Protect Yourself: A Guide to Recognizing and Avoiding Freelance Scams

Worried about freelance scams? Learn red flags to watch for and the importance of listening to your gut.

Back when I started freelancing, I was desperate for work. We were broke, and I was pitching left and right, trying to bring in some money.

Unfortunately, in my haste, I didn’t check all the opportunities as closely as I should have. And I got scammed.

I fell for one of the many freelance scams within a month of starting my business. Thankfully, the scammer didn’t get access to my bank account or anything like that. They just took my work and ran…without ever paying a cent.

I was so frustrated. And I felt like a failure.

I’d like to brush it off as a one-time incident early in my career. But the truth is, I almost fell for a different freelance scam recently.

I’ll tell you more about that one below – in the red flags section — so keep reading to find out what happened.

But please know that freelance scammers are clever and sneaky. Their tricks can be hard to spot, even if you’re a seasoned freelancer.

How Freelance Scams Work

Freelance scams are like scams in other industries. Unsavory people prey on naive freelancers, hoping for free content or to collect personal data (and access to banking accounts…)

You might come across them through a post on a job board. Or in an unsolicited DM on Twitter or Facebook. Scammers are everywhere and constantly coming up with new ways to trick people, so you’ve got to be on guard.

A lot of scammers take on the identity of an older business. They set up a website, use stolen photos, and provide fake information that looks real. These steps help convince freelancers that they’re legit.

Once they have your attention, the scammers will try to get you on board. And then, they make their move.

To help you avoid trouble, let’s examine ten common red flags you should always watch for.

10 Red Flags to Watch For as a Freelancer

Thankfully, some clues can help you identify freelance scams. We’ll look at the most common below.

But first, a word of caution.

There are always exceptions. So if you notice one of these ten red flags, it doesn’t automatically make it a scam. There could be a legit reason a real opportunity has one of these things going on. It’s just not common. If you see one, tread carefully.

And remember, I’m not a lawyer or anything. This is just what I’ve noticed over the years, and I’m sharing it to try to help other freelancers avoid the mistakes I made.

1) It’s a Unicorn Job

Unicorns are special and rare, so everyone wants one. But legit unicorn jobs are hard to come by. If you come across something that seems a little too perfect, chances are it’s a scam.

If you run across a great paying gig that doesn’t require much effort, it’s not likely to pan out into any actual cash for you.

Remember this simple saying to avoid freelance scams:

If it sounds too good to be true – it is!

2) Contacts are Flying Under the Radar

Legitimate companies don’t typically hide under the radar of anonymity. Instead, it lists its name and website so you can check it out yourself.

If someone is trying hard not to be identified, that’s reason enough to pause and examine everything in the situation.

3) F-R-E-E, that Spells Free

(Remember that ditty? It’s been stuck in my head for days, so I thought I’d pass the joy on to you. :D)

You deserve to get paid for your work. Unfortunately, too many companies want you to do a free trial first. And we’re not talking about a quick editing quiz or a couple of paragraphs to better understand your style.

Some clients want you to write full-fledged articles on a specific topic without compensation. Just think — if a hundred people complete this step hoping to get hired, the company now has 100 pieces of content to use without paying for it.

4) Request for Unconventional Meetings

I should have known better.

When a random person sent me a DM on Twitter and asked me to do a Telegram interview for a good-paying position, I should have immediately recognized it as a scam.

Unfortunately, I was in a freelance famine, and the money sounded good. I was blinded by the possibility and didn’t step back and examine things as I should have.

The company seemed legit. It had a social media presence and a website that looked operational.

So I logged into Telegram (an app I use regularly) and answered some questions. That interview seemed to go well, so they asked me to come back the next day and chat with someone else. Then, that person asked me to submit my resume and talk to the final person the following day.

At this point, the red flags started going off. And I started digging deeper. The company, while a real one, hadn’t used its social accounts in over two years. The more I dug, the more I realized this wasn’t an actual job. It was a scam.

And when I logged into Telegram the following day to see what would happen, my suspicions were confirmed. The paperwork started asking for all sorts of personal details, and there was a list of things I’d have to purchase for reimbursement.

That solidified it for me. I declined the “job” I’d just been offered, and quick as a wink, all the social profiles I’d been tracking started disappearing before I could report things.

It makes me sad to think they were probably rebranding into another failing company to try to take advantage of someone else…

So keep my tale in mind if you’re ever asked to do unconventional interviews or meet in strange, non-mainstream apps.

5) Strange Email Addresses

Professionals don’t use email addresses like hotlips2333@ or m349b10v@. If you’re asked to send an email to apply for a gig, take a peek at the address.

If it contains a random string of letters or numbers, chances are high that it’s a scam.

You should also do an email investigation if you’re applying for a gig with a bigger company. Most have their email addresses online, so you can verify the format.

If the company uses and you’re asked to email, you’re likely being spoofed.

6) Non-descript Ad

If you ever see an ad like this one from Craigslist, don’t bother applying:

If you click on the ad to get more info, you get this:

There are no details about the company or who to contact. Instead, there’s a link to apply with a number behind it. When I see that, I automatically think it’s an affiliate link – it looks like someone is getting paid for every person who applies through their link or something like that.

Do I know this for a fact? Nope. It could be something completely different. But that’s what it makes me think.

Doing a quick Google search is a good idea if you see things like this. It turns out this is a reported scam. In order to see actual jobs from this company, you have to pay for a membership. And many people had trouble getting the membership canceled…

Legit companies put at least some details into their ads.

7) Cra-z-art Budget, Prismacolor Expectations

This one might not technically be a scam. It’s a legit company offering real articles, and they will pay you.

The problem?

They expect the world from you and pay you peanuts. They want you to be on call, write excellent articles quickly, and get paid $0.01/word or some other ridiculous amount.

And you won’t even get your name on the article to throw in your portfolio. Instead, it’s ghostwritten.

If you see these types of jobs, stay far, far away. They’ll suck the joy out of writing for you and make you think you don’t have what it takes to make it as a freelancer since you work all day and barely get paid.

Better-paying jobs (with more appreciative clients) are out there.

8) Give Me Your Money!

Some scammers take a different route. They ask applicants to send money, buy equipment for reimbursement, or pay for access to a required monthly newsletter.

Run away if you see any of these things!

No legitimate job will ever ask you to send them money upfront.

Also included in this category is the classic pyramid scheme. You sign up as an ambassador, purchase products (at a discount), and then get paid (a bit) to sell those same products to others.

If you have to promote your products to your friends and family constantly, it’s probably a pyramid scheme. And if anyone is getting rich off of it, it will probably not be you…

9) Let Me Pay You in Gift Cards

If you’re getting offers to trade your writing for goods and services (such as gift cards), it’s likely a scam. Legitimate companies use legal tender (dollars in the US) to pay their freelancers.

Of course, bartering is a thing. And if you’re entirely confident that the person will uphold their end of the bargain, AND you genuinely think it’s a good deal, feel free to barter. But typically, if you see a job posting that offers non-traditional forms of payment, it’s a red flag.

10. Something Doesn’t Feel Right

Sometimes, a potential job offer doesn’t feel right. Whether you call it intuition or your gut, take a few steps back and examine the situation more closely if you experience this.

If things still don’t add up, walk away. It’s likely a freelance scam.

How to Avoid Getting Scammed as a Freelancer

Now that you have a better idea of the types of scams out there. let’s talk about a few practical things you can do to avoid getting scammed as a freelancer.

  • Know that new scams always pop up. To avoid them, stay aware and research potential new clients before you start working together.
  • Listen to your gut.
  • Be cautious of ads with misspellings, tiny print in places, and other suspicious activity.
  • Only use well-known payment processors.
  • Don’t respond to listings you think are scams.
  • Be cautious of who you give sensitive data to. Protect your social security number and other personal details.
  • Google the names of companies or email addresses to see if anyone else wrote about a scam involving those details.

What to Do If You Fall for a Freelance Scam

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being scammed, don’t panic. Here are a few steps you can take to try to get some of your money back and protect yourself from future scams.

1. Contact Your Bank or Credit Card Company

If the scammer has already taken your money, immediately contact your bank or credit card company and tell them what happened. They might be able to reverse the transaction or put a stop payment on it.

2. File a Police Report

Filing a police report can help protect you and other potential victims from getting scammed in the future. This can also be helpful if you’re trying to get your money back, as some banks require proof of fraud before refunding your money.

3. Report the Scam to Relevant Legal Authorities

Reporting the scam to relevant legal authorities can help them investigate and try to get your money back and protect other potential victims. Depending on where you are, some agencies that you can contact include the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or Better Business Bureau (BBB).

4. Take Steps to Prevent Future Freelance Scams

Once you’ve taken all the necessary steps to get your money back and protect yourself from future scams, take some time to review the warning signs of a scam and consider what measures you can put in place to ensure that it never happens again. This could include asking for more information upfront or being more selective about who you work with.

Legit Work Is Out There

Freelance scams abound, but legitimate opportunities are out there. So don’t let the fear of a scam keep you from freelancing if that’s what you want to do.

Just be cautious and listen to your gut. If something sounds too good to be true, it is!

Need help growing your freelance business and finding legit clients? Taking a freelance writing course can help! I took and recommend (affiliate link=>)30 Days or Less to Freelance Writing Success.

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