Freelance Blog + Tips & Tricks

5 Ways for Writers to Avoid an Online Scammer

These days, most of us are familiar with scams of the "become a millionaire by working only an hour a day from your couch" or "send your bank account number so the prince of Nigeria can deposit $50,000" variety. Delete! But freelancers are also susceptible to a more insidious kind of scammer: the kind who seem to offer a legit opportunity, then disappear as soon as you submit your invoice or start asking tough questions.

In fact, I once read a forum post from a guy who scammed unsuspecting writers by posting on Craigslist and asking respondents to write custom articles for a supposed writing opportunity. Then he sold those articles to content mills for a profit and never wrote back to those writers. (Scumbag!) Here's how to avoid people like him.

  1. Think twice about spec work. There are a few situations where it makes sense to write on speculation. Like if you're new to the field and don't have any samples. Or if it's a company you're dying to work with and know you could use those samples elsewhere if it doesn't pan out. But if you're a seasoned writer, then your samples and credentials speak for themselves in many cases. Know that if you write or design or code something specifically for a prospect without a signed contract, it's tough to prevent them from using your work and stiffing you. The same goes with consulting time. Sometimes a prospect will keep asking questions and pumping you for free information without any intention of hiring you to do the job. Be wary.
  2. Do some digging. Google the name of the person or company and include words like "bankrupt" or "scam." Not everyone who files for bankruptcy is going to shortchange you, but it's good to enter into a new client relationship with your eyes fully open. There are also sites devoted to educating people on potential scammers. For instance, you might check out Predators & Editors and WritersWeekly's Whispers and Warnings.
  3. Ask around. In addition to Googling the client, you can also ask your freelance friends if they've had good or bad experiences with a certain company. Email someone you trust or post your question on a private forum or list serve. Take one or two bad reports with a grain of salt, but if late (or totally nonexistent) paychecks are the trend, take heed. This may not be the project for you.
  4. Get an address and phone number. When I start a new project, I always ask for the phone number and address of the company. Even though most of my communication is via email and some of my clients are halfway around the world, it's helpful to have this information in case my contact goes MIA. I once had a client bounce a check and sending a registered letter to their offices got things straightened out fairly quickly. Had the letter not worked, I could have reported them to the local police, since passing a bad check is illegal. If someone refuses to fork over a physical address and phone number, that could be a red flag because they don't want you to be able to track them down.
  5. Go with your gut. Sometimes, you just know something isn't right. Early in my freelance career, I would get a bad feeling about a certain project or client, but I'd agree to the terms anyway because I couldn't pinpoint a good reason not to and I really wanted the work. Not anymore! I've been burned once or twice so now if my intuition tells me an opportunity is too good to be true, I listen. And promptly run in the opposite direction.
This topic ties in rather nicely with Writer's Worth Day, which was last Friday. All week Lori Widmer posted tips on how writers can protect themselves, so be sure to check that out, too.

Have you been scammed? How do you avoid these ugly characters?

Flickr photo courtesy of B Rosen

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5 Ways for Writers to Avoid an Online Scammer + Tips & Tricks