Oct 24, 2011
James Patterson

Freelance Writer’s Guide to Spotting Online Job Scams

Do you hate wasting time? Hate feeling like you’re being taken advantage of?

So do I. That’s why online writing scams bug the ever-loving somethingorother out of me. Since the advent of Craigslist, lowlifes have been trying to take advantage of people using all sorts of methods. Nigerian check scams, phony escrow services and phishing schemes can put an unhealthy dent in your bank account and leave a black mark on your credit score.

And now the trend of trying to take advantage of people has filtered into the world of freelance writing.

But what can you do about it? Craigslist seems to be the most common place for people looking to score a freelance writing gig, probably because it has the most continuous listing of ads. Because of its ubiquity, Craigslist also serves as the top destination for people who want to take advantage of fledgeling freelancers hoping to land a new client.

There’s something to be said for going out and working in the trenches of cold calling, email prospecting and networking to find new clients. In my experience, that’s where the highest paying freelance jobs are. But for newer freelance writers and those who have a limited amount of time on their hands such as part-timers, Craigslist seems to be the lowest-hanging fruit.

So how can you avoid getting caught in the web of a Craigslist freelance writing scammer?

First and foremost, let’s define exactly what a scam is. My definition is any job posting that tries to take advantage of you. This could include:

  • Scam artists just looking to steal your identity
  • Multi-level marketing people fishing for new meat
  • Someone out to steal your work through the “writing sample” method, or even…
  • A legitimate business needing writing but wanting to pay minimum wage rates

That’s right, I said it. Companies who are legit companies but pay rates that force freelancers to effectively work for minimum wage are scams. Those places are easy to avoid when you see them advertise their rates. Just don’t respond. Think about it. If no one responded to those kinds of ads, these businesses would either stop paying such atrocious rates. Don’t feed the beast. By doing so, you bring down rates across the board for all the rest of us trying to feed our families. Just say no.

How about those job ads out there offering you a chance to “build your portfolio” and “gain valuable experience writing”? These kinds of phrases are red flags for “we don’t pay very well” or even, “we don’t pay at all.” Any publication worth putting in your portfolio will be a paying gig, not one that’s looking to fill space on the cheap.

Another way to fish out a scam is by looking for the words “writing experience preferred, but not necessary.” Your first instinct is probably to jump for joy because, hey, your extensive experience is going to float you to the top of the list, right? Wrong. Worst case scenario, someone is out trolling for your information. Best case scenario, you’re looking at another “client” who wants to pay $10 for a 1,000-word article.

Yet another common freelance writing scam is the “send us a customized writing sample” routine. Everyone looking to hire a freelancer wants a writing sample. And it’s not unreasonable for a potential client to ask for a writing sample that fits into the specific job they’re looking for. “Send us a recent blog on personal investing” or “Submit a 400-word health/fitness writing sample.”

But when a Craigslist ad already feels a bit shady, then asks you to submit, say, a 350-word article on the benefits of herbal remedies for lower back pain, your whiskers should start itching a bit. This is what I call “word phishing.” Companies scamming you into writing an article for them, only to have them turn around and use the supposed “samples” as their actual content. Most of these places are SEO chop shops looking to fill space on the computer screen.

That’s not to say that every ad that asks for a customized writing sample isn’t to be trusted. But more often than not, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment by chasing those kinds of leads.

For the best results, follow the age-old mantra of “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

Have you run into any freelance writing scams? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

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  • Yes, I’ve been nibbled by a few ducks, mainly the “write me a sample” kind. I’m much more cautious now.
    Laurie Boris recently posted..Public Speaking for the Terminally Introverted AuthorMy Profile

    • That seems to be one of the more common ones, Laurie. Thanks for your comment.

  • So tired of scams, I’ve come across these way too many times. I now do more research instead of thinking everyone is legitimate.
    Rochelle recently posted..Call Centres Benefiting the Finance IndustryMy Profile

    • It gets old fast, doesn’t it Rochelle? That’s why I tend to stay away from Craigslist and similar job posting. I’ve just found that, for the most part, they aren’t worth my time. Have you checked out the Freelance Writers Den by Carol Tice? They offer a junk-free job board. Carol and her partners go through tons of Craigslist ads and filter out the scammy ones so you don’t have to. Give it a gander when you get a chance.

  • I don’t know whether this was a scam or not, but I applied for a writing job through Internet Brands. It was for a reputable website that details a lot of legal procedures. They require a writing sample upfront. I thought that if I put forth the effort to do the writing sample (they have a specific topic and specific laws they want you to include in the article) and composed a well-written article, they would hire me as a writer. The writing prompt also stressed that I would probably need to do more research to complete the article. The article was to be 1,000 words or less.

    I ended up doing quite a bit of research to craft this article on landlord-tenant law for some state that I do remember. I ended up writing over 800 words. I submitted the article and waited the 3-5 business days the website said it would take to make a decision. I waited… and waited… and waited. I received nothing. Not even an e-mail stating that I did not make the cut. It’s been about a month since I submitted my writing sample, and I’ve given up hope that I will hear from them. I advise anyone who wants to apply at Nolo–Law for All to beware.
    August recently posted..Reaffirming Motor Vehicle Debt in BankruptcyMy Profile

    • That completely stinks, August. I would be willing to bet that 95% of writing gigs that call for a customized writing sample requiring that amount of research either are a legitimate scam out to get your hard-work and pass it off as their own material, or at the very least pay pennies per word. Like I said, if it looks and quacks like a duck…

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This little corner of the Internet is for anyone who's looking to start a freelance business while holding down a real job, wondering how to jump from part-time freelancing to full-time or looking for freelance writing information in general.

My name is James Patterson. You can learn more about me here.