When you’re doing business on the internet, you’re usually dealing with strangers. It’s very easy to be scammed if you’re not careful. I’ve been hustled a few times in the past myself, but I’ve learned from those mistakes, and in this post I’m going to share my tips to avoid being scammed as a freelancer.
Sites like Upwork and Freelancer offer escrow services for payments. Both the client and the designer agree to the scope of work and the price, then the client deposits the money into an escrow account which acts as a safety deposit. Once the work is completed to the client’s liking, the contractor can request for the funds to be released to him/her from the escrow account, at which point the client can choose to accept or decline the request. If there’s a disagreement between the two parties, a 3rd party mediator steps in. If the client doesn’t respond within a set amount of time (usually 30 days), the funds are automatically awarded to the designer.
This protects both parties. The designer can’t steal the client’s money and not do the work, and the client can get away with stealing the designer’s work without paying for it. It’s a win-win situation for all parties involved.
If you want to avoid being scammed on sites like Upwork and Freelancer, never begin working on a client’s project until they have funded the escrow account. No exceptions! If you can follow that one rule, you’ll have made it virtually impossible to be scammed.
What About Hourly Pay?
Some freelancing sites offer the ability to charge by the hour as opposed to a fixed-rate price. Personally, I don’t like this option because it offers less assurance that you won’t be ripped off.
The best measure you can take with hourly projects is to make sure that the client has a verified payment method on file with the site (there’s usually some kind of icon/badge that indicates their status somewhere.) Even then, it’s still far too easy to be swindled though. The client can simply enter their payment method into the site, have the designer begin working, then remove their payment method from the site once the designer has completed a satisfactory amount of work.
I’ve actually had this happen to me a couple of times using Elance. It should’ve only happened once, but unfortunately I didn’t learn my lesson the first time. I now know better and completely refuse to take on hourly projects. For the sake of not being scammed, I suggest you do the same.
Don’t worry about missing out on work. Just tell the client that you think it would be in the best interest of you both to work from a fixed-rate pricing model. In my experience, 99.9% of clients prefer it as well, and they usually only had their project set to hourly because they didn’t know there was a fixed-rate option.
Personally, I don’t think there should even be an hourly option on freelancing sites. It’s too risky for designers and it leaves clients in a state of uncertainty regarding how much the project is going to cost. A better option would be to just break everything down into milestones.
What If You Don’t Use Freelancing Sites?
So let’s say you prefer to do your own marketing so you can conduct business through your own website, on your own terms, and without being beholden to the instability and chaos of freelancing platforms. In my own experience, the best way to avoid being scammed is to simply ask for payment upfront.
It may sound crazy at first (it certainly did for me,) but it’s actually quite common. Most freelancers who conduct business independently ask for payment upfront, and most clients I encounter do not have a problem with it. As long as you present yourself as a trustworthy, accountable and responsible professional, it shouldn’t be a problem. It helps to make your phone number and social media profiles accessible in the signature of your emails so you don’t come off as some faceless, anonymous stranger who could vanish in a blink.
What If They Prefer Not to Pay Upfront?
Sometimes you’ll encounter a client that doesn’t want to pay upfront for whatever reason, which is understandable. In this instance, I like to require a deposit of at least 50% of the project cost upfront before I begin working, then the final 50% to be paid upon completion.
As I noted in my post about spec work, the 50/50 deposit model is fair for both the client and the designer.
We’re both in business — we’re both risk-takers. If I start working on a project without being paid at least a deposit upfront, I risk wasting precious time. But if a client pays the total amount upfront, they risk being swindled by a scammer. With the 50/50 deposit model, both parties accept an equal amount of risk, which is fair to everyone involved.
This, in my experience, is the most airtight solution for freelancers to avoid being scammed. If someone isn’t willing to at least pay a deposit, let them walk. They’re not respecting you or treating you fairly as a professional. This is my line in the sand as a designer, and it should be yours as well.
What To Do If Your Work is Stolen
Not everyone is immune to hustlers and scammers. Sometimes you’ll get swindled and find the “client” using your work despite refusing to compensate you for it. I know all too well that sinking feeling you get when you see a logo you designed on a client’s website, or a promo you designed being run on their Facebook page, when you haven’t been paid for it (and know that you probably won’t either.)
Your best course of action in this scenario is to file a DMCA takedown notice with whoever is hosting the stolen work. Just about every website with user-generated content (Facebook, Youtube, Weebly, etc.) has a section where you can file a DMCA complaint. If the client is using the work on their own website, you can file the complaint with their hosting company, which can be found by running their web address through whois.net.
When you file your complaint, make sure to explain your side of the story in detail, and make sure to include screenshots, email transcripts, contracts, invoices, or any other paperwork that would reinforce your case.
Filing a DMCA complaint will not force the offender to pay you for the work, but it’ll at least stop them from using it publicly, and it may even get their accounts terminated as well.
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