Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

September 4, 2012

Guest Blog Post: 7 Freelance Writing Scams and How to Fight Them

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

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.


7 Freelance Writing Scams and How to Fight Them

If you’re a freelance writer, you’re probably under constant pressure to get the next paying gig and to keep the money flowing. This can override your caution and leave you vulnerable to scammers. I know, because I’ve been there myself.

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.

4. Runners

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,, 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.

7. Samplers

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.


steeleweed said...

Re #2: When offered more work 'down the road' in exchange for cheaper fees on a current project, I have countered by demanding my full fee and offering reduced fees later. If the client is honest and will actually give me more work, the reduced fees on future projects is a good exchange for having assured work.

Patrick Icasas said...

Excellent tactic, steeleweed! Do you mind if I start using that myself? :)

Anonymous said...

Be aware (cute huh?) that even after a deposited check has been credited to your account the bank can still take those funds back if the check bounces days even weeks later.

lovely said...

Excellent! Already encounter some of them. This will be very useful to me. Thank you.

Johnny said...

Great posting!
I find it hard to believe the 'Overpay' scheme is used in the publishing industry. It's one of the oldest Internet scams around.

People just keep looking for a free dime. Amazing.

Thanks for all the info.


SusanWritesPrecise said...

Thank you for this useful info.

Joy said...

Johnny: I know some graphic designer friends who have been approached by the overpayment scheme, too. It seems any small business (contractor or product) that accepts money over the internet is a target for these guys.

Patrick Icasas said...

I was actually targeted by the Overpayment scheme a while back (hence the inclusion in this post). The guy asked me to edit a 20-page document (probably lifted from somewhere off the 'net) for a set fee. He then said this would be paid for by his "client", and that they would send a check.

The first thing that tipped me off was that even though the guy said he needed it quickly, he had no problem with me requiring the check to clear (remember that tip?) before I started work, even though I offered Paypal as a faster and more convenient option. Things got a lot fishier after that. They even sent over scanned ID cards to facilitate a Western Union transaction (probably stolen from some guy's wallet). Not normal client behavior at all.

Adam said...

Wow, thanks for these. I had no idea about the cheque scam, although I'm used to the Runner scam (usually because a company has cash flow issues) plus a few others that my accountants have made me aware of.

Thanks again for all the info.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Patrick. To echo your advice about ALWAYS using a contract: I was working on a big job (several months long) for client who's a household name (read: not strapped for cash). I had exhausted the hours in my original contract and asked if we could extend it. The client replied by email that I should continue working and additional hours would be compensated at the same rate. However, we never adjusted the original contract.

When I invoiced the client, they refused to pay anything beyond the amount in the paper contract. Eventually I got them to cough up the cash by threatening to sue for copyright infringement. But it took a lot of time and aggravation and was definitely a lesson learned.

Spike said...

Thanks for the heads-up on the cheque scam... I was familiar with the rest already. There are a lot of other scams around that are just as nasty, including stolen credit cards via PayPal and low-paid "starter" gigs that are just an insult. There's a list (which also has most of these) over here:

Patrick Icasas said...

For those of you who don't have a contract and don't know how to set one up, I found a great website that helps you easily create a contract. You can add, edit, and remove terms and have the client sign it digitally. Very cool.

Saoirse O'Mara said...

I've been targeted by the cheque scam twice already, once on a translator gig website and once posted on Craigslist looking for a tutor for their son.... (did you know those scammers speak Dutch as poorly as they speak English? And for a moment there I thought my Dutch was just poor....). The first cheque landed at my local police station, and the second scammer was told off by me before they even sent the cheque since I smelled the scam before that.

So yeah, those scammers target various groups of freelancers.

Another one to be added to that list (from my own experience, sadly): I replied to a translation job listing on above mentioned site. It was for an urgent job (and, admittedly, I forgot that Paypal is really quick....) so I agreed to do it without advance payment, which I usually don't do for new clients. I always get at least a third (for large sums) or half of the amount up front. Well, turns out that guy used a wrong name and wrong address but real jobs, for which he was the only one getting paid...and I wasn't the only one who fell for this guy. Talks are that at least 14 or more freelance translators and agencies were scammed, and the total amount sums up to a five digit number. And I even googled name and address, and looked for any warning signs before doing the job! No warning signs at that time since he used a different name before....

Anonymous said...

After receiving at least five customer requests per week for customized "free samples" of at least 400 words each, I decided to start to charge "clients" for those customized writing samples. I tell the client that I will charge them $50 for the customized writing sample and if they assign me a project after viewing my sample, I will deduct the $50 fee from my first invoice.

I have an entire portfolio of work on my professional website so there really isn't a need for a "customized" sample.

I've never heard back from any of those "clients."
Please, writers, do not give away lengthy "customized" blog posts or articles for free! If you have a portfolio or at least five or six published writing samples, (I have over 20 samples on my website) then those should suffice. Choosing an employee is always a risk to an extent and you should not have to give away free work.

Susan Oser said...

I've encountered situations in which I was given work and it seemed like more and more was demanded of me, even if the work was done decently and it was as if they were expecting way too much. When you feel like you're getting that pressure...another word of advice: You have the power, and is all that stress worth it?

LivelyClamor said...

About the overpayment scam -- I am an attorney and get fishy emails frequently. I just delete them. They all fit a very precise pattern. Name on body of text does not match email return address. They don't put my name in the email, just "Dear Counselor" and "I am from overseas and my husband and I have a divorce settlement agreement in your jurisdiction which is worth [several hundred thousand dollars], please help me enforce the settlement." Or maybe it is a contract debt. You can see it coming. You get a check to run through your trust account, take a cut, check bounces, you are now in trouble with the bar association as well as all the rest of your clients with money in the same trust account... some attorneys have fallen for it. I won't even reply. Discrepancies in spelling, no reference to how you were referred, email return addresses which don't match, are all big red flags.

Deb said...

No personal experience since I'm a novelist, not an editor, but a close friend has been scammed by oDesk when they refused to ban a non-payer.

Rachael Cleveland said...

Eye-opening tips! Some of these I have yet to encounter, but I'm going to change my basic way of interacting with potential clients thanks to you.

Tammie Grey said...

I wish I had read this article earlier. I've been scammed by an "American employer." He made me write 15 500 word articles. Then he didn't pay me. Curse him.

Dr. simms said...

Hiring a freelance writer is different from hiring an employee. The employer does not need to offer paid vacation days, health insurance, and tax forms. Therefore, the quality of work is the only factor affecting the contract.

In addition, freelance writers are paid on the basis of the projects they undertake. To the customer, the benefits are derived from the fact that most freelance writers operate as small businesses thus they understand the value of customer satisfaction.

Consequently, a freelance writer will endeavor to produce quality work since the progress of his venture is highly influenced by customer satisfaction.

Jotham said...

Great post, it’s informative and very helpful. I cannot agree more with these tips. With these tips it could reduce the risk of being scammed. I also once get scam by a client. He wants me to create 20 articles then pay me but I doubt it. What I do is create 5 articles only and pass it to him then asked for the payment of the articles that I made. If his still interested I would finish the remaining 15 articles but he doesn’t reply on my emails and he even haven’t pay me for the articles that I pass. I also recently read an article about How to make sure you always get paid as a freelancer. Hope this also helps on other freelance readers.

Chris Evans said...

Excellent ideas on how scams can be avoided.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the stated article, infact if a freelancer keeps this entire relative points in mind he can be highly successful in a freelance environment.

I myself work for so i do know all the above listed points are very necessary to oblige while working.


Anonymous said...

Get paid half in advance? What are you? Stephen King? :)

No harm taking precautions you don't get scammed but this is paranoia and taking it to an extreme. When writing an article find out where it will be used. If it will be used on a website, has someone else ever written for that site or is it just a five page site?

Deal only with companies which are willing to part with their name, address, phone number etc. Check if their domain name is registered to the company or is anonymous.

Cristiana said...

Hello! Interesting article ans useful too! But I am interested in a specific website and I wonder if you can help me.

I just can't find any solid data about it except for a bunch of ads on classified and job listing sites and several so-called testimonials.

It is about, a website dedicated to freelancers. They say they hire freelancers as writers and copywriters. They say that freelancers are required to know English as they will be working for companies and businesses from USA, Canada or UK. So, the first impression is that they are an USA-based or UK-based company. But after doing some google search all I could find, was the name of one of its local staff on Linkedin, a woman with a very Romanian name. This fact suggests me that the business is originated in Romania. I have forgot to mention that most of the ads are in Romanian language and are posted on Romanian job-related websites. I don't remember finding too many ads in English or on international websites. Anyway, I think is quite odd that I don't find any other member of the team on a Google search.

Last year or two years ago, when I did a search about this website, it was mentioned on a forum or something, where people were telling that it is a scam. But I am not very sure of that. Anyway, that was the only positive or negative info I could find about this site. So, I can't draw any objective conclusion from it.

This scarcity of information is quite odd. Or maybe I did not searched enough? Anyway, can you tell me if you know something about them?

I have forgot to mention that I am Romanian too, so, maybe that's why most of the search results that I have found were centred on my location.

Patrick Icasas said...

Hi Cristiana, I took a look at the website you mentioned. They explicitly say that you won't be working with a contract, and that alone is a big red flag for me. Add in the things you already noticed, and I think you should probably let this one go.

Anonymous said...

I encountered one that seems like a variation of the overpayment scheme, though it leaves me scratching my head to this day. They did, in fact, counter my bid with more than double what I asked for, which obviously got me excited -- and this came with a promise of more work in the future, as well -- even stating that I'd be paid before the work was complete. It was enough to cause me to break a cardinal rule, as up to that point, I had never accepted checks and stuck mainly to "safepay" type options. The only case where this has worked out for me, was when striking up a more personal, long-standing relationship with a client, but otherwise it's probably a huge mistake.

The biggest red flag other than the sheer "too good to be true" enthusiasm, came when they demanded I deposit the check at a specific bank of their choosing. I hadn't even halfway finished the work when it arrived, and against my better judgment, I drove down to the nearest branch of that bank to see about opening an account (the check was for over $2,500), and worse, still, the name didn't match who I had been emailing. It had no clear indication that it belonged to the company they claimed to represent, either. Well, the bank tellers immediately recognized it as a fake. Apparently, it wasn't even a slightly decent forgery, whatever the motive, though I was ignorant about the telltales they spotted. The confusing part, because it stopped then and there and was reported to the police, came from wondering if they expected to somehow turn that into real money through some refund scheme, or actually valued the work and were trying to get my writing/editing for free. Surely, my original low offer would have been a fair, far less risky option, so I lean toward the former as to their possible intent. Seemed like such a waste, either way.

The good news: as an astoundingly failed attempt, chances are that any scammers of this sort would be too inept to really get one over on anyone else in the future. I never did find out if the poor bastard who's ID they stole ever got his accounts in order, though, going forward, and I'd assume the investigation would lead to a dead-end somewhere overseas. One thing I did learn -- and please correct me if you've heard or would advise something different -- but emails do qualify as contractual or testify-able if ever brought before a court/police, as they always come with a time and date stamp as well as being linked to a specific person or company's location. Even if it's stolen or a sockpuppet, chances will be good that you didn't respond to yourself from three thousand miles away in the same ten minute period, for example, so blame and the order of events should be easily discerned when you're not the guilty party in a situation like I found myself. If disagreements or legal troubles arise, emails do qualify as evidence and/or official documentation far more than any sort of verbal or other communication, so if a client is trying to change terms outside of your original contract or freelance site's hiring sheet, thinking this will give them leverage over you without tracing back to them (as was the case here), or the police come questioning you after the bank thinks you tried cashing a fake check (as was also the case here), save-save-save copies and records of all your communications, and do as much of the business talk via email as possible instead of skype, phone, chat, or whatever. Common sense, I realize, but temptations come in many forms, sometimes too juicy to ignore when in dire straights. The best solution, of course, is to stick with some sort of standardized, electronic payment option; and if dealing with paper at all, only ever agree to guaranteed types of checking such as a cashiers check or pre-paid money order, at most.

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