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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A Toolkit for Avoiding the Top 10 Scams That Target Writers


Have you ever wondered if a freelance-writing opportunity you’re looking at is a scam? It certainly could be. Scams that target writers are common.

Some of these rip-offs are age-old and never seem to go away. And new scams are always emerging, keeping writers on their toes.

We’re past due for an updated guide to the scams that target writers—with tips on how you can avoid falling for them. 

Please don’t get scammed! Keep reading for the top 10 scams that target writers, or fill in the form below to get this as a digital ebook. (Or both!)

The top 10 scams that target writers

Often freelance writers can be too trusting, as we seek to ply our trade. Sadly, there are plenty of people out there ready to take advantage of our trusting nature for their own gain.

1. Writing for free

There are many “opportunities” to write for free online. You’ll get a lot of pitches that your free piece will give you “great exposure.” Most of these offers are a complete waste of your time and energy.

The most common scam in this category is the request to write a free trial article as an audition for a job.

Unless you have no clips, you shouldn’t have to do this—prospects can just look at your samples and decide whether to hire you.

All too often, companies fill their content needs by simply asking applicants to do these “auditions.” These free samples are their whole source of content. They don’t really plan to hire anyone.

If you get asked to write a free sample, ask yourself if it’s worth your time. A good counter-offer is to write the piece on spec—namely, that if they use the clip you’ll be paid. If it’s good enough to publish, there’s no justifiable reason why your first piece should be unpaid.

2. Pennies for ad-clicks

Somewhat similar to Medium’s formula, you may find sites that offer an “opportunity” to write for what they promise will be pay. But the pay model is based on how often readers click on the ads next to your posts, or how many views a post gets.

Most of the sites making these offers have little traffic, so no clicks will happen. Also, have you noticed that people generally hate online ads? Real diminishing returns there, in general.

This is a formula that may have worked 15 years ago, but few sites today are good pay-per-click earning opportunities.

There is a legit way to earn based on traffic or ad clicks. That’s with a minimum-pay guarantee, with click or eyeball revenue figured in as a bonus. I earned well writing for Forbes on this formula at one point (sadly, their pay scheme is different now). Any site that really generates high traffic should be willing to offer you some base pay, since they know you’ll get some traffic. If they won’t pay a flat guaranteed fee in addition to click revenue, I recommend you move on.

3. Pay to play

This is one of the oldest scams out there. It’s so popular that the FTC warns against it. “Congratulations, your resume shows you are qualified for X contract job! Just pay the $30 application fee and you’ll be hired.” Nope. Total scam.

Legitimate employers don’t ask you to pay to apply or to get hired for their job. Nuh-uh.

Also, consider this gray area: the websites that promise you unique lists of freelance jobs, if you’ll pay a monthly subscription fee.

(Red flag: No samples will be offered, no free trial. No other benefits, just job lists.)

Heads up: Most of those job ads are simply scraped up from Craigslist and other places you could look at yourself, for free. And most of them pay about $20 per blog post.

When are job listings worth a fee?

A paid jobs list should be unique and high-quality. Shout-out to FlexJobs, which does an impressive job of digging up legit jobs off arcane places you’ll never find on your own.

A time-saving list of high-paying gigs is worth a fee, in my view. Most pay-to-play sites serve up warmed-over junk listings. Save your money, do your own research-and remember that online job ads are rarely a source of great freelance-writing jobs. That only comes from qualifying and pitching your own prospects, who aren’t sifting through 500 resumes from a mass job ad.

4. Follow the bouncing check

In these days of electronic fund transfers and PayPal, it’s fairly unusual for a client to want to send you a physical check or, even weirder, a money order or Western Union telegram. So if someone asks to pay you in one of these old-school ways, be on red alert. We’ve heard from writers who have turned in packages of 20 articles or more on the basis of an advance check, only to discover the check has bounced.

Another common rubber-check scam that targets writers involves sending you a fat, fake check for a lucrative-sounding upcoming writing assignment. It’s over $1 a word! You’re so excited, they’re paying so well. But after you deposit their check, they cancel part of the writing order and ask you to send the extra funds back.

Meanwhile, the check bounces. By the time your bank notifies you, you’ve mailed off $400 to your “client,” and they’re in the wind.

In another variation, the client tells you that special equipment or materials are required to do their writing job. (Say what!?) They will send you a check to cover this purchase, but urge you to go ahead and buy it now, so you can get started. You buy the needed items, which never arrive. You’ve wired your “reimbursement” to the client’s shadow company. By the time you start to wonder what’s up, their check has bounced.

Woman holding an ebook that is available as a free download on this blog post. Helps people avoid the top 10 scams that target writers.

5. Imposter syndrome

No, I’m not talking about the self-esteem problem where you don’t feel worthy of earning a great living as a freelance writers. Here, I mean scammers who impersonate a name-brand company or thought leader in hopes of luring you into their scam.

One popular scam in this category involved people posing as executives at Mercer Consulting. They request Google Hangout-based text “interviews” to screen you.

Presto-you’re hired!

The only problem is that they’re imposters, leveraging a big-business name to suck you into a scam. Luckily, the writers I know have managed to pull out before finding out the details of how they were going to get exploited here. Likely, they would have turned in a big project, only to find the client in the wind.

Writers with high visibility online also get impersonated this way, by people running the next scam in our list. I know because it happened to me.

6. Man in the middle

When is a client not really a client? When they are a middleman inserting themselves into a transaction to steal a cut of your pay. Not talking about digital agencies that go out and hustle to sign clients and then hire writers to do their assignments. These are people who’ve done nothing to create the opportunity-they just want some money that should rightfully be yours.

This has been going on since the birth of the Internet. Here’s how it works: people who aren’t writers sign up on mass platforms such as Upwork, posing as writers. Then, they bid low on masses of gigs to scoop up as many listings as possible. Then, they offer to sub the work out to you, for even less money than the pittance that was offered originally. They pocket the difference.

I can document middleman scams targeting writers dating back to the days of Elance (remember them?)—that was the place where someone posed as me and then wanted to sub out work for a pittance.

When you talk to clients, make sure they are the client, not a middleman adding zero value. You get paid less in this scenario, and don’t get direct client contact. That means you’ve been robbed not just of some of your pay, but also of the career-making opportunity to get client recommendations and referrals.

7. Fake pricing scams

This is that new wrinkle I was telling you about. Apparently, some clients list high rates on their jobs when they post them to mass platforms-but there’s a catch.

If you see a note that says “ignore the price,” watch out. It turns out some platforms allow clients to post one price in their listing, but their fine print reveals the job actually pays pennies. This is a way of attracting better-quality writers who’ve set higher rates on the platform, and then hoping to sucker them into writing for less. Maybe you do a batch of work before noticing their real price is different than the one you saw.

Shout-out to freelance writer Sylvie Tremblay for alerting me to this scam, which she experienced on ClearVoice:

Text message about fake pricing from Sylvie Tremblay. This is an example to help make the point of the article that there are scams that target writers.

If you see a deceptively-priced listing, report it to the platform it’s on. Hopefully, we can keep the pressure on to get these posters banned.

8. Promotional scams

Marketing your writing is time-consuming work most of us hate. That’s why scams have proliferated that purport to  find us clients or help sell our book. Some of the popular offers out there:

  • Lead-finding platforms. Plenty of places claim they can drum up prospects for you…but I’ve heard zero success stories in my entire 25+ year writing career. There is no autopilot marketing algorithm that gets this done
  • List sellers. They’ll claim to have a quality, up-to-date list of great prospects for you. But these lists are always a waste of money, with obsolete contact info. There is no list you can buy that will get you gigs-and you can easily build your own lead list with free online search
  • Book promoters. They’ll claim to make your book into a guaranteed bestseller. But as my friend Linda Formichelli sadly found out, promoters can be sketchy and may not fulfill on their promises. Be skeptical and ask to talk to happy customers before paying others for legwork you could do on your own.

I wish there was a way to delegate our marketing done, but time has shown that in the freelance-marketing world, there’s no real substitute for marketing your own services. There’s no pre-built list or automated tool that can get us great clients. Build your network, build your audience, and sell your services. If you want help, carefully check references on anyone you bring on to help you promote.

The VA solution

There are routine parts of our marketing that can be delegated. What you can do is hire someone and give them parameters of who your client is, hand them your homemade prospect list, and get them to do the scut work of sitting and finding a contact name and email for each lead.

You can also write a marketing email pitch and have a VA sit and customize each one and send it out. Admin tasks can be farmed out, under your direction…but that’s about it.

9. Reputation destroyers

If you’ve worked as a journalist, you’ve probably been approached with an offer like this-we’ll pay you to write on the sites where you already have relationships. Please profile us as a great company. Quote our expert.

The catch: They don’t want you to tell your editor they’re paying you.

If you don’t know, this is unethical for journalists. It’s a conflict of interest. But increasingly, if they can land a link on Forbes.com or another high-traffic site with a great reputation, >marketing managers at struggling startups don’t care if they ruin your career.

Yes, it might well get you banned from that site, when the ruse is uncovered. And they don’t care.

The low-rent version of this reputation killer is the undisclosed, paid link-insertion request. A client just wants you to insert links to their site in posts you write on high-traffic, well-regarded sites-without telling your editor. They’ll throw $50 or $100 per link your way, for doing them this favor.

When your editor figures it out, you’ll be banned from their platform. Word gets around about writers with ethical challenges. It won’t ever be worth what they’re offering, when it could tank your career. Essentially, in this scenario you’re pretending you’re a journalist who’s independently found this company noteworthy. And it’s a lie.

If you’re starving this week, it might seem like easy money. I know writers who do this double-dipping, and think it’s no big deal-they’re willing to roll the dice on ruining their career. Trust me, it won’t be worth it. Just say no.

10. Writer education scams

Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, as someone who offers 3-4 new courses every year. But there are a whole lot of sketchy course offers that target freelance writers. They make big promises and deliver little actual learning, teacher FaceTime, or earning potential for you.

What are the problems? Watch for:

  • Faux “experts” who have scant experience in the type of writing or freelancer marketing they’re teaching. I’ve seen people sell a course within 60 days of becoming a full-time freelancer. I’ve even seen presenters who use a pseudonym. Talk about untrustworthy!
  • Big-earning promises for obsolete writing types, such as direct response copywriting (when’s the last time you got one of those long letters in the mail?)
  • A lack of testimonials from happy students
  • Outrageous pricing, such as a $2,500 SEO course I recently saw advertised, with one of the longest sales pages I’ve ever seen
  • Fake freelancing career-help platforms tossed up by fly-by-night operators, hoping to collect membership fees before they get a ton of negative online reviews and disappear. Some then start over with a new URL and keep on scamming
  • Useless “certifications.” Have you been offered a chance to earn a “certificate” in some type of freelance writing, from a non-university? Often, these are pricey courses. Many training platforms will tell you their certificate will be a major game-changer for your writing career. Slap this on your writer site, they tell you, and the clients will be begging to hire you. If you’ve bought into this mythology, I’ve got bad news.

Writing certifications are all but useless. Our clients aren’t familiar with what online courses are available to us, or who taught us what. They actually don’t care if you have a degree from Columbia.

They read your portfolio and decide whether to hire you. That’s it. Credentials aren’t considered—I know because I’m a college dropout with a certificate in nothing, yet I’ve written for multiple Fortune 500 companies.

If you’re wondering why Freelance Writers Den has never dangled a “certificate” at you for completing a course, it’s because certificates don’t help your career. Need to learn something? Take a course from a proven, expert instructor. Use your new skills to pitch for better work.

There’s only one kind of certificate that helps you. That’s one that comes with an instructor’s introduction to prospective clients he’s educated about his program. Marketing offers like these are few, while certificate offers are many.

How can you become a street-smart freelance writer who doesn’t get ripped off? Here are my tips and resources:

Never write for a new business client without a contract and up-front payment

I like 50% of the first project or first month’s retainer, before I start writing. The deposit really screens out a lot of flakes. Don’t forget to let their payment clear the bank, to make sure it’s legit. With international clients, consider asking for 100% up-front. There’s little legal recourse to sue for nonpayment across international borders.

Vet publications carefully

You can’t get a deposit here, so be on guard. How long have they been around? Any chatter online about stiffing writers? Try to get payment terms on acceptance rather than publication, in case they keep pushing your piece to future issues.

Research, research, research

It’s easy to get excited when a prospect contacts you, but look before you leap. Who is this prospect? Ideally, you want to see they’re big, successful, and have been around a long time. A few basic research tips:

  • Get full contact information, including street address and phone, not just an email
  • Look them up online and send a confirming email to the address you find on their site, to verify it’s really them looking to hire you
  • Use whopayswriters.com to check publication pay rates, before you waste time querying a non-payer
  • Check Glassdoor reviews for negative comments
  • See if they have any Better Business Bureau complaints
  • Google “X company sucks,” “is X Company a scam?” or “Is X legit?” to see if your prospect’s shady moves are blowing up the Internet

Don’t freelance alone! You need peers so you have a sounding board when you’re wondering if something is a scam. Within the Freelance Writers Den the members help each other avoid rip-offs and have been for more than a decade. With this big of a freelance-writer group, somebody’s always seen your scam before.

Know the FTC

The Federal Trade Commission warns the public about scams, including ones that impact writers.

Always disclose relationships

Don’t keep the fact that a company is paying you to write about or link to them a secret from your publication editors. Ever.

Avoid backlink swaps

Google doesn’t like to see you stuff a link on your blog in return for getting a link to your blog on your client’s site. Don’t risk your site’s reputation for $50 to $100, or even just a mutual free swap.

Choose coaches, teachers, and promo helpers carefully

Give them the same vetting you’d give a client. How big are they, how long have they been doing this, what’s their level of experience in this topic, is that their real name, can you talk to happy customers…the works. Cross-compare offers and prices before you buy.

Guard your personal information

The only time you should be sending your Social Security number is by submitting a W9 after thoroughly vetting a prospect and verifying their identity. Only send bank account info by filling out an ACH deposit form sent by a verified bank-that gives a client no ability to withdraw, only to deposit. Use secure channels to send personal ID numbers.

Beware of obviously overblown promises

Is freelance writing a guaranteed high-earning career? Can you earn $10,000 a month as a brand-newbie with no training? No.

Trust your gut

Does something not smell right here? If so, investigate. I recently got an InMail from a construction company consultant who said LinkedIn “recommended me” to him (what?). He wanted me to ghostwrite an article on alcohol abuse. Huh? I took that to my LinkedIn network and immediately heard from three other writers who’d gotten the exact same message, in some cases multiple times…a sure sign something’s fishy.

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true…it usually is.

It’s your freelance business to run. Be a good steward of your time and resources and do your homework before you jump on any offers, whether they’re for jobs, marketing help, or courses.

Be your own scam-buster

It’s a great time to be a freelance writer, because there’s a ton of great opportunity out there…but if you waste time falling for scams, it’s hard to earn well.

I hope you can use this guide to avoid getting ripped off, so you can spend more time finding great clients.

Want these top 10 scams that target writers as an ebook? Fill your email address in the form below and we’ll send it to you!

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