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business of freelancing

Freelance writing scams – What you need to know

By February 19, 2020 6 Comments

Being a freelance writer takes faith. First you have to have believe in yourself, but you also have to have faith in others. But unfortunately, I know lots of writers who have been let down by others, whether it be clients, editors or other writers.

One my lovely readers got in touch a little while ago to ask me to put together a post about the warning signs of gigs that seem to be too good to be true.

After all, it’s hard enough to find good freelance gigs, so how can you avoid situations when a seemingly promising opportunity turns into a dud?

Fake writing gigs: What to look out for

One freelance writer’s experience

It was early 2018 when freelance writer Emma Stenhouse applied for a product reviewer role on the ProBlogger job board.

Emma was in the beginning stages of her freelance career and says she didn’t know what kind of warning signs to look for.

The job was to write reviews, which featured a large number of hyperlinks (around 40!) and information about each product.

“In retrospect, the ridiculous number of links did make me think the site was more about trying to make profit from affiliate links rather than provide good and useful content,” Emma says.

Once Emma was assigned the role and submitted the first review, she was given an author bio on the website and got paid for the first article.

“But then the next article was paid late (the owner was apparently on vacation) and then the next one not at all,” Emma says.

The unpaid invoice was for $648.60 so not huge, but not an insubstantial amount.”

Emma started looking for some advice as to how to effectively chase payment, but the company wasn’t registered in the US or UK so she couldn’t claim through the small claims court, and she didn’t have a telephone number or physical address.

“I did start adding a 10% late fee per month and re-sending the invoice every month, but I never heard back from a single one of those emails,” she says. “After about six months I must admit I gave up.”

It was suggested that Emma comment on the company’s social media profiles and Emma did so.

I got blocked from commenting on Facebook and my comments were deleted on Twitter and Instagram so that was a bit of a fail,” she says.

“The woman who was managing the Instagram account did message me to say she couldn’t help me as she didn’t hear from [the owner] very often either,” Emma says.

“Then someone else took that over and when I started commenting on each post to say I hadn’t been paid, she told me to stop because she had nothing to do with writer transactions and the comments got hidden in any case.”

It’s been a valuable lesson for Emma, but it’s one that none of us ever want to go through.

What could Emma have done differently?

  • Asked for a contract or write a letter of agreement

Even if the organisation doesn’t have a contract, it’s still worth getting in writing (even over email) the terms and conditions of you taking on the role.

In it you should agree on your rate, payment methods and terms, scope of the work, delivery of content, kill fees, late fees and copyright information.

  • Reported the site/owner to ProBblogger
  • Asked for a partial payment up front

“I never signed a contract or asked for a percentage of the fee upfront, so I feel like I made a big mistake there,” says Emma.

It’s always better to be proactive when it comes to potential scams, rather than being taken in and having to fight for what you’re are legally entitled to.

What freelance writers should watch out for

Very low pay or incredibly high pay

I want to be careful how I talk about this, because I know that what one writer considers to be low pay is not what every writer considers low.

But there are definitely some gigs that raise red flags.

For me, the kind of posts that say they pay $25 for 1000 words are the kind of jobs to steer clear of.

These kinds of gigs are not necessarily scams, but generally they are posted by people who really don’t understand the value of freelance writers.

But similarly, gigs that are posted and pay over $1/word should also be treated with caution.

What to watch for: If it seems to be good to be true, it usually is.

They want you to do a free trial

Sometimes, I think it’s okay to write on spec or for free, but often this is a warning sign of a scammy job.  

When you’re reading a job ad and they want you to pitch ideas or do a ‘writing test’ before you get paid (or get the gig), be wary.

Yes, some legit places may want to test your skills, but by and large, if you are an established writer, they should be paying for your time and work.

After all, imagine if they did that to 10 writers and used none of them, they would suddenly have 10 articles that they could use, for free.

What to watch for: When the job posters says they want to verify that you really can write as well or edit as fast as you say.

Poorly written ads

Now anyone who has been reading my blog for more than a few weeks will no doubt have noticed the odd error creeping in here and there, so I’m not judging people who make mistakes with their copy.

But when you read a job ad and you have to read sentences over and over to understand the meaning, it can be a warning sign that the poster doesn’t value good grammar and is unlikely to pay for quality content.

What to watch for: Consistently incorrect grammar or spelling

When you can’t find much information about the organisation or company

It’s always worth spending a few minutes to do background research on the company advertising the job.

Look at their website – do they seem legit? If you search for reviews about the company, do you find any? What are people saying about them online?  

This isn’t to say that you can’t find excellent opportunities on job boards, because you can.

But if there isn’t much information out there about the organisation, it’s likely that it might be a fake gig or scam.

What to watch for: Lack of information about the company or lots of critical reviews online.

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to write a post like this, but unfortunately it seems to be lots more dodgy gigs out there than quality ones.

If you’re after legit opportunities you can always subscribe to great freelance newsletters like these ones or sign up for quality job boards like Rachel’s List.

Have you experienced any freelance job scams? What other advice would you have?

6 Comments

  • Julie DP says:

    Another great post about scams. Fortunately, I’ve been paid for every assignment. But, I did wonder if I would be. Thank you for presenting flags for us to be aware of in our work as freelancers.

    You are the best, Lindy!

  • Jessica says:

    Great information. The contract is so important. I picked up a client from Upwork who asked me to go off the platform and work directly with her. I did so happily as she seemed great, and I could avoid the Upwork 20% fee. We never signed a contract. On Upwork, the client funds the job upfront with escrow – and this was not the case when we were working directly. The scope of the job quickly crept to hideous proportion, and she became a client from hell – always asking for changes and rewrites. When I finally gave notice, she vanished and didn’t pay for two weeks’ worth of work. Hard knock to learn from.

    • lindyalexander says:

      Oh Jessica, I’m so sorry to hear that you had that experience. What a hard lesson to learn. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Rachel Smith says:

    This is a great round-up of red flags for writers, Lindy (and thanks for mentioning Rachel’s List!).

    I just wish we all didn’t have to play detective so much when sifting through jobs but you definitely live and learn…

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