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Most web and graphic designers are freelancers, meaning they work for clients based on separate contracts written with each client.

While you can certainly make a good living doing this, you also have to be vigilant about scams. Freelance graphic and web design work is becoming more commonplace—but so are the scams.

What Is A Scam?

A scam occurs when someone else intentionally takes your money, work, or commits other types of fraud against you. Rather than hire you, the scammer ends up profiting from you instead.

There is a difference between a fraudster and a bad client. Bad clients usually have every intention of paying—they’re just difficult to work with.

It is important to make the distinction between clients who are just being difficult and those with bad intentions.

Signs of a Scam

If you are being scammed, chances are you already feel that something is wrong or “off” with a certain client.

As you develop experience in the world of web and graphic designing, you will have better intuition and will be able to pick a scam out from a mile away. That said, even experts can be fooled sometimes.

Listed below are 7 red flags that a freelancing scam is afoot.

1. Asking for personal information

A real client does not necessarily need to know the specifics of your life–such as your address, bank account number, social security number, or any other sensitive information.

Although some of this information is required if you are filling out tax forms at a legitimate company, average clients have no business asking you such questions.

While you may end up sharing information with clients over time, be wary of new clients asking you for personal information right off the bat.

For example, the following conversation should raise a red flag:

“You live in Ames? My cousin lives there and I visited once. What’s your address? Wouldn’t it be weird if you lived close to my cousin?!”

If the client is genuine, you can simply say that you are not comfortable sharing that information at this time and the client will respect your privacy. However, if the client keeps probing or disappears, then you know you were dealing with a scam artist.

2. Design contests

Entering an online contest to showcase your work can be a great way to increase your exposure and reach a wider potential client base. Most graphic design contests are real, but there are enough fraudulent ones floating around that designers should do their homework before submitting any work.

Any contest that asks you to sign away rights to your work upon submission is a guaranteed scam looking to get quality designs for free.

Contests that only ask for permission to display your work are more likely to be trustworthy.

3. Promise of future profits

If a client promises you payment once the company is more successful, you have found yourself a scam.

While a few rare cases may legitimately involve a contract between designer and client outlining payment out of future profits, more often than not, this type of agreement is as good as working for free.

Before signing a contract, be clear about what you expect to be paid and in what time frame.

4. Understated scope of work

If the client understates the scope of work they expect from you, this can qualify as a scam.

For example, if you are hired to do a task that is relatively simple but then balloons way out of proportion to what you originally agreed, you could be victim of a scam.

The client may insist that previous designers did the extra add-ons for free, but you don’t have to fall victim to these games.

Prevent this scam by drawing up a contract that clearly outlines the work that is expected of you and how much any work beyond that will cost.

Scammers will balk at such a detailed contract. Real clients may try to negotiate, but will eventually accept and honor the contract.

5. Free samples

You have a portfolio in order to showcase your talents to prospective clients. But, if a client persists in asking you for more samples, be cautious.

If your portfolio is limited, this may be a reasonable request–but you should still ask the other party to sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect your work.

Real clients should happily sign while scam artists will refuse. Do not provide unprotected examples of your work to any prospective client lest the free sample of your work be stolen.

6. You are required to pay

While working as a freelancer, there are certain tools that you can purchase–like a premium LinkedIn account or membership on job boards–to help you find work more quickly.

However, if you are asked to pay to complete a job, you can be fairly confident that you are being scammed.

The client may ask you to purchase an expensive font or to pay distribution fees for a campaign, and you will likely feel a tug of guilt at hesitating to fulfill this request.

However, if this payment is not included in your contract you can point this fact out to the client. Anyone who insists that you pay intends to scam you and you should simply walk away.

7. Speculative work

Commonly called spec work, speculative work is creative and requires a lot of effort before payment. Spec work freelancers are expected to come up with designs to submit to prospective clients before they receive any kind of compensation.

While spec work is not always a rip off, it does have a higher tendency than other kinds of work to end up being a scam.

If you enjoy the creative aspect of spec work, you can protect yourself by never supplying a complete design to a prospective client without payment. Also, you should ensure that your client has a Terms of Use statement on their website that protects your work once it is sold.

What To Do If You Are Scammed

Sometimes scam artists slip right under your radar and you find yourself the victim. This is always an unfortunate circumstance, but it is not the end of the world.

If you are victimized by a scam, take these steps.

  • Contact the Better Business Bureau and other agencies dedicated to consumer protection. These organizations allow you to file complaints online so that other freelancers can be aware of the scam you experienced.
  • Sound off in a freelancer community. Once you fall victim to a scam, let your fellow freelancers know that the company you were hired by is shady so no one else falls victim to the same trick.
  • Contact a fraud protection agency. For example, eConsumerServices is a company that specializes in fraud protection and seeking retribution for those who have been scammed. Freelancers have a right to be compensated for their time and work, and a consumer rights agency can help you retrieve the money you’ve earned.

It is not always easy to detect a scam, which is why fraudsters continue to thrive in the freelancing community.

As an independent web or graphic designer, it is up to you to do your research before accepting a client and to make sure your contract is detailed enough to protect you from fraud.

Have you ever been victimized by a scam or do you have any other tips for the Creative Beacon community? Let us know in the comment section.