I remember the first time I was scammed. It was (needless to say) a horrible, guilty feeling. Thinking back, I didn’t lose a lot of money at all, nor did I lose too much time giving away “free work” to the scammer. The part that really hurt was my ego. I felt stupid!
This evil, evil, godawful person ruined my entire day after he took my work and disappeared without a trace. I was new to the world of online work and I didn’t bother to read the online reviews which (I later found) all warned of the same thing: this guy takes your work and disappears. Cough it up to my own inexperience!
Naturally, I went vigilante and backtracked his email. I found his personal accounts and retracted my own revenge in internet-savvy and satisfying ways involving 4chan. But it didn’t help that much, I still felt stupid for being scammed.
A word of advice: everyone gets scammed once or twice. It’s part of the learning experience especially for freelancers that work online. You will get smarter and smarter about it, don’t worry.
If it helps (and I think it will) here are 12 tips to stay safe online and keep yourself protected from scammers.
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Tips For Staying Safe Working Online
1. Research The Client’s Profile
Freelancing platforms often have star-based ratings to warn freelancers about a possible “problem client”. Although not all clients with bad ratings are scam clients, these ratings could be warning signs. They can warn freelancers about the general character of the hiring person and the work load. Such as if the pay is too low, more task than anticipated, different task than proposed, etc.
Typically on freelance platforms, there are extra verifications for both working client and hirees. Only apply to jobs that are, for example, “Payment Verified” to lessen the risk of being scammed. Only work with clients that have reviews from other freelancers. Make sure to leave honest feedback after working with your clients.
2. Request Payment for a Sample
A client that asks for a free sample could already be a red flag, especially when you come vetted with reviews, existing work samples, and glowing references.
There are times when the client’s job is very specific and often needs samples related to the job. Remember to request a payment or at least deposit for future work, don’t give away work for free. Doing a paid sample is fine, and it is often a sign that the employer is really committed to finding a freelancer for a job. Pricing a paid sample will also depend on the time and effort that you will need, just like a usual job order.
Asking for a sample is fine, this is one of the ways a client can assess if you are qualified for the job or not. However, asking for a “free” sample is not okay as it is also possible that the sample you’re going to do for free is already the task you’re supposed to do paid. New freelancers often fall to this scam before learning their lesson. Instead of doing a free test task, you can send more of your past samples instead.
3. Ask for a Milestone Payment Before Working
If the project work is long, ask for milestone payments. Whenever I encounter a story about scammers, the common underlying theme is how they drag out payment and make the duration of work longer than a traditional month.
For example, my friend’s brother is a freelance interior designer. When he first graduated (into the 2008 recession) he was hired to do work that was based on a 3 month contract. He never sought payment and after 3 months of full-time work, he went seeking payment to find out it was a scam.
Sites such as Upwork allows the client to deposit his or her budget which can be released once the job was done. This is great for freelancers. Don’t start working on jobs if you don’t have any assurance that you will get paid.
4. Read The Job Description Carefully
Reading the job post carefully could give you additional hints about the character of the hiring person. It is also helpful for you to determine what kind of tasks you’re expected to deliver. You can determine the hiring person’s expectation relative to the workload. Perform a quick backend research on the name and company of the hiring person via Google just in case as well.
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5. Only Work on Trusted Sites
A lot of freelancing platforms are popping like mushrooms nowadays. According to the Chamber of Commerce, some of the best sites to find freelancers are Amazon MTurk, Upwork, FlexJobs, Freelancer, and LinkedIn ProFinder. These big freelance platforms are mostly legit but there are some occasional scammers on these sites that slip through the cracks. It’s still in your own personal best interest to do some careful vetting before working with a hiring person. If the job sounds too good to be true, it is.
6. Review Language & Punctuation Closely
Official businesses, even in an online setting, will try to look professional to freelancers. This is to help them attract the right kind of freelancer that will complete the job. The listing will naturally have great English, grammar, syntax and maybe a little about the business or organization that’s hiring. If there are glaring language mistakes that are obvious, there might be something amiss about the job already.
In addition to this, if the client does not indicate pay, the number of words/hours required, or the specific requirements for the job then it’s better to decline the job offer.
Freelancers could find them in a tough spot to say “no” and will likely get exploited, especially if you’re a newbie. At the end of the day, you might find yourself giving free work or having your online identity compromised.
7. Emphasis Contract in Written Form
When signing your freelancing contract, read the entire thing even if it’s boring or lengthy. This also applies to every document where you need to sign your name. Once you sign the document, it is will be in full effect and is legally binding. What’s written there will be the first words imposed, not your conversations with your freelance hiring person. Its always better to be safe than sorry.
8. Do Not Pay To Start a Job
The first and the most important thing to remember in working online is to not give money to start a job. This scam takes a lot of forms, such as paying for software, sending additional materials, or opening an account. One word that scammers often use to describe this is “fee” or something similar. Take note, you’re working online to earn money, not to give.
9. Do Not Give Away Any Forms of ID
One of the most legit-looking scam in online freelancing platforms is for the client to ask for an ID or documentation for “verification.” If this is one of your client’s prerequisite before starting a job, you might want to reject and look for other gigs. Freelancing platforms (Upwork, Freelancer, Fiverr, etc) are the one in charge of KYC or Know Your Customer program so clients will never have to do it themselves. Usually, scams like this are done to collect critical information that can be used for fraud such as money laundering.
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10. Do Not Take Work Outside Of Platform
Freelancing platforms exist to make sure that the needs of the clients and the freelancers are met on the same platform.
In exchange for the service fee, platforms make sure that clients can get their desired output while freelancers are assured that they will get paid.
Although this is not always the case, taking the work outside of these platforms can risk your assurance of getting paid now that you are not protected by the platform. Instead of directly going through PayPal or other payment services, use a secure platform as the middleman for payment is safer and easier. Many offer direct deposit to your bank.
This protection also applies to communication within freelancing platforms. If the client made a service complaint or payment dispute, and all your conversations were outside of the platform, it will be harder for you to get justice for yourself against a scammer.
11. Never Give Out Sensitive Information
There are a lot of job posts that talks offer compensation in exchange for using your computer or your online accounts (your social media, your email, etc.) Watch out for clients who ask freelancers to open an account (bank account, social media account, etc) using the freelancer’s name.
With your online credentials in their hands, scammers can perform illegal actions without getting caught simply by using your identity. Although jobs like this seem like easy money, you are risking a lot if you are held accountable.
12. Don’t Accept Partial Payment Up Front
This happens when the client pays to a partial payment up-front, say 30% of the whole project payment to jumpstart a contract. After you completely finished the task and submitted it, the client will end the contract and will usually go incognito mode, dodging paying the other 70%.
Put this rule to your freelancing rulebook: only submit the portion of work that was paid for, unless the payment is already guaranteed by the platform itself.
13. Wary Job Offers That Direct To Third Party Sites
If you found a job offer that requires you to go to another site for more details about the job and applying, make sure it’s reputable. This includes SSL authentication and certification. Check out the backend on the site including domain age and who it could be registered to. If there are red flags, it would be better if you ignore it.
Most of these sites just want your CV or resume so that they can spam you with unnecessary job offers that are likely scams too. Most reputable, big freelancing sites like Upwork already have the right tools in your disposal to make finding employees easier.
14. Report Scams and Scammers
Last but not least, make sure to report job postings from scammers. Even if you are not affected these scammers can victimize newbie freelancers. Believe in karma 🙂
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Most Common Online Hiring Scams
1. Working For Exposure
This usually happens when a client wants you to work for free in exchange for “exposure” or share of “future profit”. Basically, you work hard and for hours without getting a single dime – if you’re lucky, maybe a reference. Although they’re not technically scams, they don’t leave a good taste in any hardworking freelancer’s mouth.
There is no assurance that you’ll get exposure by working with the client. There is also no assurance that you’ll get future profit after working in a big project.
2. Ghosting Schemes
This scam usually happens when you and your client doesn’t work on a platform. After you finished your job and submitted it to your client, and after sending an invoice and a reminder, he or she will be gone or worst, have blocked any means of contact with you. As you wait for your pay, your scammer client is already trying to get as far away as he or she can. This is one of the reasons why working with a contract on a known platform is a must.
3. Malicious Download Files
Hackers are getting more creative these days. Most of these hackers will post a job that is too good to be true to lure in inexperienced freelancers. After talking for a while, they will require the freelancer to open a file (for work purposes). Before you know it, your computer has been hacked and the hackers are getting every information they can get from you to use it for fraud and other illegal things. Always check the file extension and make sure that the filename ends with recognizable document files.
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4. Jobs Requiring Personal Sensitive Information
With over thousands of job postings being posted in a lot of freelancing sites, these platforms have a hard time checking each posting. Some will offer jobs that include you lending your account (any kind of online accounts) and using it for their business. This is very dangerous, they can use your identity for money laundering while you would be held responsible for any crimes since your identity was used.
5. Fake Payment
This scam happens after you submitted your work, your client will “make a mistake” accidentally sending you an extra large payment. You will receive a very authentic-looking message stating your client has sent money to your account. Your client will ask you to “give the excess payment back.” After sending the money back, you’ll find out later that the transaction message was fake and that you gave free service, as well as free money, to a scammer.
When you find it out, is already too late to get your work back even if you could recover the money.
6. Phishing Emails
Phishing can happen whether you’re a freelancer or not. This has been around since the inception of the email. It was very effective before and still relatively effective even today because of the simplicity.
This happens when you provided your personal credentials to your account to a website which looks like the real thing. When signing in, make sure that there is a lock logo in your address bar before inputting any data. Check the URL too, and if you gave them a name, make sure they are addressing you with your given name.
A common example is when the PayPal URl is www.paypal.ml rather than www.paypal.com. Also, make sure that you see “https” at the beginning of the URL and not just http.
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7. Captcha Jobs
Captcha entry jobs are being marketed as “Data entry.” You’ll have to enter captchas from the scammer’s platform and has a rate like $2 per 2,000 entries. What this captcha jobs actually do is that instead of using a bot, scammers use humans to do the bulk of captcha job for them. These captchas are usually done to bypass the anti-bot defense of secured sites in order to create spams.
Don’t expect these people to pay for your work. Even if they would, the $2 per 2,000 entries is an extremely lowballer pay. These types of scams could happen on Amazon’s data entry website, mTurk.
Nothing’s really wrong in re-outsourcing, especially if you’re a freelancer and is somehow caught in a tough situation (caught in an accident, family problem, hospitalized). When the client freelancers reason is because of something beyond his or her control which rendered him or her unable to do weekly responsibilities, it is okay to outsource for help to avoid disrupting the business of the original client.
However, double outsourcing becomes a scam when a freelancer lands a gig for $50 and will offer it to someone for $5. In addition to this, the freelancer-scammer will also have positive feedback.
9. Membership Scams
This scam will mention that their “company” is hiring and needs a lot of new staff for their overflowing work tasks. But, in order for you to join them, you need to pay a membership “fee” to access the job details. As I mentioned earlier, you look for gigs to get money in return, and not to give them to someone or someplace you are unfamiliar with. Beware of these kinds of scams.
Do a quick search and look for any feedback about the specific company or website requiring any membership fees without a free trial. Even Flexjobs offer free trials to their client base and they are 100% legit. If you can’t find any information then back away. Do not be tempted or feel like you’re losing out on something; it’s very likely another membership scam.
10. Mystery Shopping Scams
The scammer will ask you to deposit a cash check in your fund, and it will actually reflect in your account after a few days. With this seemingly “free” money, you will be asked to purchase some reloadable gift cards and send a picture of these cards to the scammers. The scammers will usually want you to keep these cards as your compensation. But, after a few days or weeks, the check that you deposited will be voided as fakes, and you will be charged with the same amount that you withdrew to buy those gift cards. The scammers by then will have long collect the reward gift card from the photos you sent.
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