Common Scams That Online Freelancers Should Watch Out For and How To Avoid Them

Updated: September 19, 2020

Are you new to the online freelancing world? If so, then you should know that not everyone can be trusted online.

You can search Google for Freelancer scam, Upwork scam, writer scam, work-from-home scam, and other similar terms, and you’ll find hundreds of articles.

Some schemes will be obvious, but others can be quite clever and complicated. And before you know it, they’ve already gotten away with not paying you for the work you’ve done.

Here are the most common scams that online freelancers like you should watch out for, and how to avoid them.

1. Asking for a unique sample work

An online job is posted with a big budget. For example, they need 100 articles and will pay $5,000. However, if you want to apply, you are required to submit a unique sample of your work.

After you submit your article, they’ll apologetically turn down your application. Perhaps say that they’ve already chosen someone else for the job.

But of course, that’s not true and they just got themselves a free article from you and all the others who applied.

How to avoid: Never give a unique sample work. Instead, show them some of the previous work you’ve done. That’s always more than enough for them to see if you’re a good fit for the job.

2. Low starting pay with a promise of a raise

An online job is posted with a horribly low budget. For example, 20 articles for only $25. However, the listing also says that if they like the quality of your work, then they can give you a higher pay for the next batch of articles.

Just like the previous scam, you won’t be hearing again from them after you finish the job. And they just got themselves several hundred incredibly cheap articles from everyone who took the job.

How to avoid: Never bid on and accept work that’s way below your normal rate. Know your worth and value the work you produce as a freelancer.

3. Membership fee required

An online job marketplace claims that they have several clients looking for freelancers. However, to access the marketplace and get projects, you need to pay a membership fee.

After paying, you’ll see that the marketplace isn’t as big as advertised. Most of the listings are actually low-paying jobs. You might get a few projects, but it’s never as profitable as you will want it to be.

How to avoid: Never pay to work. That’s simply absurd if you need to give someone money so you can work for them.

4. Revenue share model

A website is looking for writers who can produce and publish content for them. They promise to pay you a portion of the revenue they get from advertisers.

You apply and get accepted. However, after writing several articles, you notice that your income is grossly cheap. You stop writing for them, not knowing that they’ve earned more than what they declared to you.

How to avoid: Never agree on a revenue share model for new or low traffic websites. Instead, look for websites that already have a huge audience, and with writers who can attest and are satisfied with the profits they’re receiving from the website.

5. Personal information needed

An online job is willing to pay a portion of your fee up-front. But they can only pay through a direct bank transfer or a payment towards your credit card. Thus, they’re asking for a little too much personal information from you.

This employer could be an identity thief, who is looking to empty the bank account or steal credit card information from careless online freelancers.

How to avoid: Use an online payment solution that’s more secure and reliable, such as PayPal. If they refuse to, then ask for a check payment, which shouldn’t be a problem if they’re a legitimate business.

6. Direct contact arrangement

You applied for an online job that’s posted in a marketplace. The employer then asks for your email address or contact number, so they can take the work outside the marketplace, work directly with you, and avoid transaction fees.

You agreed and they’ll seem sincere during the work process. However, after you submit your work, they’ll disappear without a trace and without paying you.

How to avoid: When working directly with clients, ask for payment up-front and use online services that offer escrow services or similar payment protection features for freelancers.

7. Need to purchase software or equipment

You get accepted for an online job. However, the employer is requiring you to use a peculiar and expensive software or equipment that you don’t have.

They’ll try to convince you that the purchase is worth it because that means they can give you more work after the current project.

Of course, that will never happen, and you end up with an almost useless software or piece of equipment, which your employer probably just wanted to sell to you.

How to avoid: Before accepting any online job, clarify with the employer the requirements and their expectations.

More than the output specifications, you can also get their agreement on how you’ll do the job, including software you’ll use and the file type you’ll submit.

Final Tips

Common sense and good communication can help you avoid misunderstandings with clients and staying vigilant can help you avoid scams.

Using a more secure and trusted online payment service is a good start. For example, PayPal offers both Seller Protection and Buyer Protection features that cover your eligible payments.

Any other tips you can add to the list? Are there any common freelancer scams that I missed? Share them below in the comments section.

Disclosure: The author is a PayPal Philippines freelancer mentor. This post is part of a campaign to engage and grow the Filipino freelance community.

What to do next: Click here to start your financial journey with IMG Wealth Academy


  1. I will certainly pass this along to my beautiful bride who has been a freelance academic writer for eighteen + years. I will add one test my wife gives a new company that she is starting out with. No matter how great the company appears to be, she will only do a limited amount of work and see if she gets paid on time and as promised. Since she works for several companies in different geographical locations, she can afford to “test drive” a new companies ethics. When a new company passes her tests, she will gradually increase the number and dollar amount of the projects she accepts.

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