9 Clues That Your New Freelancing Gig May Actually Be a Scam

When I began freelancing, one of the things I was most afraid of was failing victim to a work-from-home scam. As a result, I was super cautious. I checked and double-checked every potential client carefully. If something didn’t seem right, I didn’t pursue it.

I don’t think that was a mistake.

Even though freelancing is much more commonplace that it was ten years ago, the scammers are still out there. Freelancers still need to be careful.

In this post, I’ll share some clues that what seems to be a legitimate freelancing gig may actually be a scam. I’ll also share some tips and resources to help you avoid scams in the future.

How a Scam Differs from a Bad Client

In order to avoid scammers, your first need to know what a freelancing scam is.

While there’s some overlap, in most cases a scammer is different from your garden-variety bad client. One difference is that a scammer never intends to hire you, but pretends that they do. A scam may, or may not, involve fraud.

On the other hand, in most cases a bad client does actually intends to pay, but for whatever reason they become extremely difficult to work with.

It’s important to make a distinction. Just because you didn’t work well with a difficult client doesn’t mean that someone else won’t be able to in the future.

9 Warning Signs of a Scam

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell a scam from the real thing. That’s why scammers are so successful.

While these signs aren’t foolproof, here are some clues that a freelancing gig might not be legitimate:

  1. Fake Contests. While there are many legitimate contests, some contests are not on the up and up. Be careful of contests that require you to sign over your intellectual property rights when you enter. If you are considering entering a contest, consider the source. Is it a well-known organization? Also, remember that a legitimate contest will have winners.
  2. Phishing for Personal Information. Some freelance “clients” may actually be phishing for your personal information. Think twice about giving out sensitive information too early in the freelance job application process. And there’s some personal information that no freelance client ever needs to know.
  3. Spec Work. Many freelancers consider spec work to be a scam. Spec work means that a client requires you to do all or some of the project before the client agrees to pay you. Whether you believe it is a scam or not, spec work puts a freelancer at a distinct disadvantage and should be avoided when possible.
  4. Required Free Samples. The Internet is full of tales of freelance writers who were required to submit an original “sample” as part of the application process. Often the freelancer never hears from the client again, but the “sample” pops up all over the Internet. If you have a strong portfolio, free samples shouldn’t be needed.
  5. Pay for Work. There are legitimate services, such as LinkedIn premium and some job boards, that offer freelancers and other job hunters tools for finding work. But other than those tools, you shouldn’t have to pay someone to work on a freelance project. If someone tells you that you must pay them before you can start on their project, odds are it’s a scam.
  6. Never Satisfied. This is a tricky one, because you really don’t know what’s going on in the client’s head. If a client is never satisfied, it’s possible that they just have very high standards. Or, it’s possible that their rework requests are their method of getting free work from the freelancer.
  7. Phony project descriptions. This is another borderline scam. Often a dishonest “client” will grossly misrepresent and understate the work they need to have done. Once the freelancer accepts the project, the scope of the project suddenly balloons. Avoid getting trapped by insisting that the client sign a contract with a clearly defined scope of work.
  8. Percentage of profits. I used to get these offers all the time. A start-up company approaches you and asks you to do some work. They can’t afford to pay you now, but promise you will be richly rewarded once the start-up takes off. Again, there are a lot of problems with this, the least of which is how will you determine when the start-up has become successful?
  9. Fake franchises. I recently read about this scam that targets people who want to work from home. Apparently, some unscrupulous individuals try to sell would-be entrepreneurs fake franchise licenses. If you are considering purchasing a franchise, do careful research and it may be wise to get legal help.

Of course, these signs don’t always mean that an opportunity is a scam. But they can be a sign that you need to dig deeper.

How to Avoid Scammers

Here are some tips to help you avoid getting caught in a scam:

  • Do your homework. Research any company that you plan to do work for. Look them up on the Ripoff Report, Better Business Bureau, and your local Chamber of Commerce. Type their name into the search engine. If they’ve cheated other freelancers, chances are that someone has complained.
  • Use common sense. If an offer sounds too fantastic to be true, it probably is. Freelancing is hard work, and anything that promises that you’ll get rich quick with very little effort on your part seems pretty suspicious to me.
  • Demand a contract. A contract won’t guarantee that you’ll never cheated, but it can give you a legal leg to stand on if something does go wrong. Also, be suspicious of clients who refuse to sign contracts. They may have something to hide.
  • More resources. Are you ready to learn more about scams that target freelancers? Here are three helpful articles:
  1. Spotting Work-At-Home Scams by Nicole D at the SBA.Gov community. Nicole shares additional guidelines for avoiding and reporting scams.
  2. Avoiding Job and Work at Home Scams by Alison Doyle at About.com’s Job Searching site. The article lists some common work-at-home scams.
  3. 16 Work-At-Home Scams To Avoid by Max Mallet and Terra Stanley at Forbes. The authors have compiled a large list of scams along with a cautionary tale.

Your Turn

What advice did I miss? How do you avoid freelancing scams?