It's freelance week at Writer Beware! In this week's blog posts, two guest bloggers will be discussing issues of interest and importance to freelance writers.
In today's post, freelancer and marketing professional Patrick Icasas identifies common scams that target freelancers, and provides advice on how to avoid them.
Scammers come in many flavors: unscrupulous clients, shysters selling bogus/worthless services, and thieves who want to steal your money/information. All of them are counting on you being too eager to work to ignore the warning signs.
But freelance writers can’t afford to be careless and ignorant. As lone operators, we don’t have agents or attorneys or accounting departments backing us up. It’s just us. We need to be educated. We need to be prepared. We need to be aware.
Below I’ve listed seven types of scams a freelancer is likely to encounter. Some of these are just unscrupulous clients, while others are downright illegal.
So without further ado:
1. The Bait and Switch
You and the client will agree on a project amount. The client will ask you to sign her contract, with the admonition that she needs the work started ASAP. You trust your new client, sign, and get to work. But they end up paying you a much lower amount.
Why? Because you didn’t read your contract and see that they had lowered the project fee. You might be able to take it to court, but they’re banking on the fact that a) you signed it without reading it, therefore it’s your fault, and b) many freelancers don’t have the money for lawyers.
A common variation on this is the client not wanting to use a contract at all, instead relying on verbal agreements that will always be “misremembered”. This is even worse, because the client will be savvy enough not to have anything in writing that can prove your side of the story.
The solution: Always use a contract. Always. And use your own, not someone else’s. If that’s not possible, then go over the client’s contract with a fine-toothed comb. Don’t be afraid to raise questions.
2. Empty Promises
Some clients request projects for ridiculously low fees, but will try to smooth things over by promising more projects at a higher rate later on (in fact, some amateur novelists claim they will “share the profits” with freelance editors once their book has made it big on the NYT bestseller list).
But what’s really going to happen is that the client will disappear after the first project and find another freelancer who’ll fall for the same line, leaving you grossly underpaid.
The solution: Stick to your rates. If you do give a discount, keep it reasonable.
3. Eternal Editors
No work is perfect right out of the gate. Clients are always going to ask for changes, but eternal editors take it to the extreme. The client will always find something wrong with your latest draft (after taking their sweet time reviewing it.) They will question your work and your worth even as they ask for another version.
Their objective is to be so unpleasant, demanding, and frustrating that you give them a huge discount to close the project, or, even better, give up and walk away. They will then get the project for free (or close to it), and they will still have the original, untouched draft of your work.
The solution: Set limits. Example: 2 rounds of revisions per project, with subsequent edits billed per hour. Make sure these terms are spelled out in your contract.
Businesses are always trying to save money, and runners do it by not paying. They’ll hedge, delay, make excuses, ignore you, and everything else in the hopes that you’ll write the project off as a loss and leave them alone. Online freelance writers have it the worst, because it’s much easier to ignore an email than a person standing in your office.
The solution: Get half your money up front. Aside from that, the best you can do is to keep following up in the hope that they’ll get a conscience and pay. Some freelancers have taken it to a small claims court, with varied success.
5. Paid Job Databases
Some freelance job sites charge a fee to access their database of “premium” and “verified” freelance job listings, but what they really do is just repost job listings from craigslist, freelancewritinggigs.com, and other free job sites.
The solution: Most legit job sites offer free access to their list of jobs. If they do charge money, it’s for premium membership, additional bids, and a cut of the project fee. Never to view the jobs themselves.
6. Overpayment Scheme
This scam isn’t exclusive to writers, but writers are tapped as victims. The client will pay the contractor by check and “overpay” them by thousands of dollars. They will then ask the writer to cash the check, take out the agreed-upon project amount, and wire the balance back to the client’s account (which will be under another name.) The check will then bounce, and the gullible writer will have paid the scammer good money in exchange for a bad check.
The solution: Only take checks from customers you trust. Once again, money should never flow out of a writer’s pocket. If the client claims a mistake, ask them to cancel the check and resend, or visit the bank to have the check verified.
If the situation smells funny, don’t submit the work until the first check clears.
Have you ever seen a job posting that asked for custom-written samples? What they’re really doing is collecting all those samples from different writers and then using them as free content. Or, if they’re trying to avoid accusations of plagiarism, the scammer will hire another writer to reword these articles a little differently.
The solution: Don’t send it in. As a freelancer, you should already have your own samples from previous work, and these should be enough. If the client insists, either walk away or ask them to pay for it (and get the agreement in writing).
Not every client is out to get you. Most aren’t, as a matter of fact. There’s a big difference between a businessman wanting to save their money and a scammer wanting to get yours (although it may be hard to tell sometimes.)
Set some firm precautionary rules for client dealings and stick to them. Read your contract. Get paid up front. Say no. Ask around. Writers' forums like AbsoluteWrite’s “Freelance and Work for Hire” section are an excellent place to get advice. Freelancers may work alone, but we compensate by having a strong sense of community.
If you stick to your guns, many of the scammers will make themselves scarce. This leaves you with the real clients, who value your work and pay you accordingly.
Have you ever encountered a scam? Comment and share your experience!
Patrick Icasas is a veteran marketing professional and freelance writer who has helped businesses market their products and services through judicious use of the written word. He is also an aspiring author, and currently volunteers as a slush reader at Flash Fiction Online. His blog chronicles his attempts to balance multiple careers while raising an energetic toddler.