Upwork Scams and Red Flags: How to Avoid Them

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I love Upwork. I’ve been on the platform for over 6 years now and I’m very happy there. Of course, like any successful platform, though, there will always be some people who will take advantage. I’ve seen and heard about everything from unrealistic expectations to flatout scams. Here are some Upwork scams and red flags to watch out for, for both freelancers and clients:

1. Asking you to contact them off of the platform. (Or, contacting you directly via your website instead of on Upwork.)

This is an immediate no. Clients often do this and ofter to pay you off platform. This allows you to keep 100% of your earnings, instead of the 90% you would earn on Upwork. Freelancers do this and offer a lower rate, since they don’t have to contribute 10% to the platform. It seems like a win-win, no?

NO! Don’t fall for this one. If you go off platform, your client can easily disappear and refuse to pay you for your work. Or your freelancer can demand a deposit upfront and then disappear. And you have no recourse because you left the Upwork platform.

Plus, you can be banned for life from Upwork for doing this. And that would leave you without access to other, verified, reputable freelancers or additional clients. It’s just not worth it.

If a client or freelancer contacts you off the platform and asks to work together, tell them to message you on Upwork to continue the conversation. You might lose out on a (sketchy) client here or there, true. But it’s not worth risking your entire business.

Asking to process payments in a manner other than on Upwork, or straight up phishing.

This is a variation on the one above. You might work with someone through the platform, but then they ask to send payments in another manner. They might claim their credit card won’t go through or there’s some other issue with the Upwork payment system. This is a flatout scam. Don’t fall for it. Contact Upwork support and they’ll help your client figure it out.

Some are even using Upwork to conduct straightup phishing schemes. I feel like we all know about phishing by now, so don’t fall for it just because it’s on a freelancing platform and not in your email.

Another variation on this is asking for a deposit or payment for you to apply for the position. No freelancer should be paying clients to apply. Clients are asking for your time to help them, so there should not be any additional financial cost associated with that. You are already giving them your free time to answer their questions and write proposals, do not pay them for that as well. (They should be paying you!)

Potential ‘clients’ might also promise to send you a check for you to purchase equipment in order for you to perform work for them. Be very sure to check with your bank and make sure that the money is in your account and cannot be revoked before spending any of it!

Clients can pull their credit cards from Upwork.

Yes, this happened to me. Freelancers, be aware that clients can pull their credit card from Upwork and you will not be paid for any of those hours. I had a client do this to me at the end of a project. I had completed over $500 worth of work for them and they pulled their card from Upwork and I didn’t get paid for any of it. Obviously, they can only do that once because they will be banned from the platform, but this client was particularly nutty and I ignored many red flags and just tried to finish the project. Trust your gut and if you don’t trust your client to pay you for all of your work, feel free to say that and bill them in smaller chunks or end the contract.

Recommending their private website hosting and making promises that it will be better in the long run (spoiler, it won’t).

If you use a freelancer’s private hosting, you’ll be committed to paying and working with them for as long as your site exists. If you want to switch hosting or work with someone else, you’ll often need to rebuild your whole site. I see this happen a lot, and I’d say probably 20% of my work comes from clients who are trying to leave their overpriced hosting from a previous web developer. Get your own hosting, so you’ll always be free to work with whomever you want and you’ll own your own site. I use and recommend SiteGround and I’ve never had a problem with it.

Outsourcing without your knowledge or setting up a front or fake freelancer profile.

This one makes me so mad, honestly. And the people running these scams are often shameless about it.

Story time: I was put in touch with a contact who was a friend of a friend. He pretended he wanted to hire me for his website, so I agreed to do a call with him (more as a favor to my friend, but anyway). But I was (and still am!) shocked by what he actually wanted.

Basically, he wanted to use me and my stellar Upwork profile as a front. He wanted me to apply for jobs (even ones I was not qualified to complete) and do all of the communication with the clients. Then, the idea was for me to pass that work on to an agency in Cuba. He wanted me to charge the clients my existing rate of $70/ hour. He would pay the actual developers a much, much lower rate and then take his own cut and pay me a small percentage. Meanwhile, the clients would have NO IDEA that I was not the one doing the work. And he thought this was a GREAT idea that I’d totally be on board with. (Eye roll).

There are so many things wrong with this Upwork scam, I honestly don’t even know where to start.

First of all, I’m a developer, not a manager. I like my clients, of course, but I like them because I usually only work with 2-3 people at a time and can provide personalized attention. I do not want to be managing 20+ clients and a whole agency of freelancers, no thanks.

In addition, I pride myself on my honesty and integrity in how I do all of my work. I’m not sure what kind of freelancer is okay with flatout lying to their clients and claiming to do work that others are actually doing. It’s not okay.

Finally, what about the freelancers who are doing the same work and making only a fraction of the earnings? How is that fair, that you’re taking a cut of their pay for doing nothing? The audacity of even suggesting taking advantage of other people’s labor in this way was just shocking to me.

Anyway, I have a lot more to rant about fake profiles and outsourcing, but I’ll try to stick to the topic of upwork scams and red flags.

If you’re a freelancer, don’t fall for these ‘passive income’ schemes. It’s not passive income if you have to manage a bunch of clients and freelancers, first of all. And, you’re risking your entire freelance business and everything you’ve built up over the years. I’ve worked hard for over 6 years to build up a portfolio and tons of positive reviews, and I’m certainly not going to let someone come in out of nowhere and take advantage of that.

If you’re a client, make sure to directly ask potential freelancers if they will be doing the work themselves. That way, at least, if you find out that they are not, you’ll be able to use Upwork support to have some options for mediation. Watch out for red flags and trust your gut on this one.

Making empty promises to manipulate you into doing more/ free work:

On the freelancer side, this looks like:

  • asking for free work or promising more/ higher paid work down the line. We all fell for this as beginner freelancers. But now we know, either take the project as it is offered right now, or move on. Don’t accept work or do free work because they say they will hire you later. Hire me from the start or no deal.
  • asking to ‘jump on a call’ for an interview that turns out to be a consultation. (And then they never hire you – or they do, but don’t pay you for the consultation.) This one happens ALL THE TIME. I’m not sure why potential clients feel they deserve a free one hour call where you divulge hundreds of dollars worth of personal expertise, honestly. But, it’s quite common. If a client absolutely must interview you on a call, set boundaries. Keep the time limit to 15 minutes, and limit the questions to stick to the topic of interviewing (and not consulting). I also only take calls for projects with budgets over $1500. For smaller projects, you really do not need to be doing a video interview.
  • fixed price projects that go on too long without a milestone or payment. (Or, have the bulk of payment at the end/ scope creep.) They could be secretly intending to get all of the work done and only pay for the first/ smaller milestones. And thus not planning on paying for the bulk of the project. But you won’t know that until it’s too late.
  • feeling entitled to refunds even though you delivered the work. There will always be clients who feel entitled to a refund because they messed up on their end and want to blame you. Don’t fall for it. If you did the work as agreed, you earned the money. If a client complains and asks for small refunds early on, they will continue to do that more and more, I promise. So, it’s best to just cut your losses and move on.

On the client side, this looks like:

  • making huge promises, but you don’t see any of the work getting done. Make sure you check in regularly and see actual progress on your project, even if it’s not perfect.
  • saying they will fix things later, but they never do. There are genuinely some things that need to be done in order, so this might be valid in some instances. I had a client that kept demanding I fix the directory on her website. But, she seemed unable to understand that we had to switch the theme first. (Because the old theme was causing a lot of the issues.) She demanded edit after edit, which pushed back the timeline on switching the theme. And then, she was furious that the directory was not fixed. So yes, sometimes things need to be done in order. Your freelancer should be able to explain that clearly. But, if they are saying a whole lot of things will be fixed ‘later’ and nothing is ever corrected, that’s an issue.
  • promising huge gains in income or site traffic, or other outcomes that are beyond their control. Just make sure you’re clear on the deliverables and what is and is not under your freelancer’s control.

How to avoid Upwork scams and red flags and protect yourself: 

>Check the freelancer’s/ client’s portfolio & feedback.

We all sometimes have bad clients/ bad freelancers. But if the overwhelming percentage of the person’s feedback is 5 stars with great comments, they’re probably reliable. No one gets to that level by being a terrible freelancer or client.

>If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

If someone is charging a super low rate, they likely have to have a large client load to make ends meet. Either they will be stretched really thin or they will be outsourcing. Either one is not great.

>Upwork is there to protect you…

So stick to the platform and contact them if you’re unsure!

>Get everything in writing.

This is another reason I avoid calls and prefer for my clients to email me or message me. It’s very easy for anyone to claim they told you something and to just flat out lie. If you have everything in writing, it’s easier to stay on track. And, it’s easier for both parties to clearly refer back to what was said.

>Check in regularly with your freelancer or client.

Ask to see the work and the progress being made. Honest freelancers are not going to be upset with you for questioning them. (Though they will likely charge you for the time spent answering your messages, so try not to overdo it). Make sure you know exactly what your client is asking you to do and stick to only those tasks. I check in with my clients almost every day, often multiple times a day. That way, there’s never a question about where we are or what’s been done. Almost all of those check ins include a link or something showing what I’ve done, too. So that way, they know what they are being billed for all along the way.

Overall, Upwork is a great platform. I’ve been freelancing on Upwork for many years and I’m very happy with the clients and support. Of course, nothing is perfect, so watch out for Upwork scams and red flags and make sure to use your common sense and trust your gut. If you do that, I’m sure you’ll have great experiences working together on interesting projects.

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