Employment scams: How to spot them

Part of being a freelancer is vetting your own clients. Unfortunately, there are people out there who try to take advantage of this and lure you into giving them personal information. I recently came across one such employment scam.

Luckily, my personal information is pretty secure and I’m a wary person to begin with. I immediately started tallying red flags as they arose. It’s entirely possible these people (I use that term loosely) could have gotten access to my bank accounts had I not already been suspicious.

I wanted to discuss this here because it’s been something I’ve noticed more and more often. Here are 3 red flags to look out for when you start conversations with someone new.

1. Are they asking you questions?

When you interview with a new client, you expect certain things to happen. Most clients want to know as much about you as you want to know about them — and this is how it should be. Just because you aren’t working a 9-5 doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be interviewing like you are.

A relationship with a client is just that — a relationship. If you don’t feel like the person you’re speaking with is actually interested in who you are and what you do, they probably aren’t. And you should ask yourself, and possibly them, why that is. The goal is to find the right fit.

The devil’s in the lack of details

Pay attention to their answers to your own questions. Follow up on things that don’t make sense and ask for clarification on missing details. A scam will start to fall apart under questions that demand details.

Be wary of people who promise that the details will be provided if you’re offered the job, because A: How can they be sure you can do the job if they won’t tell you what the job is? And B: How do you know whether you want the job if you don’t know what it is?

Leave room for clarification

If it all seems too easy — it probably was. Some scams are pretty detailed. Even if they have a set of questions prepared, pay attention to whether they follow up on any of your answers.

Questions asked in an interview are a test, and no one bats 100. If they don’t want clarification on at least one of your questions, they don’t care how you answered.

For example, during my recent scam interview, one of the questions asked of me was, “What makes you the best fit for this project?” I answered, “I’m not convinced I am the right fit for this project because I haven’t been given much information about the project. What I can tell you, is it sounds like I have the right qualifications.”

Zero follow up. Red flag.

Of course, there’s always the exception. For example, you may be bidding on a small, one-time job that won’t lead to more work, but pays right now. In that case, they may not need to know much more than whether you’re qualified and how much you charge. But since you’re reading my blog, I’m assuming you’re more interested in long-term clients, than short-term gigs.  

2. Is the interview structured?

Does this client have a process that progresses once they’ve shown interest in your candidacy? This might be in the form of a text conversation, followed by a phone conversation, followed then by a video call or in-person meeting.

Again, a legit client with legit work for you, will have several steps in their own vetting process. They’ll feel you out before they conduct an in-depth interview. And then if you pass that, they might feel you out a little more. This doesn’t happen in a single text conversation.

You should be doing the same. Get to know the people you’ll be doing work for, so that when the time comes to either accept the work or not, you’ll feel comfortable with your decision.

Shady switches

Pay attention to the way the client wants to contact you as well. For example, if you reached out to this client on a site like UpWork, the conversations you have should continue through UpWork for the most part. They may have been flagged as a scam by the original site already if they’re asking to talk using a different app.

If you use them, UpWork also offers this handy guide to scams. (Disclaimer: I am not paid to promote this site.)

There are perfectly legitimate reasons for moving away from a freelancing site, but that typically isn’t something that happens right away. It’s something that might happen when the client decides to employ you as a freelancer long-term and wants to cut out the middleman.

3. Can you verify the project/position with an independent source?

This one is tricky. It’s easy if the project is coming from a large corporation because it will be posted on their website and most likely all of their social media pages. If the job isn’t there, it’s a pretty good bet it’s not real.

If the client is a small business, then the next best thing is to verify who they are. They should have a presence somewhere that you can link back to the person you’re talking to. This might be a website or a LinkedIn page. Their name will be out there and it shouldn’t be difficult to find.

In the case of my friendly neighborhood scammer, the job offered was not listed on the corporate site or LinkedIn. And when I finally was able to track down this guy’s name in connection with the corporation, there was a slight variation in spelling. Nice.

Dotting those i’s

If you get to the point where you’re looking at a job contract, scrutinize that contract. Is it on letterhead? Does it contain the correct information? Is it signed by the right people and can you verify who they are? Make a phone call or send a few emails.

It may sound silly, but this guy actually sent me a two-page template of a document that still had placeholder text in it. It was not on letterhead and the logo was poor quality for such a large corporation. Try harder, friend.

Staying safe and in business

Most scams are fairly easy to spot before you engage in an interview, but sometimes even the best of us get pulled in by a juicy looking carrot. The trick is to be savvy enough about the kind of world we do business in.

Working mainly online means that you’re probably going to come across these things at one point or another and it’s important to be able to protect yourself and your business when you do.

It’s always better to not give out personal information, but at some point, the people we decide to work with need things, like your full name and address, and possibly banking information to set up direct deposit. And some of these scams can be just convincing enough that you’re ready to give out that info. 

Pro tip: Use a third-party app or program to accept payments unless you trust your client with sensitive banking info. Apps like QuickBooks, PayPal and Venmo have built-in security.

Coming back from the brink

Finally, if you do find yourself in a situation where you feel like any of your private information may have been compromised, go down to your bank in person and talk to them about adding security measures to your accounts.

If a scammer knows even basic information, like where you bank, they might attempt to get more information by calling different branches of your bank until they find the one new teller who flusters easily under pressure. Don’t risk it.

Stay safe out there!

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