Ever since I started writing at Plagiarism Today and especially since I started this column, I’ve been hearing a lot from freelance writers who have been scammed or otherwise victimized by unscrupulous clients. Though the good news is that such bad clients are very rare in the big scheme of things, they are common enough that almost every freelancer, if they remain active long enough, will run into one or two over the course of their career.
So how do you avoid being taken advantage of as a freelance writer. As we discussed previously, clients have the playing field tilted to their advantage on most legal issues. As such, litigation isn’t often practical in these matters.
This means that the best way to protect yourself from these scams is to learn what they are and not step into them in the first place.
On that note, here are five of the more common freelance writing scams I’ve been hearing about over the years. Though they are almost all variations of the “receive work, don’t pay freelancer” scam, they’re all slightly different in how they are executed and what the freelancer has to be on the lookout for.
Beware of these freelance scams
1. The Vanilla
The vanilla scam is the most basic version. Basically, the writer turns in the work, sends in the invoice, and the client never pays up, oftentimes disappearing completely or at least shutting off communication entirely.
It’s the simplest and the most common type of scam, but oftentimes it isn’t done deliberately. A lot of times, companies go out of business between the time a contract is signed and the work is received. Likewise, life happens to clients as well as freelancers, and they aren’t able to fulfill their side of the bargain timely. Just because a client hasn’t paid in X number of days does not make them a scammer.
That being said, if you turn in your work, submit your invoice, and don’t hear back, there is a decent chance that you are being taken advantage of, especially if the work has been posted on the client’s site or otherwise used.
2. The Rewrite Loop
The goal of the rewrite loop scam is to make it so that the writer feels as if he or she is the reason they aren’t being paid, not the client. Basically, what happens is that, after the writer submits the work, the client constantly demands rewrites and fixes to a submitted work until the writer is forced to give up, completely unable to meet the client’s constantly changing demands or impossibly high standards.
The end result of the rewrite is that the freelancer is forced to either walk away or accept a reduced payment for the work, despite having put in the extra time and energy into the rewrites for the work.
3. The Derivative Work
With this scam, the client refuses to pay for the work, oftentimes citing some kind of quality standard or simple lack of need, and then promises not to post the work. However, sometime later, a very similar work to the original will appear on the site. It can be as vague as a piece that uses the original research from the original content to a blatant poor rewrite of the piece.
What happened is that the client didn’t pay for the original work but, instead, paid someone else to do a rewrite of it, which is much cheaper. Since many freelance writers won’t even notice if a shoddy rewrite appears on their site, it’s a way for them to use the work they didn’t pay for with much less risk.
4. The Modified Terms
In a scam that’s especially common with jobs that don’t have a complete and signed contract, some clients have been known to change the terms of the deal unilaterally, often without notifying the writer at all.
For example, if you agreed to have your work posted but only with attribution, the client may decide to simply remove the attribution line or make you a complete ghostwriter. Similarly, the client may remove the link to your site, and modify any other terms that you had agreed upon.
To be clear, these clients usually pay, but they secure better rates by offering more favorable terms for the writing and then altering those terms whenever the work goes online. This makes it a less-than-complete scam but still a frustrating problem for freelance writers.
5. Can’t Get the Money
Finally, some clients will claim to pay but will do so through an obscure and shady payment processor that the writer has never heard of. This is more common when dealing with clients from foreign countries who sometimes will try to send payments through processors that, at least they claim, are native to them.
Unfortunately, the writer either can’t use these processors or, if they do, they open themselves up to an even worse scam, having their bank accounts misused.
This creates a barrier that prevents the writer from being able to get at the money, giving the client a reason to withdraw the authorization (if it existed in the first place) and claim that it was the writer’s fault for not getting the payment when it was available.
To be clear, these scams can and do happen to just about anyone. There’s no shame in being ripped off by a bad client, and, even with proper precautions, there sometimes just isn’t anything that you can do.
Still, there are ways to minimize the risk of dealing with a bad client, and, next week, I’m going to offer tips and suggestions for spotting these and other scams before they have a chance to rope you in.
After all, with these types of scams, the best protection is to avoid them completely, and, though it’s not possible to completely avoid them, there are definitely ways you can limit the risk of becoming a sucker.
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.
First published in February 2011; republished October 2023