6 Tips for Identifying a Dishonest Client Before You’re Burned

You are a freelancer and you’ve just landed an important client. Congratulations! This is great news, right? You follow up, and immediately they want you to get to work right away. Suddenly, you find yourself feeling like something is wrong… could your client be dishonest, misrepresentative, or fraudulent? 

If he or she were a moral hazard, how would you know? This is a big-ticket issue. Strangers often pose the greatest risk, but even clients that have been referred to you by a seemingly credible friend or peer may not be a professional, or worse, your client could be criminal. 

Trust your gut, if you think you’re being lied to, or you think the client has other motives and something is not right, you may not only be putting your business at risk by wasting your time or money, but you could also be putting your personal safety at risk. Don’t expose yourself, and learn to be aware that some people want to profit from your loss. 

You’re the boss. If you have trouble saying NO, thanks’ to people, please do yourself a favor and start getting comfortable with the idea that sometimes ‘no’ is a necessary word. I personally find saying ‘no’ to people very difficult, so this year I’ve recognized this in myself and I’ve begun taking steps to be more confident and assertive. 

Another way to practice assertiveness is to work in a professional setting, like an office. I’ve worked as an associate in a financial institution in Canada since May 2013, and I’ve found that I’ve also learned many skills that will help me make my myself clear with a lot of different type of people. It’s become an invaluable asset in the way I problem-solve and conduct business! 

Back to the point, if you suspect a client will dupe you, there are clear warning signs which I’ve personally encountered: 

1. A stranger and potential client have refused to meet with you in person before you start your work. This could be a sign that they do not intend to pay you. This is not always the case, but definitely a red flag. 

2. A stranger and potential client have asked you to begin work without first discussing financial compensation. This is the very first discussion you should have, and don’t be afraid to bring it up. If he or she refuses, you need not waste your time and decline their submission entirely. 

3. The client missed their first payment, and are avoiding your calls. Quit working right now and advise them that you will not be doing any more work and the contract will terminate due to non-payment (*never send files, or originals for review until you have received a first payment deposit*). If you give them written notice, and they respond within a date that you have requested, you can reinstate at your own choice. Be wary, but don’t worry too much as payment, especially among friends, is not always a reason to terminate a business relationship and a friendship. Be professional, do not be rude in the place of assertiveness, they are not the same thing. You can’t assume what their intentions are or what their financial situation may be. 

4. You’ve been approached first by a stranger, now you must establish if they may possibly intentionally scam you. You don’t know who they are, what they are motivated by, and what peaked their interest in finding you. Scammers don’t care who you are, they’re just after an easy target. If you’re too suspicious, they will likely move on to someone easier and leave you alone. Be vigilant, don’t disclose personal information, send money, send files of your work, and so on. If you aren’t sure and no harm has come yet, monitor the situation for additional warning signs like: if the individual you correspond with misspell their signature within correspondence - this could be a warn you of an organized criminal group. If it looks fraudulent, it probably is. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. That said, if you want to give the client the benefit of the doubt, look for signs of legitimacy. How you find out if they are a real credible company, or a reputable individual professional is by doing your three R’s: Research, Reference, Read! Read their submission carefully before agreeing to contract, research your clients history and credentials, and talk to their references. If everything checks out, and you’ve still got a bad feeling, ask yourself “Does it feel like they’re trying to convince me of something? Is their point not clear? Have they kept me on the phone too long without directly telling me what they want?”. And finally, my biggest pet-peeve and BIGGEST red flag is misguided Praise. This act of flattery can be suspicious because you might be tempted to listen to a fallacious story. Always remember, con-artists disguise themselves as charming likeable people; for example, they might tell you over the phone grandiose compliments about your radio-star like voice, and they might do all the talking and asking of all the questions; or perhaps they make gratuitous promises that you’ll experience fame, recognition, and ‘potential compensation’ if the job is done right or you invest in their project. This is to play on your ego and it is bullshit. You should learn to smell a con-artist from a mile away - the potential consequence is that you could be stuck in a scam that you can never recover your money or time or self worth back from. In addition to managing possible scams, I delete all emails that smell remotely of phishing, and I don’t let people waste my time and neither should you. Criminals will say anything to fool people; so don’t engage with the email at all and don’t click the links they provide. If you are face to face, turn away, lose their contact information. Better safe, than sorry!

5. Normal people can be dishonest, misrepresentative and fraudulent too. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, a proverb meaning that promises and plans must be put into action, or else they are useless. You should only work with clients who respect professionalism as much as you do. Don’t let yourself be stuck in a situation hoping it will go away. Be direct! You can stop answering their emails and phone calls if they become too pushy, or cause you to feel as if they are trying to intimidate you after you decide to decline their business due to their careless attitude. Carelessness denotes a potential moral hazard, and it can be really tricky to identify. If you’ve decided to decline them for risk of being a moral hazard, tell them in a direct manner that you do not have time for the requested project and therefore do not accept their invitation to work on their project. It’s up to you whether you answer further, but I suggest you do not continue the cycle if they ask you for additional things such as a reference for another professional in your field who would have time for their work. 

6. You’re getting the creeps by a stranger or mutual friend who says “they want to get to know you more” by posing as a client, patron or other professional affiliation. As a woman, I sometimes become uncomfortable when I come in contact from strangers asking about my artistic practice. Sometimes it’s to buy artwork, and sometimes it’s straight up unsolicited harassment without even a cover of other professional motives. If the conversation keeps going on, and on, and on… through text, email or on the phone, you are in no way obligated to keep in contact with this person. Block people who harass you, the potential sale or partnership is not worth compromising your personal safety. 

So there you have it! Protect your freelance business and your safety, time, and money by applying caution with every meeting. Don’t work without being paid only to never hear from them again. Don’t let someone get what he or she wants from you by feeding on your ego in accordance with their scam. Always expect professionalism from yourself and everyone you do business with. Don’t give the benefit of the doubt to situations and people when your gut tells you otherwise. Value your time, energy, and expertise. You are smart and you work hard, so put aside difficult relationships and listen to your intuition. You deserve to be safe, and to be rewarded, too! 

If you liked this article and want to read more topics, or if you didn’t agree with a point, or would like further clarification, please feel free to comment below and let’s keep the conversation going. Let us know your story in the comments below too! 

Thank you so much! 

Courtney Colbon  

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