For many freelancers, especially beginners, a very real fear is to fall victim to a scam job. Once you have been around awhile, you automatically can recognize scams. In fact, freelance graphic designers and web developers can get to a place in their career in which they acquire most of their work by referrals, and the freelancer is almost the one who does the "interview" to see if this is a client worth their limited time.
However, you could be a seasoned freelancer whose client list has become stale, which finds you looking for jobs to bid on in the marketplace – you may have forgotten what scam jobs look like in this case. And, of course, for very many graphic design freelancers new to the business, scams can be quite common.
It happened to me when I was an inexperienced freelancer. Twice. By the same company. The business contacted me asking for a quote and plan of action on an SEO/ guest article campaign. So I gave them a quick run-down. Then they asked for more details. I should have known that they were just using me, but I was naive and gave them the answers they needed. I never heard back from them even though I sent multiple follow-up emails. Then, about a year later, the company contacted me again, this time asking for a quote on website content. Again, I started with a very brief plan, they came back with questions, I gave more details, and they never responded to any of my emails after that. I didn’t even realize it was a scam until months later. I kept wondering what I had done wrong to make the company lose faith in my skills, while they made off with an excellent plan of action that they probably incorporated on their own.
The best way to arm yourself against a scam is to know the different types that you as a freelance web designer, graphic designer, web developer, or really of any field may encounter. Then, know what actions to take to make sure that, even if you do bite initially on a scam job ad, you can recognize it before getting in too deep.
1.) Spec Work
2.) Gathering Personal Information
Some "fake" clients out there simply post jobs on popular freelancing sites to acquire personal information. Some even contact the freelancer directly, under the disguise of a potential client needing your design expertise. If the client starts asking for personal information fairly early in the relationship, beware. The scammer may even make up a personal story to draw you in ("My grandma lived in that city! I used to visit her all the time when I was young. What neighborhood do you live in?").
If you have been working with a client and gradually get to know each other, questions and stories like these are nothing to fear. But if this is occurring in the first couple of emails before you have even signed a contract with them, then you probably have come across a scam artist. Some information is never necessary for a client to know (driver’s license, bank account numbers, social security, etc.), unless you are agreeing to contract work with a legitimate company that you have researched and you are filling out a W-9 or 1099 for U.S. taxes.
If you ignore their questions or explain that you are not comfortable revealing such information, you will know for sure if the client is legitimate or a scammer, since a real client will respect your privacy but a scam artist will keep probing or disappear.
Many contests are absolutely real and a great way to get some experience and exposure as a freelance graphic designer. However, there are many fake contests on the web that are there only to get free work out of a crowdsourcing scam. The first way to tell if a contest is legitimate or not is to research the organization. Is it a well-known company? Do they have a reputable business and customers?
The second way to recognize a fake contest is with the rules. If they require you to sign over all rights immediately upon submission, then this is a sure sign of a scam. Real contests will ask you to sign over permission for them to display the submission on their site but not to sign over all rights.
4.) Payment Required
Never pay for a job that YOU are completing. For instance, the client may accept your bid, then at some point in the project ask for a high-end font insisting that you cover the fee. Or a client may ask that you complete a design for a campaign, pay a fee for distribution, and offer to pay you royalties on the sales. There are many more examples of scams that slyly hide a required fee behind grandiose promises or even the simple tug of obligation they know we feel in completing a job.
This is one scam scenario in which a contract comes in handy. If the client is asking for you to fork over money, then you can calmly point out that this is not in your contract. The bottom line: if you have to pay to complete a job out of pocket with no possibility of including that cost in your bid, then run far away. It is definitely a scam.
5.) Samples for Free
One of the problems that can occur when you start freelancing is having a limited portfolio. However, even a small portfolio shows the quality of work you can provide. If a client asks you to send them a sample of what you can do for them (such as what happened with me), then politely guide them to your portfolio. If they press you for more information or a detailed layout of a design, then ask them to sign an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement). If they refuse, then you know you just avoided a scam.
6.) Limited Project Description
Some designers and developers may just chalk up this example to bad client status. Some "clients" may request a project but withhold the details, and then once you are deep into the work, they suddenly start adding lots of extras that they need included. They may even try to make you feel guilty or stupid for not assuming this is what they wanted, "Designers I’ve worked with in the past always threw this in for free."
This is another instance that you can easily avoid with a contract that clearly outlines the work you plan to complete for the client. Your contract should also make note of "add-ons" and that these will require a new quote/contract with extra costs.
7.) Future Payments of Profits
Another common scam is the requirement for design or development work in exchange for future profits once the company "takes off". If you have a contract that specifically outlines what this point looks like and how much you will get paid, then this kind of agreement is perfectly fine – if immediate payment is not important to you, that is. However, if the client does not provide a contract and just leaves your payment to when they become "successful", then you are better off walking away. More than likely, they will always be eternally greatful but never willing to send you any money, or at least not enough to ever be worth your time.
8.) Final Tips for Uncovering Scams
Last of all, there are a couple more tasks you can complete to scout out a scam. One way to check out a company is to look them up on the BBB or their local Chamber of Commerce. You can also search online for reviews of the company. Another red flag is that if a job just seems too good to be real, then your instincts are probably right. Freelancing takes hard work, and if a potential client is offering to pay you way more money than normal for an easy project, then they may be worth checking out first. And remember that a detailed contract will take care of most of these types of scams.
As freelancers, we often work with companies that we never set foot in and individuals who we never meet face-to-face. This puts us at the disadvantage, since it is much easier to tell if someone is lying when they are standing in front of us. Many scam artists are cowards given false bravado when behind a digital mask. So as a freelancer, do your research, require contracts, and most of all spread the word if you run across a scam to help your fellow freelancers avoid falling into the same trap.
On this note, do you have a scam experience you’d like to share? If so, be sure to leave your story in the comments below.