Let’s just be honest with each other real quick.
Freelance writers are one of the most scammed groups on the internet.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s true, and if you’ve been freelancing for more than a few months, you’ve undoubtedly come across a scam, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.
In this post, I’m going to explain why that is, show you the three most common scams that writers face, and explain how to effectively counter each one.
Let’s dive in.
Why Freelance Writers Are So Easily Scammed
When you hear me say that writers are easily scammed, you might assume that I mean writers are gullible.
But this actually isn’t the case.
It really has nothing to do with the type of people drawn to freelancing. In many ways, getting scammed is baked into the freelance writing business model, the current freelance landscape, AND the state of freelancing education.
Let me sum it up in a few bullets and then I’ll elaborate a bit more.
Here’s why freelance writers are so easily scammed:
- There are a TON of beginner freelance writers and no consistent education process to usher them into the field
- Doing low paid or unpaid work is a big part of growing a new freelance writing business
- There are virtually no accountability structures in place for people who scam freelance writers
- There are a lot of public examples of success, which can make writers who aren’t successful feel like they are missing a secret ingredient
Let’s start with that first one.
The freelance writing world is essentially the Wild West.
You have writers from all over the world competing for jobs, and there is no systematic process for educating these new writers on the world of freelancing. Some of these writers will find training like this that helps them identify bad actors before encountering them directly. Some writers will find writing groups that help them identify red flags before they fall for them. Some writers will simply be able to spot scams on their own and be fine.
But many won’t have any of these things, and many, especially those who are pushed into freelancing due to less-than-favorable circumstances, are desperate enough for opportunities to take a chance even when they think it could be a scam.
But it gets worse.
The most common scam for writers deals with getting them to produce unpaid work, often in a completely legal manner, and this is a challenging scam to spot in a world where low and unpaid work is actually recommended for newer freelancers looking to build some traction and grow their businesses.
In fact, one of the most successful growth strategies I’ve seen uses guest posting (aka unpaid blog writing) as a pivotal component.
The difference between being scammed and doing a successful guest posting campaign comes down to education, which takes us back to the first point about the sporadic levels of freelancing education among new freelancers.
And while you might think you have recourse if you get scammed as a freelancer, that really couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here’s what happens after you get scammed as a writer.
You are usually working with people out of state or out of country, so attempting any legal action is typically futile. And scammers tend to use shell brands that can be deleted with no consequences as they move on to the next scam. Find your work being plagiarized somewhere? Good luck getting it taken down.
And while this is probably the least of your worries, if you are struggling to succeed as a writer and constantly having successful writers parade their success in front of you, it can make you start to feel like you must be missing some key, secret ingredient, which makes you the perfect target for bullshit training scams.
TLDR; it’s fucking hard being a freelance writer.
BUT the good news is that education pretty handily solves all these problems, and I don’t mean the type of education you need to pay me to discover.
By the end of this blog post, you’ll have everything you need to avoid 95% of the scams that come your way.
For starters, let’s explain what those scams actually look like.
The Three Main Ways Writers Are Scammed (And How To Counter Each One)
When a writer gets scammed, it’s going to fall under one of the following three scams nine times out of ten:
- The writer is scammed into willingly doing unpaid work for nothing of value in return.
- The writer’s work is taken and used without providing promised payment.
- The writer is sold misleading and unhelpful training using aggressive curiosity hooks.
Let’s talk about each of these scams and how to counter them.
1. How Writers Get Scammed Into Willingly Providing Free Work For Nothing
There’s a common meme about this in the artist community – it’s the “make me free art for exposure” meme, and it’s as valid for writers as it is for artists.
Just like there is no shortage of entitled consumers looking to exploit artists, there is no shortage of scammers and narcissistic entrepreneurs willing to give you the “opportunity” to build their business for them for free… with absolutely no benefit to you whatsoever.
These scams can come at you in a number of ways:
- Someone directly reaching out to you and requesting free work
- A job posting looking for writing interns at a “rapidly growing company”
- A job posting for a paid gig where they respond to your pitch by offering you an unpaid gig
- Offers of stock or profit share in exchange for free work upfront
In most cases, these will be intentional scams. In a few cases, you’ll be dealing with a wannabe entrepreneur who genuinely believes he’s going places and will be happy to let you spend an unlimited amount of your time building his dysfunctional business for no compensation.
In both cases, you get the same return.
That’s what you need to understand.
Creating free work will result in ZERO benefit to you 99% of the time.
I’m all about hustle.
Working for no benefit is not hustle. It’s foolishness.
But I don’t think I need to convince you of that.
The real question you are probably asking right now is about that 1%. When IS it worth your time to do a gig for free.
And the answer to that is revealed in how we counter this scam.
Scam Counter: Never Do Free Work For Someone Who Approaches You
Legit businesses don’t approach contractors and beg for free work.
If someone approaches you and asks you to work for free, don’t do it. EVER.
If you pitch a RANDOM company or job listing and they respond by asking for free work, don’t do it. EVER.
If someone you know or someone referred by someone you know comes to you and asks for free work, don’t do it. EVER.
There is only ONE scenario where you should do free work: when YOU decide that YOU want to work for a SPECIFIC, well-established person or brand that you are already familiar with.
While it’s true that well-known brands CAN still scam you, it’s less likely that they will for several reasons:
- Established brands have a lot to lose and can’t simply disappear after pulling some bullshit
- Building a brand requires hard work and consistency, two traits very uncommon among scammers
- Established brands don’t need to scam you to succeed
If you want to reach out to one of these brands and offer free work, go for it!
BUT BEFORE YOU DO, you need to answer the following questions:
- What SPECIFICALLY are you wanting to accomplish by offering this free work? Are you wanting to make a powerful networking connection? Are you wanting turn the free gig into a lucrative paid gig? Are you wanting to be able to add a spicy logo to your website or client list?
- What SPECIFIC type of work will set you up to accomplish your above mentioned goal?
- What SPECIFIC type of work will the person you’re offering it to find valuable?
If you can’t come out with SPECIFIC answers to all three of these questions, it’s not worth your time to offer free work.
2. How Writers Get Scammed Out Of Earned Payments
There’s no nice way to say this.
It’s very easy to simply not pay writers.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, you have no recourse if someone decides not to pay you for any or no reason.
Sometimes, this is really straightforward. They say they are going to pay you, and then they don’t pay you after you deliver the work. This happens to writers all the time, and there is nothing they can do about it after the fact.
Other times, it’s a bit sneakier.
- They promise a recurring gig and ask you to submit several pieces of work to prove you’re the right fit (the free work you submit IS the only work they want)
- They dangle a large project in front of you to get you to submit several initial pieces prior to your first payment (there will never be a payment)
- They tell you they are having issues with their payment system, BUT they are assigning you a bunch more work which will also be paid when they get it fixed (it will never be fixed)
- They request submissions from multiple writers and say they will pay for the ones they like best (they use all of them and pay for none of them)
I want you to understand how easy it is to do this, so let me give you a hypothetical example using my own business.
I get emails several times a week from writers offering to do work “on spec” for me (they only get paid if I like it).
If I was a piece of shit who only cared about making more money, I could easily profit off all these writers without any of them even knowing it.
I turn down WAY more gigs than I accept these days, so here’s how it would work.
- Accept all incoming gigs.
- Assign gigs on spec to writers reaching out to me looking for opportunities.
- Tell writers after they submit the work that it wasn’t good enough, so I won’t be paying them.
- Send their work to clients and collect payment.
- Instruct the clients to publish it under their own brand rather than my name.
- When needed, double dip on these poor writers by reaching back out to them, telling them I think I have a project they’d be a better fit for, and repeating the process.
Thanks to the millions of websites out there, there is very little chance these writers would ever know I was scamming them.
And there are people doing this EXACT thing right now, only since most of them are too lazy to build their own audience, they primarily use job boards and direct outreach to find writers to scam, rather than the writers coming to them.
Again, this is why we I told you that reaching out yourself is safer. People reach out to me because they know my brand and I’ve already built trust with them, in part BECAUSE I’m not the type of person who is going to rip them off.
But I want you to understand how easy it would be for me to scam you, so that you realize you CAN’T rely on trust in me or anyone else in order to protect yourself. You have to be proactive.
So how you can proactively counter this type of scam?
Scam Counter: Never Start Working On A Project Without Half Payment Upfront
This one is actually really simple.
Don’t begin work on a project until the client has paid you half the total project fee.
Don’t do it.
Need an exception?
Here are the only to reasons to consider ignoring this rule:
- You are 100% fine with not getting paid for the project (like when using my No Risk Pitch Method)
- You are working with a very well established brand that pays hundreds of writers each year, including someone you know personally, and their policy dictates full payment on submission of your work.
You might ask, “But Jacob, what if it’s an ongoing client who has paid me numerous times before?”
Well, that’s exactly how one client scammed me for $6k worth of work. We had worked on multiple projects over the course of two years, so when he came to me with a new project and didn’t pay the initial invoice, I was like, “Meh, I know he’s good for it.”
Now, obviously, it’s still possible that the client can walk away without paying the 2nd half payment, but in my experience, that doesn’t happen very often.
In the decade I’ve been freelancing, I’ve been scammed out of around $9k worth of work. Only $500 of that was from a client who didn’t pay the 2nd invoice. The other $8,500 was from me making exceptions to my half payment upfront rule, because it was an existing client or I was nervous about alienating a potential big fish.
Don’t make that same mistake.
Half payment upfront… ALWAYS.
3. How Writers Get Scammed With Misleading Training Products
Tens of thousands of aspiring freelance writers + the lack of a universal system of education = a great environment for online training products.
And while a lot of people out there are genuinely looking to help writers succeed, a lot of other people are happy to outright scam or intentionally mislead writers in their drive to sell more training products.
These types of training scams take on a number of forms:
- Methodologies that sound great but haven’t worked in years
- Marketing that tells you there is a secret ingredient you can only get from their training in order to succeed
- Generic DIY training sold as custom coaching
I’m not writing this to put together a hit list, so I’ll just say that there is a VERY popular copywriter training brand built entirely on that first scam.
They start by selling you very reasonably priced introductory training that is perfectly good stuff.
Then they try to convince you that there are hundreds of writers out there making six-figure commissions by writing direct sales letters, and that if you just purchase their $2,000 training, you will be able to essentially retire while writing only 1-2 letters per year.
But not only is this scenario complete bullshit in 2020, the entire industry it’s based on is barely still in existence:
- There is only a small segment of sales letter clients left today, and they work almost exclusively with a handful of agencies that focus on that
- I’ve spoken directly with the top performing writers from those agencies, and none of them have ever made a six-figure commission on a single letter
- Even the ones who have used their insider connections to go freelance afterward (the most likely to do six-figure commissions) tell me that commissions never run that high
In other words, it’s a scam.
It’s also a scam when you tell people you have a secret ingredient you can only get from their training in order to succeed.
Succeeding at freelancing is incredibly straightforward.
- Send out pitches
- Convert responses to clients
- Write for clients
That’s all there is.
Want more leads? Send more pitches.
Want more money from those leads? Get better at selling yourself to your leads and converting them into clients.
Want more repeat clients, recurring clients, and referrals? Get better at writing and delivering a great customer experience.
There are no secret ingredients.
Let me repeat that.
THERE ARE NO SECRET INGREDIENTS.
This is true for virtually every business model on the planet.
So why the mystique?
The goal of this type of marketing is to force you into an uncomfortable decision. You know it’s probably not going to change your life… but what if you’re wrong?
What if this is that ONE thing you’ve been looking for?
If there’s even a small chance, isn’t it worth spending the money to find out?
You know there are less talented, less hardworking people than you who are succeeding with their businesses, so what’s the deal? Is this the deal? Is this going to give you that key piece you need to FINALLY achieve your goals?
Take it from someone who has spent close to $40k on courses, coaching, and consulting… with ZERO regrets.
Good training does not depend on curiosity and perverse emotional tension to sell you.
The ONLY function of a good copywriting course is to help you achieve results FASTER and MORE EFFICIENTLY than you would trying to figure it out yourself.
That’s always going to be it.
If someone tells you that you NEED their course to succeed at anything, they are LYING to you.
The last type of training scam is where a basic, do-it-yourself training product is marketed as a custom plan or custom coaching.
As a copywriting trainer myself, I periodically purchase competitor products to see what they are doing and learn from other perspective, and I’ve seen SEVERAL extremely well known names in the copywriting space pull this exact bullshit where they offer a “custom” plan and then sell you a collection of blog posts.
There’s no excuse for it.
Here’s how you counter all of these scams at the same time.
Scam Counter: How To Avoid Poor & Misleading Training Products
If you are considering purchasing any sort of training, I highly recommend going through the following process:
- Look at the marketing and ask, “Is this being sold to me based on curiosity?” If so, don’t get it.
- Ask yourself, “Am I wanting to purchase this because I believe I can’t succeed otherwise?” If so, don’t get it.
- Ask yourself, “What specific objective am I hoping to achieve through this training?” If you can’t identify something specific, don’t get it.
- Message the person offering the training and ask them a specific question that is relevant to what you want to learn from the training. If they don’t respond or don’t send you a helpful answer, don’t get it.
- Google the person or brand offering the training. If it’s a person, can you find bylines for them on established websites that confirm they are a legit writer? If it’s a brand, what do the reviews tell you?
- *Optional: try to find someone who has taken the training but is NOT promoting it as an affiliate and get their firsthand thoughts on it
If you’ve been following my content for any length of time, you know that I’m a huge proponent of training.
I’ve personally spent close to $40k on courses, consulting, and coaching over the course of my career.
Some of that training had a HUGE impact on my growth.
Some of it never resulted in a single extra $1.
I don’t regret any of it, because being the type of person who regularly invests in training and experimentation is a big reason I’ve been able to succeed as a freelance writer and marketer.
And on that note…
Don’t Be Afraid To Get Scammed
This is probably not the conclusion you expected, but it’s important.
I spent several years naively working for stock at two different startups. I might as well have been scammed, as I got nothing out of the deal (startup stock awards are a scam in their own right, but that’s a slightly different conversation for another day).
I’ve also been scammed out of $9k in writing fees.
And the most expensive course I ever purchased, coming in at a whopping $5k, was very likely a scam. I’m still not 100% sure, but I never made $1 off it and the course sellers have since exhibited a substantial amount of sketchy behavior.
But guess what?
I’m doing fine.
It’s just a business expense.
$5k might sound like a lot, but compared to the other $25k that brought me a substantial ROI, it’s meaningless.
I’ve learned from each of these and adjusted my processes accordingly – and I’m trying to pass on what I learned to you in this post – but if I had been too scared of being scammed to do the things that got me scammed, I wouldn’t be making six-figures right now.
Entrepreneurship involves some risk. You have to experiment and take some chances to get the bigger rewards, and you’re going to have some failures and losses along the way.
With the guidelines I’ve laid out in this post, you’ll be able to avoid 95% of the scams coming your way, so you’re going to be fine. Don’t let fear of that extra 5% keep you from moving forward and building your business.
Let’s send it over to you now.
Have you been scammed as a freelance writer? Was it one of these three scams or something else? Let me know in the comments.