How to Identify Freelance Scams
As with anywhere money is involved, the world of freelancing is full of freelance scams. Whether you are a freelancer or work with them, it’s important to know what scams to watch out for and how to protect yourself.
See Freelance Scams: Red Flags and Warning Signs with Ricardo Fayet for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Ricardo Fayet is a co-founder of Reedsy, a network connecting authors and publishers with freelance publishing professionals, including editors, proofreaders, cover designers, ghostwriters, and more. He describes it as “Upwork but for the publishing industry and very, very high-end.” They only accept 3% of the freelancers who want to be listed. He also provides education for authors. Not only does he teach them how Reedsy works, he’s written several free courses for authors about book marketing and has published a book, How to Market a Book.
Being co-founder of a freelance marketplace, Ricardo has had plenty of opportunities to see what kind of freelance scams are out there. Being able to spot one of these scams is your best defense against falling for one.
Understanding Freelance Marketplaces
There are two kinds of freelance marketplaces. The first is what Ricardo calls “generalist platforms.” These platforms are Upwork, Fiverr, PeoplePerHour, and similar – platforms where you can find a marketplace of people doing anything you can imagine. If you get on Upwork, you can find web developers, artists, people doing data entry, and more.
The other kind of freelance marketplace is specialty platforms. These are ones that limit themselves to professionals in particular industries. Reedsy, for example, is specifically for publishing. For almost every industry, there is a marketplace with freelancers who work specifically in that area.
The problem with either kind of platform is that it’s impossible to vet everyone. There are often vetting mechanisms up to a certain point – verified emails, payment methods added to account – but by the time a scammer gets reported, investigated, and shut down, they’ve probably scammed a lot of people already. And most marketplaces don’t vet the clients at all.
It becomes “buyer beware” on both sides. If you’re a freelancer, you have to be careful and make sure you’re going to get paid. If you’re a client, you have to make sure you’re choosing people who will deliver the work and do it well.
Freelance Scams Targeting Clients
If you are the one hiring a freelancer, there are plenty of risks. If you choose an untrustworthy freelancer, they could run off with your money and never deliver anything, or deliver poor-quality work that leaves you no better off for the money you spent. These are the most common freelance scams you may encounter – but this list is by no means comprehensive.
The Inexperienced Freelancer
This freelance scam isn’t an intentional scam at all. It’s the inexperienced freelancer. Anyone can put a listing on most freelance sites presenting themselves as a professional. But if they’re advertising “professional editing services,” you can’t always tell from the listing if they’ve worked at a publishing house or they’ve only ever given feedback on their friend’s novel. An inexperienced freelancer may do their very best, but their quality of work is probably going to be less than you expected for what you paid.
The easiest way to avoid this is to ask about their work experience. If your potential freelance editor put in a decade at a big publishing house, you know they’re a pro. If they’ve just been helping a few friends, they’re a hobbyist. A hobbyist might become a professional in the future, but they aren’t right now.
A second kind of freelance scam uses fake reviews to convince you to work with the freelancer. They may be an out-and-out scammer, or they may just do poor-quality work, but either way, you’ll lose money.
In order to avoid being taken in by untrustworthy reviews, you need to trust the platform where you sign them. Upwork and Fiverr, for example, only allow reviews by people who have hired the freelancer. Upwork even mentions the amount of hours or dollars spent on a project – so if you find a freelance web developer with a hundred positive reviews but they’re all for $1 or $5 jobs, you know immediately that’s suspicious. Even if the reviewer isn’t trying to deceive, the review may not be objective. Some people may have a bad experience, but they don’t want to hurt a freelancer’s career with a negative review.
When you need to leave a review on a public forum, a lot of people are good people and they don’t want to mess up the credibility of the freelancer.Ricardo Fayet
Beyond reviews, treat hiring a freelancer like recruiting an employee. Ask for references and contact those references. Check out examples of their past work. If you need to hire a web developer, for example, look at sites they’ve previously created. Do they work well, look good, and resemble what you want? For artists, you can ask to see a portfolio to make sure their style matches your vision. If anything looks suspicious or dodgy, trust your suspicions.
This scam is best illustrated with a story. On Reedsy, the vetted publishing professionals get verified checkmarks on their profiles, but unverified freelancers can still have a profile, just without the checkmark. About a year ago, Reedsy got subpoenaed for all the info they had related to one particular person. This person was running a scam passing themselves off as a psychiatrist. Reedsy is not at all related to psychiatry, but the site looks professional. This scammer had no psychiatry license or experience, but they created a Reedsy profile, named themselves “Psychiatrist,” and used the professional-looking profile on a trustworthy-looking site to trick people into booking an appointment with them.
Not every person listing their services on a freelancing site is what – or who – they are pretending to be. It’s essential to check references, ask for a work history, and do your due diligence to make sure the person you’re thinking about hiring is genuine and qualified to do what you need.
Freelance Scams Targeting Freelancers
On the other side of the board, not everyone contacting you about a job is an honest client willing to pay for your expertise. If you are a freelancer, you need to be on the lookout for freelance scams coming from clients to target you.
The Free Work Scam
The most common freelance scam targeting freelancers is trying to get free work out of you. This could be asking for you to do something for free as a “test” to see if they want to work with you for a bigger project. Or it could be taking the delivered work and refusing to pay.
One example Ricardo saw was on Reedsy. A freelance editor did a big editing job for an author and charged for the full project after delivery. Reedsy had the author’s payment details, but the author didn’t have enough money in that account to pay for the job. The author stopped responding, and the editor ended up doing all that work and never getting paid for it. It was a tough lesson, but an important lesson for all freelancers: Never deliver the work until you get paid.
Never deliver your work before payment has gone through and has been verified to have gone through.Ricardo Fayet
The Subcontractor Scam
With this kind of freelance scam, a client will hire you for a big project with lots of elements. Let’s use web development as an example. Very few web developers can do everything on their own, and probably have subcontractors that they use to outsource things they can’t do or don’t have time to do. In a subcontractor scam, a client hires a web developer to do a big website project. But instead of using the developer’s graphic designer, they want the developer to use theirs. The web developer sends a payment to the subcontractor to do the graphic design work they need.
You can probably guess what happens next. The graphic designer never delivers, the client never pays, and our freelance web developer is out both the time they worked on the client’s website and the money they paid the graphic designer. Or sometimes the client does pay, but the check bounces or the payment is reversed. Either way, the graphic designer (who was the client all along) profits, and the freelancer loses.
Reversed Payment Scams
Banks in the United States and many other Western countries are biased towards the consumer. If you are a freelancer, that means the banks are biased towards your clients, not you. This makes it very easy for freelance scams through reversed payments to work.
As freelancers, you’re very much at the mercy of the clients and their banks.Ricardo Fayet
If the client disputes a charge on their bank, the bank automatically reverses it. If a client disputes their payment to you, the bank immediately takes that money away from you and gives it back to your client. It’s now on you to submit evidence and do the work to recover the funds. If you doing have enough evidence or can’t submit it in time, the client gets their payment back and you’ve lost that money – and probably some additional fees on top of that.
Dodgy Freelance Marketplaces
Another freelance scam that targets freelancers is perpetuated by freelance marketplaces themselves. Some marketplaces will offer guaranteed work or guaranteed money to try and get you to sign up. Once you do, you don’t get what they promised, and if you complain they direct you to the fine print that explains why you aren’t entitled to that work or money.
This is much more common with smaller and less well-known marketplaces. If Uber guarantees a certain income regardless of whether you get a ride, their reputation is big enough to trust. If an unknown platform is promising you lots of money or clients, check the fine print.
I’d be wary of those marketplaces promising something up front, especially if you’ve never heard of them.Ricardo Fayet
Other Freelance Scams Targeting Freelancers
A growth-hacking technique some new platforms use is creating a profile for you without your consent. They’ll then send you an email telling you that you have a profile and you just have to do this and this to finish creating it and sign up for their marketplace.
Scammers can try to steal your likeness on other freelance marketplaces. If you’re a well-established freelancer with a good reputation, freelance scammers can try to use your reputation to catch people in their scams. They may take your portfolio and try to pass it off as their own. Or they may create a profile actually pretending to be you.
The last freelance scam isn’t entirely a scam – just a crappy business practice that gives you the short end of the stick. Some companies try to hire freelancers instead of full-time regular employees. That way they still get the same work, but they don’t have to offer insurance, job security, or any of the other benefits that come with being an employee. You’ll end up doing the same amount of work as an employee – or possibly more – without any of the benefits.
Protecting Yourself from Freelance Scams
Being able to spot freelance scams is a great way to avoid falling for one. But that’s not the only thing you can do to keep yourself safe. Here are some more of Ricardo’s tips.
Use a Freelance Marketplace
Ricardo highly recommends working with a freelance marketplace as an intermediary, whether you’re the client or the freelancer. When you work without one, you don’t pay the fee, but you also don’t have the protection. If you hire someone on Upwork and they don’t do a good job, you can report them and Upwork will investigate. If you hire a freelancer you emailed out of an online directory and they try to scam you, you have little recourse.
The same is true if you are a freelancer. You do have to pay the marketplace’s fees, but you also get protection. You can report fake clients or clients who are trying to scam you, and the platform can investigate.
Use Good Contracts
Some freelancers don’t even sign contracts, and they factor the ten percent of clients who don’t pay into their business model. Some freelancers are really strict about contracts and making sure everyone who hires them pays them. To Ricardo, there should be a balance between the two.
You have to strike the right balance between having solid contracts and trusting people.Ricardo Fayet
Ricardo recommends that the more work you put into doing a project, the more work you should put into making sure you get paid. If you buy a house, you always sign a contract, but if you buy a secondhand bicycle, a contract would be overkill. If you’re talking really high figures, it’s best to get a lawyer on your side, but it’s best to balance the time you spend with legal stuff and the money you’re going to be making for the project.
Ricardo’s #1 Tip: Trust Your Gut
Never be afraid to say no, whether you’re the client or the freelancer, if you start feeling like something isn’t quite right. If something feels fishy or off, something doesn’t sit right, or you don’t think you’re going to be able to work well with that person, it’s time to walk away.
As soon as it sounds fishy, generally, it’s fishy.Ricardo Fayet
You don’t just need a freelancer who’s professional with references and good reviews, or a client who has a clear goal and will pay you. You also need someone you can get along with on a personal level. Some projects require a lot of collaboration, and every project is going to require at least a little back-and-forth. If you can’t get along with the person you’re hiring (or who’s hiring you), it doesn’t matter if it’s a freelance scam or not – the professional relationship just won’t work.
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