• Advice

A freelancer's guide to dodging scam clients

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

A short email arrived in my inbox, inquiring whether I still translate documents from German into English. I do, and I replied that yes, I was. I didn’t pay much attention to the sender’s name, the email address or the subject line "Translator Needed ASAP."

His reply came almost immediately, thanking me for my quick response and asking me how much it would cost to translate an attached document. Because it seemed that this was a legitimate inquiry that would involve an initial small time commitment on my part by calculating my price and sending a proposal, I started a quick review, as I always do when a potential client reaches me other than through a direct referral. I was not yet alarmed that this might be a scam.

The document was a lengthy, well-written medical paper on the effects of smoking on the human body, with a two-page-long bibliography that included an addendum of methodically listed scientific resources that were diligently quoted in the text. This was not a cut-and-paste job, but someone’s researched work. Nicely formatted and professionally presented. I googled the sender’s name, and yes, there were a few doctors with the same name—one even cited as the co-author of a paper on the comparison of diabetic smokers and non-smokers who undergo amputations. So far so good.

I sent my price proposal and immediately got a reply back, which triggered my suspicion that something was askew: “Thank You very much for the reply, i [sic] am pleased with your price, I will be making payment via cashier check, i will need your full name an address so i can issue out your payment ASAP.”

The cashier's check scam

Ah, the cashier's check scam. Many freelancers and independent contractors become targets. And since the scammers hide behind a veil of legitimacy and mention a freelancer’s professional line of work and specialty, the suggestion to pay with a cashier's check usually comes up only after a back and forth of legitimate-seeming emails (which cost us precious working hours).

Not in this case, though. My scammer was impatient, an amateur.

I ignored his email and received an impolite nudge the day after: “Hello, I am still waiting for your reply.” I decided to play along and answered that I would draw up a contract, that I would need his full address and that I don’t accept cashier's checks. The reply came immediately: “Thank You for the reply, i will be paying via Cashier check, let me know if you are OK with that? Regards.” I replied that no, I won’t accept cashier's checks.

And I never heard from him again.

How the scam works

What exactly is a cashier's check scam? A freelancer receives a cashier's check from a “client” that is above the amount agreed upon. The client assures the freelancer not to worry, to deposit the check and send back the overpaid amount in a few days.

The cashier's check is cleared by the bank, the freelancer assumes the money has been deposited, and sends the client the overpaid amount. A few days later, the bank informs the freelancer that the cashier's check was counterfeit. The freelancer loses the money that was sent back to the client—and might even be asked by his/her own bank to cover the amount of the fake check.

Why it works

The scam works because cashier's checks have a reputation of legitimacy, are seen as risk-free, and misconceived as quickly available funds. When an account holder presents a cashier's check for deposit, the bank will usually make the funds available within 1–5 business days, although the check, particularly if it was issued from an international bank, may take much longer than that to clear (sometimes up to a month). The check given to the freelancer is counterfeit but looks real; it is drawn on a real account with real funds in it.

Once the freelancer’s bank is alerted that the check is fraudulent, however, the transaction is reversed and the freelancer's account is debited.

How to spot scammers before they waste your time

There are tools at your disposal to help you spot a scam like that, even before a cashier's check as payment option comes up. I would suggest following these steps to scrutinize every potential client who doesn’t come through a direct referral. It could help you avoid becoming the next victim of a con artist.

  • The subject line and body of the email. Are the words misspelled, does the writer use lower and upper case letters randomly, are there grammatical or spelling mistakes, does it seem that words, whole sentences or paragraphs were copied and pasted into the body of the email and have different styling (fonts, font sizes, font weights)?
  • Is your name misspelled? Don’t be fooled when the sender refers to a social network, like LinkedIn, or a professional organization or job bank that you actually belong to, or mentions a colleague’s or past client’s name. Those details can be easily found online and associated with you since you are most likely listed in public databases as a freelancer or have a website that divulges those details.
  • The project description. Does the potential client offer only a vague description of the work needed or the scope of the project and its deadline? All these could be red flags.
  • The sender's name. Google the sender’s name. In my case, the name seemed legitimate and on the surface confirmed the scammer’s ask (a doctor wanting to translate a research paper). The scammer could have done the same research as I, though, and adjusted his/her inquiry accordingly.
  • Scrutinize the sender’s email address. Google the sender's address as is—and then also add the prefix mailto: to your search. This will also catch an email address that is embedded in a page’s HTML source code. After googling my scammer’s address, a Twitter user came up, a video game enthusiast. I am not saying that he is the scammer. It might be that his email got hacked and the scam emails were sent using his account, under his name.

Other ways to protect yourself

That raises another important point: Secure your email account, and all other accounts, by using 2-factor authentication and come up with strong passwords at the very least, so that your account cannot be hacked and scam emails cannot be sent in your name.

If the client claims to represent a company, look it up on Better Business Bureau, google it, and search for the email sender’s name on the company’s website. Then send an email to that contact, using his/her business email and inquire whether the email query you received was legitimate.

Attachments and plagiarism alerts

Open attachments with care! Gmail has a preview feature that doesn’t actually download the Word/PDF attachment but lets you read it and copy text from it. It goes without saying that you have to have the latest malware and antivirus software version installed on your computer.

If you are asked to translate/copyedit/rewrite a text, check that the copy has not been plagiarized. Use this online tool to copy/paste the text to analyze whether the exact text has already been published online, and where. In my case, no plagiarism was detected. That said, the text might not be online—but that doesn’t prove it is the sender’s to use.

Payment options

  • Never agree to provide work without signing a contract first. No legitimate client would urge you to start working without one.
  • Never accept cashier's checks as payments, even from clients that haven’t raised any red flags.
  • Never accept personal checks from new clients.
  • Be especially alert when the potential client is less interested in the scope of work, the deadlines or the contract, but offers to pay in full and immediately (like my scammer). No legitimate client is that eager to pay up front. If it sounds too good to be true, it is likely a scam.
  • Never accept a check that exceeds the amount you asked for. Send it back immediately—and do not deposit it.
  • Use electronic online payment services that don’t expose your bank account or bank name, like PayPal or Zelle, to receive your fee (most banks offer that service).

Even after receiving personal checks from legitimate clients, wait at least two weeks until the check is cleared by your bank (or get the cash) before you start working or continuing your work.

What to do if you've been conned

  • Alert your bank! Banks are usually required to reimburse their customers for forged checks. That depends, however, on the circumstances of your case and your state’s laws; your bank might want to investigate further.
  • Alert other freelancers who are on your contact list. They could become potential targets if your email account was hacked.
  • Alert the organization/platform that the scammer mentioned he/she found your profile on.
  • Expose the scammer on your social media feeds if you feel safe and comfortable doing so.
  • Last but not least, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and/or with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Trust your gut

All these steps can reduce the risk of falling victim to a con artist. But most importantly, trust your gut. One red flag is enough to ditch any prospective client, let alone a scammer. Aim that potential clients and leads come from referrals or past clients—and only engage with them after you do the vetting to see if the client is a good fit, on your own terms.

If you find yourself researching and pondering a potential client for too long, if you feel stressed over how to respond to a client, or are put off by the tone of an email exchange, it’s time to walk away. If your potential client asks for too much personal information early on, before a contract is even signed, it’s time to walk away. A real client will respect your privacy; a scammer will continue to probe.

Your time is worth money. Your work is worth money. Your sanity is worth money. Walk away if anyone attempts to waste any of it.

Tekla Szymanski is a multilingual editor, writer, content strategist and web developer. She is the founder of Content + Design LLC, which focuses on nonprofits and personal brands that have a story to tell and a mission to share. Tekla develops websites around her clients' unique content needs.