If you’ve been freelancing for any length of time you’ve probably heard of or even known someone that has fallen prey to an Upwork scam.
That leaves some folks hesitant to even give Upwork a shot. AND, In my opinion, that would be a tragedy.
Upwork has been and still is a huge part of my story. AND, I know many others that could say the same.
Upwork processes billions of dollars in payments to freelancers every year AND that number is only going to grow as the gig economy grows.
But that doesn’t mean that working as a freelancer on Upwork is all cake and ice cream.
My Own Personal Upwork Scam Story
I’ve personally dealt with my own Upwork scam. It happened when I first got started on the platform.
A client hired me to make some minor changes to their website. I did a few hours of work for them and then all of the sudden my contract was closed and I was kicked out of the project.
When I reached out to the client they let me know they were frustrated with something that had happened. And, instead of trying to work it out, they shut everything down without warning and refused to pay.
I was mad. Very mad.
They owed me about $300 for the time I spent on their project. So, I tried to escalate things through Upwork’s mediation system.
BUT, after looking inward and a bit of prayer, I decided it wasn’t worth my time or emotional energy. AND, I let it go.
You Can Avoid an Upwork Scam
I learned a lot with that first Upwork scam experience. From that point on I was much more careful about who I took on as a client and how I set expectations.
The biggest takeaway was that the entire situation could have been avoided.
Sure, there are some things in life and in business that are going to happen to you that are unavoidable and downright suck.
The whole idea of this article came from a story I read about an Upworker who was asked to pay back $12k dollars worth of payments he earned from a legitimate client doing legitimate work.
He seemingly did everything right BUT still got the short end of the stick.
But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you can steer clear of 99% of all Upwork scams with just a little bit of prep work and intentionality with how you do business on the platform.
Here are 6 things that I learned that help me AND can help you avoid an Upwork Scam.
1. Understand the Role of Upwork in Your Freelance Business
First of all, you need to understand the role that Upwork plays in your freelance business.
Notice what I said there, “Your freelance business.”
Congratulations! You’re a business owner if you’re doing freelance work.
I know it’s tough to see yourself that way. Because, after all, freelance work isn’t what we traditionally think of when we think of a business.
But, there will be a very real cap on your success as a freelancer if you don’t think of yourself as an independent business.
So, how does Upwork play into all of this if you’re a business?
They are simply a go-between for you and potential clients. Upwork doesn’t owe you anything. AND, you don’t owe them anything.
That means you are 100% responsible for what happens between you and the people that hire you to do freelance work.
Now, listen, I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, just or unjust.
In fact, my wife and I debated about that and neither of us was convinced of the other person’s opinions. (I won’t tell you who thought which way or the other 😉)
All I’m saying is that you have to realize how Upwork sees you, the freelancer, and how you should see Upwork.
When you do, you understand that if things go sideways between you and the client Upwork is not likely to have your back.
You, and only you, are the one who needs to make sure that your behind (aka butt) is covered in case anything goes wrong.
So, cross your t’s. Dot your i’s. And, make sure that absolutely all of your concerns are addressed before you go into business with someone through Upwork.
2. Don’t Go Outside of Upwork
Let me tell you a cautionary tale.
A freelancer meets a client on Upwork. They instantly hit it off.
Things are going swimmingly. In fact, the freelancer thinks this might be “the one.”
“The one” client that could make all their freelancing dreams come true: an easy client to work with who’s willing to pay a good rate and has a lot of work.
The client asks to have phone calls outside of Upwork and prefers using email rather than that pesky old system Upwork created.
The freelancer doesn’t mind it at first. After all, this client seems perfect and they don’t want to push their luck. Their sure the client only has the best of intentions.
After a few back and forth conversations the client tells the freelancer they’d like to make their relationship official. They want to hire the freelancer for their project.
The freelancer is through the moon!
BUT, there’s one catch. The client doesn’t want to use Upwork. They want to pay the freelancer directly and avoid the fees that Upwork charges.
That’s better for the freelancer right? After all, they won’t have to pay Upwork those pesky freelancing fees.
The freelancer is hesitant but agrees. And, things are going great at first. The client seems happy with the work and the freelancer works hard to do a good job for the client.
The first project wraps up and the freelancer sends all of their work over to the client. The client promises to pay them by the end of the week.
The freelancer doesn’t hear from the client again. The freelancer faces the very tough reality that they had been cheated.
What That Story Tells Us About Upwork Scams
Now, that might be a funny, slightly dramatized story. But, I’ve had people approach me with that exact scenario.
It’s really enticing to take a client off of Upwork once they decide to hire you. BUT, you have absolutely no recourse when you do that.
And, there’s a big chance that Upwork will find out and kick you off the platform.
Can things still go wrong if you keep everything on Upwork? Yes.
But, at least you have documentation all in one place to show what happened and make a case should you need to.
The good news is Upwork makes it easy to do all of your business on the platform. You can even use an in-app Zoom meeting for all your clients and you don’t have to pay for Zoom yourself.
Can you do absolutely everything on Upwork? No. But if it CAN be done on Upwork you probably SHOULD be doing it there.
3. Don’t Work Without Getting Paid
Refusing to work without getting paid might seem fairly obvious BUT it’s actually a bit more tricky than you might think.
There are two types of projects on Upwork:
- Fixed Price Projects
- Hourly Projects
Fixed Price Projects
With fixed price projects you and a client agree to an amount for the entire project. Sounds pretty straight forward, but, there are a few things that can get you into trouble.
First, you never want to only have one milestone for an entire project. Meaning, you work until the project is finished. Deliver it to the client, and then get paid.
That might leave you having done a ton of work with a client that never pays you.
Instead, you want to split that fixed price project into smaller milestones.
I ALWAYS require the client pay a 50% non-refundable deposit of the entire project up front before I even get started. I don’t lift a finger until I have that.
That makes both me AND the client invested in the outcome of the project. At least I have some payment if things go south or the client flakes.
BUT, here’s another thing that might get you. You don’t actually get paid when a client pays for a milestone.
Shocking, I know!
That money goes into an escrow account that Upwork holds on to. So, neither you OR your client have that money.
You only get that money once the client releases the milestone to you.
Upwork is trying offer both you and your client a “payment protection,” where a third party holds on to the money for the client and freelancer.
BUT, the reality is that Upwork is much more likely to give that money back to the client if the client complains.
So, as a result, I don’t get started on a project until a client has funded the 50% milestone AND THEN released it to me. I begin my work when the payment clears my bank.
Hourly Priced Projects
There’s a little bit more reassurance with hourly priced projects. For those you track your time with Upwork’s time tracker.
At the end of the week all of your hours get added up and then you get paid a few days later.
It’s a little safer than fixed price, BUT you still run the risk of getting scammed on Upwork if you’re going to do a ton of work for a client and have a high hourly rate.
If that’s the case my suggestion would be to cap the hours you work per week until you feel comfortable that the client is trustworthy. You’ve got a bit more reassurance that you aren’t going to be scammed once you’ve built up a relationship with them.
4. Ask Questions About Absolutely Everything Upfront
A lot of Upwork scams can be avoided just by asking a ton of questions before the project even begins.
BUT, still, a lot of freelancers will take a project sight unseen without having much interaction with a client at all.
AND, don’t leave it to DM’s. Get on a video Zoom call.
There’s a reason why investigators like to get suspects talking as much as possible. The more they talk the more likely they are to show their true colors.
Now, I am not advocating that you go into every conversation with a potential client suspicious of their bad intentions. Most people you talk to on Upwork will be 100% honest people.
But, it’s always a good idea to ask a lot of questions and see how they answer.
This isn’t just good advice to avoid an Upwork scam. This is also good practice to do a good job on a project as a freelancer.
Ask them about their business or the project in depth.
Ask them if they’ve ever worked with a freelancer before.
Ask them if they’ve hired someone else on Upwork before.
If something doesn’t add up OR makes you feel uneasy DON’T MOVE FORWARD.
Either clarify or choose not to work with that specific client. It might be tough to turn away work, BUT, trust me, there are more clients out there.
Be conservative and ask a lot of questions.
5. Look At the Client’s Project History for an Upwork Scam
Freelancers can see the history of a client just like clients can see the work history of a freelancer.
If a client doesn’t have any history OR if their history is bad you should be very careful about working with them?
Does that mean you shouldn’t work with them at all? Not necessarily. BUT, I would say you need to be extra cautious with those types of potential clients.
So, how do you find a client’s history? There are two places I look.
One is right at the top of a project posting. Over to the right you’ll see a client’s
- Whether their payment is verified (never work for someone who hasn’t verified their payment!)
- Their freelancer rating
- Where they are in the world
- How many jobs they’ve posted
- How much money they’ve spent on Upwork
- The average hourly wage they’ve paid freelancers
- AND, how long they’ve been on Upwork
That’s a lot of info! And, there’s more!
If you scroll down a bit you can see the feedback that other freelancers gave the client. If you notice anything out of whack this might be a sign that this is a bad client OR a scam altogether.
The main idea here is that the client isn’t the only one interviewing someone for a job. YOU should be interviewing them as well.
A little bit of due diligence could go a long way to avoid an Upwork scam.
6. Don’t Let Someone Else Use Your Account
Every once in a while I get approached by someone who wants to use my account. The emails are always exactly the same.
A freelancer from a country that is restricted from using Upwork was working with a US based freelancer and getting projects on US freelancers account.
BUT, the US freelancer got a full-time job (from the work the other freelancer was doing in fact!) and now they can’t be bothered anymore.
This has “Upwork Scam,” written ALLLL over it.
This should be pretty obvious BUT I’m going to go ahead and address it because if they’re emailing me they are likely emailing TONS of other people.
There are 1,000 things that could go wrong here and this is a quick way to get scammed OR kicked off of Upwork entirely.
7. Always Have a Contract Outside of Upwork
Finally, you should always have a client sign a legally binding contract before you start a dang thing.
Don’t depend on Upwork to take care of the legal stuff between you and a client. Remember, they don’t owe you anything.
You might have to lawyer up when it’s all said and done. It happens.
But, you will have a tough time proving your case if all you have is a few DMs from a client on the Upwork platform.
So, have a good contract and spell out absolutely everything.
- Talk about timelines
- Talk about how you’ll get paid AND who is paying you
- Talk about what you should do if either party gets frustrated or wants to void the contract
A good contract is a safety net for you as a freelancer. There are some free ones out there BUT it might be worth your peace of mind to purchase one from an actual lawyer.
I’ve actually never had to go to court as a freelancer BUT I have been able to use a contract to let a client know I wouldn’t be working any further on a project until he paid me.
So, if anything, it’s good recourse if there’s a dispute between you and a client.
Have a Back-Up Plan Just In Case You’re Involved in an Upwork Scam
Owning a business is risky when it’s all said and done. An Upwork scam might be unavoidable. You could do everything right AND something still might go wrong.
You need to have a backup plan when that happens.
They say you always need to pretty prepare for the 3 Dirty D’s in business:
Getting scammed on Upwork likely falls into the disaster category. So, prepare for it.
Have a good idea of a lawyer you could contact. Save up some money just in case you are unable to work or wrongfully get kicked off the platform.
But, please don’t stick your head in the sand and hope that nothing bad happens to you.
Honestly, the odds are good you won’t ever deal with an Upwork scam. BUT, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least have some type of emergency exit plan in case it does.
Final Thoughts on Avoiding an Upwork Scam
Listen, I wish this kind of post didn’t need to be written. I wish the world chugged along without any conflict whatsoever.
But, that’s not going to happen. At least, not any time soon.
So, do yourself a favor and be wise as you do business with clients on Upwork.
You don’t have to treat everyone like a subject. In fact, you probably won’t get a ton of projects treating people that way.
But, you do want to have a few safety checks that you mark off as you’re entering into a business relationship.
So, be careful to understand the role Upwork plays between you and your client. Don’t take a client off of the Upwork platform. Don’t start working until money has been deposited in your bank account.
Ask a lot of questions upfront. Vet a client before saying yes. Don’t let anyone use your Upwork account. AND, please, have the client sign a contract before you get started.
If you do those things every time you are almost guaranteed to avoid an Upwork scam.