, with the growing interest in freelancing, the odds of you being targeted for some of these scams are pretty high.
Fortunately, there are ways you can spot some of these scams early on — and even steps you can take to protect yourself from scams when a con artist reaches out to you. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common scams aimed at freelancers and learn how to avoid becoming a victim of them.
Months ago, I was contacted by someone through LinkedIn who offered to pay over a thousand dollars for me to ghostwrite an article for an upcoming symposium. That sounded good to me, so I sent over my usual freelance contract that requested a small down payment before I started work. When the payment never arrived and the client stopped emailing me, I shelved the project.
Later, I received a check for almost four times the promised amount — but when the name on the check didn’t match up with the client, I called the business and learned some scammers had gotten their hands on their banking information and were forging checks in their name. Freelancers who contacted the client were being told the checks included money from another worker’s pay or were the result of company error.
To correct this “error,” freelancers were being asked to cash out the check and then deposit it into a given account — only to discover all the money came out of their account. Fortunately, this didn’t happen to me, but I could have been out several thousand dollars if I’d followed through.
One of the best ways you can protect yourself from a phony check scheme — or any scheme — is to require that your client sign a contract that maps out a payment plan. Request a down payment to start the project like I did, and don’t invest any time in a job until you receive your money within the agreed-upon time frame.
If you get a suspicious check like I did, investigate it. Contact the business on the check to see if it’s legitimate. If there’s a scheme going on, you should report it to the police and also whatever social media channel or website you received the job from in the first place.
Sometimes, a job board like Write Jobs or a paying site like Upwork will give you the option of paying a fee to receive more high-end job offers or charge a service fee that you should take into account when setting your rate. This is a legitimate practice, and I’ve actually gotten some good job leads by investing in these types of services.
However, if a client requires you to pay a deposit or buy some product to work for them, keep your guard up. Companies should never force you to buy anything just for the “privilege” of working for them. Legitimate companies that do need you to have access to specific resources often provide them to you or detail all of this in the job description.
Clients are supposed to pay their freelancers, not the other way around. Do not send any deposits or buy products from your clients if they require this to work for them.
This particular con is sometimes hard to spot since asking freelancers to perform a few tasks before hiring them can be a legitimate business practice. It makes sense for a company to test out a freelancer’s skills by getting them to write a short article or proofread some work just to see if they’re a good fit for their business. This is particularly true if you’re just starting out and need to prove yourself.
However, some scammers exploit this practice by requiring freelancers to complete extensive projects for free. The company can then say the freelancer wasn’t the “right fit” for them and go on to profit off of your hard work.
If a company requires you to produce some free sample work, be sure the guidelines for it are spelled out in your agreement. If the task isn’t particularly difficult or time-consuming for you, it might be worth completing it. On the other hand, if there’s a lot of research and legwork involved — or if they want you to complete multiple assignments — you have the right to refuse and walk away from the potential job.
By the way, a lot of my clients provided me with paid trial assignments when I first tested out with them. This is something that should be covered early on in your correspondence and is a great way to separate legitimate companies from scammers looking for free services.
I encountered a lot of these potential scams when I was just starting out with freelancing. In general, they show up as online ads that guarantee high pay for people with non-specialized skill sets. People who call the numbers or email the companies on these ads can fall victim to any number of scams once the con artists start communicating with you and have your information.
One of the biggest red flags associated with this scheme is when the ad doesn’t specify what kind of freelance work you’ll be doing, or offers a vague job description like “assembly” or “office work.” While this might sound good, it’s often a lure to get hopeful freelancers to invest in a scam.
Odds are, you want to get into freelancing to use a special skill like copywriting, graphic design, or editing. If that’s the case, look for work through legitimate freelancing job platforms like Write Jobs, not a random online ad. While it’s still possible you might run across some scams, it’s much less likely.
Online classes like those offered by freelance writer Elna Cain provide lists of legitimate job boards for freelancers. You’ll also gain access to an online community of other freelancers who can help vet legitimate job offers from scams.
Scams that con you out of your money are a big problem, but scams that steal your personal information can be even more damaging. Identity thieves can ruin your credit, sell your social security number, and hack into your online accounts.
This can happen in many different ways. Some fake job ads may claim they need to “vet” their workers and require you to provide your social security number, credit card information, home address, and other personal information. Other times, they may send you tax forms and state they need your personal information to conduct business.
In general, you should avoid giving out sensitive information to new clients until you’re sure they’re legitimate. Working through an established freelancing platform that deals with clients for you can protect you from giving your information out to multiple clients (although the freelancing platform itself may send you tax documents depending on how much you earn through them).
You can also request that all your payments from new clients go through a payment service provider like PayPal or Stripe if you don’t want to give up your social security number or other personal information.
Freelancing is an exciting field with plenty of growth opportunities and the chance to make money on your own terms. Unfortunately, being your own boss also means you have to look out for yourself when scammers begin targeting you.
Be on the alert for any job offers or requests that seem too good to be true. Build a freelance contract designed to protect you from unscrupulous businesses. And find work opportunities for legitimate freelance job sites that offer work opportunities that can build your career. Remember: there are plenty of great freelancer-client relationships out there, so don’t be afraid to walk away from one if it doesn’t seem right.