Last week, we talked about 5 Common Ways Freelance Writers Get Scammed, nearly all of which centered around ways that unscrupulous clients attempt to get work from their writers without paying them.
However, knowing what the scams are isn’t terribly important without an understanding of how to avoid them. Unfortunately, even though all of the tricks have the same premise and outcome, nuances in how they are executed makes it so that there’s no single “magic bullet” for avoiding them and most of what it takes to avoid such scams is keeping a good, clear head at all times.
That being said, there’s still a lot that you can do to avoid freelance writing scams and, specifically, here are six very smart steps you can take today to ensure that it doesn’t happen to you. After all, every writing job unpaid is money out of your pocket, time out of your day and, possibly, food off of your table.
It’s best to get wise now rather than learn a hard lesson later.
1. Get a Down Payment (or Use Milestone Payments)
Many clients are very resistant to down payments and don’t want to put any cash up front for work that hasn’t been completed. However, working without a down payment is a tremendous risk, especially on larger jobs.
A client that is asking you to work without some good faith payment is basically asking you to spend hours of your time on little more than a promise of payment. It’s a huge risk on larger projects and likely not worthwhile.
Savvy freelance writers generally ask for a portion up front, usually 10% – 50% of the total amount. This payment proves that the client is willing and able to pay and also helps cover the writer if things go south later, giving them at least something to show for their time.
An alternative, especially for very large projects, is milestone payments. With these, the writers resubmits the work every X number of words and is paid in pieces. Either system can work an minimizes the risk to the writer while keeping things balanced between the two parties.
2. Read Your Contracts
I’ve talked a great deal about not only why you should always have a contract but why you should be contract smart. Read every contract carefully and, if you don’t understand something, seek explanation.
Many scammers will approach writers claiming that something is a “rush job” and they don’t have time for a contract or to haggle over details. Don’t fall for that. Have a stock contract handy that can be signed quickly so you can get it in writing and make sure you know what you’re signing.
3. Vet Your Clients Carefully
When a new client approaches you, ask questions, lots of questions. You don’t have to ask them directly, but do some research to find out who they are, how reputable their business is and what other writers have to say about them. Try to flesh your clients out, get names, addresses, phone numbers and other information. Pretend you’re a detective seeking out information on a witness or suspect, not merely a writer excited about a new job.
If you can’t find any information or it seems to be a fly-by-night company, definitely take a few steps back and either seek additional assurances or leave the job behind. It’s best to leave a job that’s likely a scam than waste the time you could have been seeking out and working on other contracts.
4. Get Everything in Writing
Try to avoid phone calls as much as possible as those can degenerate into a “your word against mine” situation very easily. Send and receive emails as much as possible and use IM services that keep logs.
Though piling up evidence might not help you if you can’t sue for practical reasons, usually people are a bit more honest when they know they are on the record and that the information is being saved. If you do have to speak on the phone, send a follow up email to them with your understanding of the conversation and ask for their agreement to that.
Clients who won’t put things in writing should be a major warning flag, they may have a reason for wanting to be off the record.
5. Be Careful with Your Terms
It’s always a good idea to have a list of the rules that you are willing to write under posted on your site. The terms should include things such as accepted payment methods, payment deadlines and the amount required up front for larger jobs.
Though you can always bend these terms for clients or negotiate around them when putting pen to paper on a contract, having real and reasonable terms on your site may help ward off those who might seek to take advantage of you.
6. If It Feels Wrong, Walk Away
The most commonly heard phrase after a writer learns they’ve been scammed is “I just knew something wasn’t right.”
If a deal doesn’t feel right to you, you either need to negotiate the terms until it does or walk away from it. If you’re not sleeping easy over a contract you’re about to sign, you probably shouldn’t be signing it, it’s that simple.
Use common sense and realize that your “gut” isn’t purely emotional. Rather, it’s also intuition and instinct based on fact and is usually more than worth listening to.
In the end, most of what this comes down to is common sense and accepting the very real danger that you could be ripped off as a freelance writer. If walk into every job with that in the back of your mind, you’ll be much more wary and much less likely to be made a rube.
That being said, there’s no way to completely avoid being scammed. The nature of freelance writing online is one that there has to be some element of blind trust, at some point, by both sides. As such, there’s always going to be a danger but it is one that you can limit.
If you’re smart about the jobs you take and the clients you work with, you’ll likely find that being truly scammed is very rare and, when it does happen, it’s more of a nuisance than a catastrophe. However, if you’re reckless with your writing career, you may find yourself bouncing from disaster to disaster, never really able to get ahead.
While there are a lot of good clients out there, there’s also a lot of bad ones and it is always worth being are of that.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for Freelance Writing Jobs). This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.
Wendy Altschuer says
Great suggestions to keep in mind, thanks!
Radhika M says
This was a good post for beginning freelance writers like me that are searching to get any jobs to get their portfolio stacked up. Which brings me to a quick question – can I use my blog as a portfolio to show my writing style and someday make an external page showing my contact information, writing samples, and etc.? I need to look for a free alternative and none of the portfolio-directed websites seem to be directed towards writers.
I learned the hard way about clients. I wrote for a lifestyle magazine in Arizona and never got paid. I should have known something was ‘fishy’ when the publisher was avoiding my questions about a contract and payment. Lo and behold, I found out the magazine is being sued by a printing company and hasn’t paid writers. Hard lesson to learn!