Discover how to earn a great living from freelancing.

It happens to all freelancers at some point, a project that makes you stop and think - "This is it, I have hit the JACKPOT". Maybe a new client has come to you asking for a small amount of work, but saying they have a huge budget for it or you have sent a proposal that was a little cheekily overpriced (OK.. by a lot) and the client has come back and gave it the green light.

Then you stop and think, is this too good to be true? The saying goes - if it seems like it is, it usually is. Unfortunately this generally rings true for freelancing and you need to know methods of working out if a project is a scam. Based on my experiences these "golden nugget" projects usually always end badly.

Possible outcomes if the project is a scam:

  • You will spend lots of hours planning and preparing for the project, then the client will disappear.
  • After you send over any meaningful work the client will again, disappear.
  • The project will never start, and you will be forever going back and forth agreeing details with the client.

And finally the WORST outcome. You do all the work, don't get paid and the client vanishes.

(I know right now a lot of you are crying out - get a contract, and below I talk about how that is one of the best ways to know if a project is a scam. However, we would all be telling a lie to ourselves if we pretend we have never been caught out by a none paying client before).

I think there are many reasons why a project can end up being a scam. The client could just be trying to get free work. They could think they have a huge budget, that then disappears. They could be using you as a "fact finding" mission so they know a ballpark figure to go and negotiate with a freelancer they really want to use. Many, many reasons. None of these reasons should matter to you however, because below are a range of ways you can use from now on to know if a project is a scam.

Offer them a contract early in the negotiation.

This is an absolutely fool proof way of figuring out if this new client is serious - or just kicking the tyres. You don't need to offer them a full blown contract when the initial project discussions begin. Offering them a "fact finding" or "research and development" contract will suffice. Not only does this come across as more professional it is a great litmus test.

If they have no intention of ever using your services, or don't have the massive budget they are indicating then they will probably not sign any contract. Similarly if they intend on vanishing at some point, they are not going to react favourably to being made sign a contract so early. All these things though are red flags.

ANY client that does not want to sign a contract should make you really question how serious they are.

If a NEW client (one you have never worked with before) comes along, with a small project and a big budget - then does not want to sign a contract. Run.

Take a deposit.

Please, TAKE A DEPOSIT. Look, any freelancer who says they have never been stung by a none paying client - is a liar. Forums are full of people online saying how they have never not been paid because of how careful they are. Rubbish. It happens. It's part of freelancing. It happened me when starting out - weeks of work for nothing. If it's happened you then by now you probably take a deposit every job, it's a scar that never heals and a mistake you definitely learn from. However, if you are reading this and you haven't started freelancing yet or you have and never not been paid - take deposits, always.

If a client says, "let's just start the work and I will get you a deposit next week". Say NO.

A contract may be a fool proof way of working out how serious a client is, but taking a deposit is definitive. Always take a percentage of the total estimated cost of the project. Why? Because $100 deposit is peanuts when a project estimate might be $10,000.  The deposit should be enough that if the client disappears during the project - you have covered your costs. Personally I take a 50% deposit.

So if this new client pays 50% of the estimated project cost. Great, the project is not a scam - you've been paid. If they refuse to pay any deposit, it's a scam.

Research the client.

When a client is looking for a freelancer, they are going to research you. Previous work, reviews, etc. So make sure when a new client comes along - especially one which you have concerns about the legitimacy. Research them.

Look at his/her website - does it look how you expect? Google their domain, have any bad reviews or experiences been posted about them? Are they who they say they are? A brief 5-10 minutes with Google and you will usually be able to tell if someone is legit or not.

If you start finding bad stories posted on forums about the client. That is usually a great indicator to pass on this project.

Another great one is if the client has a huge budget, but a quick Google shows them on freelance bidding websites (you know the ones I mean) looking freelancers for $2 an hour.

Have a face to face (online/offline) meeting.

"Feeling out" a clients seriousness is sometimes possible through email, but face to face will always give you a more complete picture of a client. I used to always try and get a sit down meeting with a new client in a coffee shop. For me, it was an indicator of seriousness. If they actually drive to meet me, then they must want to work with me, right?

These days (especially in these times - coronavirus) a Zoom meeting suffices. Generally speaking if someone is out to try and get some free work, they aren't going to waste time having a Zoom meeting with you. They will just find another freelancer who doesn't want to bother having a face to face meeting. What that means is simply asking a client to get on a call for 15minutes will immediately let you know if the client is serious.

Anybody who genuinely wants a project done will actually be very excited to get on a call with you.

Ask them for referrals.

This should be the last line of defence - it's a little unorthodox. If some of the above methods have thrown a red flag, but you still want to believe - or the money they are offering is too good to just walk away from until you are 100% certain. Ask them for a referral or two.

These days many clients will ask you, the freelancer, for a referral - so I don't see why we shouldn't ask the client for referrals as well. Simply ask for a referral, or the email of a previous freelancer who worked with them. That way you can get in touch and find out if the client is legit.

Personally I wish I had used this method on one of my clients. They initially paid great and all went well. Then another project came along, and they vanished. After using Google, I found another freelancer they had worked with before - and shock, they done the same thing to them. A simple message before ever working with the client and I could have dodged a bullet.

As I said though, use this as a last line of defence. Some clients will get a bit edgy when asked for referrals, and some won't have worked with a freelancer before.

Hopefully these methods above mean you never end up taking on a scam project. If you stick to the contract & deposit methods above - you will never end up out of pocket.

That being said, know that it happens us all occasionally. We see a big budget, for a small amount of work and our eyes light up. We get sucked down the rabbit hole of wanting to believe and in the end we get caught out. That's life, that's freelancing.

Know that scars caused by situations such as being scammed, make us much better freelancers in the long run.

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