I originally wrote this post for the r/Upwork subreddit and cross-posted it to the Upwork forum. I’m copying it here as well.
There have been a lot of recent posts, here and elsewhere, asking “is this a scam” (ok, all along, but it seems like more recently). I thought it would be useful to gather a list of red flags in one post.
One reason I’m doing this is to have a post I can point new freelancers to as part of “please read this before you do anything else”.
I’m sure this list is not complete. If you think I’ve missed anything, please let me know either in this thread or in DM. Assuming I agree with you, I’ll add it to the post.
Don’t assume that because a job posted on Upwork that it’s been vetted and is safe. Upwork does not vet jobs before they are posted.
Don’t assume Upwork has vetted the clients. Upwork does not vet clients.
Don’t assume the Payment Verified badge means it’s not a scam. It’s trivial for scammers to verify their payment method, and we’re seeing more and more reports of scammers with that badge.
Don’t assume Upwork Plus means the client is vetted and safe. This is a subscription plan just like Freelancer Plus, and Upwork doesn’t vet the people who buy it.
Don’t assume the “Interesting Job” and “Featured Job” badges mean the job is safe.
- “Interesting Job” seems to be awarded by an algorithm that doesn’t know whether the job is legitimate or not. I have seen jobs with the “Interesting Job” badge that were clearly scams.
- “Featured Job” is a badge clients pay for. There’s no reason scammers can’t do the same.
Don’t assume Upwork will return your money if you’ve been scammed. They will not.
Insisting on interviewing outside of Upwork’s messenger or its Zoom integration
Since June of 2020, Upwork’s terms of service prohibit communication outside of the messenger or its Zoom integration before you have a contract in place. Some clients just don’t know this rule, so if you are asked to interview on Skype, WhatsApp, their Zoom, etc., just remind them of the rule and say you need to keep communication on Upwork.
If the client insists on interviewing outside of Upwork, report the job and block the client. Taking the interview off of Upwork is the first step in most scams, and if you refuse to do that, you’ll stop the scam.
Refusing to do the interview off of Upwork is the #1 thing you can do to avoid scams.
Exception: Clients that have the “Enterprise” badge are allowed to interview off Upwork. The badge is obvious on the job posting.
Requesting you to send money in any form for any reason
If the client asks you to send any kind of money to them, it’s a scam. This includes cash; transfers through PayPal, Wise, etc.; gift cards; cryptocurrency; in-game currency like PUBG UC; funding a casino account; etc. They will promise to reimburse you and give you a bonus payment on top of that amount. You will not see any payment from them and any money you send will be gone. If they do pay a bonus, it will disappear because the payment method will be invalid.
Basically, if it can be used as money and the client asks you to send it to them or to add it to some account, you are being scammed.
Some of the ways they will try to get you to do this are:
- saying you need to pay a security deposit to take the job
- saying you need to buy a premium ID card
- saying they have a sick uncle (or kid or spouse or whatever) and they need help
- saying their kid or their boss’s kid needs in-game currency and they aren’t allowed to buy it directly
- saying they aren’t allowed to buy the crypto or gift card or whatever from where they live
- saying they need you to test virtual card recharges
- saying they need you to test casinos
- saying they need help getting money to a relative or friend in another country
- saying they to test buying in-app items (like gems) with virtual credit cards (the cards will be stolen or fraudulent, and they will be tied to your app store account)
- saying you need to pay a fee to join Upwork programs like Talent Scout. The only Upwork program for freelancers that costs money is Freelancer Plus, which you order from the Upwork site, nowhere else.
Once they have gotten some money from you this way, they may try to get more by adding on more fake fees that you must pay (such as a “payment verification fee”).
Again, never agree to send money of any kind to a client. Money always flows to the freelancer, not from the freelancer.
Saying they’ll send a check to buy equipment (or anything else)
This is one of the oldest scams in freelancing: the client says you need a special computer, printer, scanner, whatever. They say they’re going to email you a check for you to print out and deposit, then you are to use that money to buy the equipment from a store they trust (which they really own). The check is fake, and the bank will take the money back out of your account. If you’ve spent it on the equipment, the money is gone and you won’t get any equipment.
Also, taking any kind of money outside of Upwork is against Upwork’s terms of service.
Asking you to take payment through PayPal, etc.
Taking any kind of payment outside of Upwork is against the terms of service, and you will lose all protection Upwork offers. There is a very good chance you won’t be paid. This includes money for expenses.
Asking to buy or lease your account
Some clients will claim they can’t set up an Upwork account for whatever reason, usually that it’s banned in their country (with very few exceptions, this is false) or that they have been banned for no reason (there’s always a reason, not that it matters). They want to buy your account outright or lease it. First, this is against Upwork’s terms of service, so you’ll be banned when (not if) it’s discovered. Second, since your name and identifying information are on the account, you’re responsible for whatever the other party does with it. Their bad reviews will be on your profile. Their fraud against real clients will be attached to your name and identity. Any earnings they make will be your responsibility when it comes to tax time. Oh, and you probably won’t actually be paid for the use of your account.
Asking you to install an app via a link they give you
Some scammers will ask you to install an app through an obscured link (like a tinyurl) to verify that you can do the job before they send the offer. It’s possible the app is malware. It’s also common for this to be a lead-in to another scam, often related to cryptocurrency.
I’ve seen this recently with the scammer saying they need you to translate the app. That’s not how translation jobs work.
Asking to use your address to register a business
Some clients will ask you to get a postcard delivered from Google or some other directory at your address and to enter a code from the card somewhere or to give them that code. What you’re doing is associating your physical address with the scammer’s business. Guess where the police will come when the scammer rips someone off?
Use your information to set up a storefront
Clients have asked freelancers to set up storefronts on Etsy and elsewhere for them using the freelancer’s information including their bank account to receive credit card payments. The idea is that you’ll get to keep a cut from sales and you’ll forward the scammer the rest. People buying from the storefront will never get their orders and will eventually do chargebacks. The money will come back out of your account, including the share you’ve already sent the scammer.
Asking to use your developer account to submit apps on Apple’s or Google’s app stores
The apps will be malware or fraudulent copies of other apps. The client has already had their developer account banned or they don’t want their developer account banned in the first place—it’s much better for them if your developer account gets banned instead, which is what will happen rather quickly.
Offering huge rates relative to the work
This could be just a client trying to attract attention to their job, but it’s often a scammer trying to lure people in.
Sending an invitation to bid when you have little or no history
it’s very rare for freelancers with no or little Upwork history to get legitimate unsolicited invitations to bid—it can happen, but be very leery of invitations until you have a solid history on your profile. They will most likely be scams.
Asking for selfies and/or pictures of passports / IDs
Clients asking for selfies and/or copies of your passport or ID, supposedly to verify your identify for their security purposes, are most likely trying to use your identity for things like passing know-your-customer verification at banks or crypto exchanges. You’re tying your identity to their scam.
They could also be trying to get your identity for other reasons, like getting credit cards in your name.
Asking you to post property ads (for rent or for sale
In this scam, the client will ask you to post ads for rental property or houses for sale. The ads will often be on the Facebook marketplace, though I’ve seen versions for Craigslist. They don’t actually own the property but are trying to collect deposits from people trying to rent or buy it. By posting the ads from your Facebook account, you are tying your identity to their scam.
Asking you to fill out and sign an employment agreement
As a freelancer, you aren’t an employee and employment agreements aren’t a thing for Upwork freelancers. This is a prelude to a scam or identity theft.
Telling you to contact their HR department or hiring manager
As with employment agreements, talking to the HR department or a hiring manager isn’t a thing with legitimate Upwork clients. This is a prelude to a scam. This also goes along with the first point, as the request will usually be to contact this person outside of Upwork through Skype, Telegram, or WhatsApp
Telling you they’ve paid the opt-out fee so they can pay out outside of Upwork
Upwork requires you to keep your contracts and payments on Upwork for 2 years after your first contact with a client unless the opt-out fee is paid. If you resist outside payment, some clients will insist they’ve paid the opt-out fee. This fee runs several thousand dollars, so no legitimate client is going to pay this to hire someone they haven’t worked with before.
Saying they need to hire you from another account
Client’s aren’t allowed to have multiple accounts, just like freelancers. If they’re trying to hire you from another account, it may be because they’ve tanked their reputation on their main account, so they need to do a bait-and-switch.
Offering a low trial hourly rate
Clients will offer a low hourly rate as a “trial” with a promise to raise the rate later. If you’re ok with that trial rate, that’s fine, but assume from the start that the client will never agree to raise it.
Sending an hourly offer at the wrong rate
The client may send you an offer lower than the rate you agreed on, and say it’s a mistake, they’ll fix it after you accept. Don’t assume they will. Once you accept the contract, they can try to blackmail you into keeping the lower rate by threatening to give you poor feedback (feedback blackmail).
Funding escrow for less than agreed
Clients will send fixed-price offers for less than the amount agreed upon, often with the promise that the rest will be funded on delivery. This is likely a lie. What is funded in escrow is all you can be sure of getting. Always verify that the amount funded on the offer matches what you think it should. Don’t accept the offer if it doesn’t.
Pressuring you to take the job or start right away
Some clients will try to pressure you to take a job, often outside of your skillset. This can be a prelude to a bait-and-switch into a scam. Once you accept the contract, they can use feedback blackmail to dissuade you from canceling the job.
Unless you’re in one of those rare niches where 12 people in the world know how to do it and 9 of those work for the government, there’s no reason for a client to pressure you—they’ve got 50 other proposals sitting there.
If the client is pressuring you to start the job immediately after the contract, they may be trying to get the scam done before it’s found out and the contract canceled. They may also simply be a legitimate client who’s in a hurry.
Refusing to discuss the tasks ahead of time
Some clients will refuse to give details of a task before you have a contract, often citing confidentiality. Never accept this. It’s likely a bait-and-switch into a scam, like above.
Asking for free work or for work without a contract
First: it’s against the terms of service for clients to ask for free work. Some clients may just not know this, but many are trying to get free work from you without ever intending to pay you.
Clients will sometimes ask for free samples, like a test logo or essay or a few pages of a sample edit. When they do this repeatedly or with many freelancers, they can get their entire project done for free. If you’re in a creative niche, consider having a solid portfolio that you can show samples from instead of agreeing to what the client wants you to do for free.
Another trick is for clients to claim there’s some reason they can’t set up the contract or fund a milestone or verify their payment method right now, but the deadline is urgent. So they will ask you to do the work and they’ll take care of the paperwork later. Don’t fall for this. If you turn over work without a contract or funded milestone, you probably won’t get paid.
Vague job description
Many job posts are very vague and don’t give any real details of what the client wants. These aren’t necessarily a scam, as legitimate clients can just be lazy or busy, but scammers do use vague posts hoping to lure in new freelancers. Pay close attention for any of the other red flags, especially the case where they want to hire you and tell you the requirements later.
Multiple duplicate job posts
Clients will sometimes post the same job multiple times. These aren’t necessarily scams. There are some businesses that rely on a steady stream of freelancers for their business model or they may just be trying to get attention to their post.
But, scammers also do this for the same reason—they need a steady stream of people and attention on their posts. The more people they can rope in before their jobs are recognized as scams, the better (for them anyway). When you notice the same job posted repeatedly, be careful and look for other red flags.
Clicking shortened links in job posts or downloading archive attachments
Scammers will sometimes include short URLs (bit.ly, tinyurl, etc.) in the job post and ask you to click it to get info about the job. These links can go to phishing or malware sites. They can also simply have referral codes or point to advertising sites. Another variation is to point to YouTube, presumably to drive up views on a video. Be very leery of clicking those types of links in a job post.
Other scammers will attach archive files (zips, rar files, 7z files, for example) to job posts or messages. These can contain malicious software. Be extremely cautious about downloading archive files from people you don’t trust.
Asking specifically for new freelancers
Some clients will specify that they want new freelancers only. They may just be nice and trying to give a newbie a break. Or they may be trying to get a lowball price. Or, they may be looking for people who aren’t aware of the scams and may be more susceptible to them.
Trust your gut.
- If something seems off, it probably is.
- If you feel like you need to ask in one of the forums if something is a scam, it probably is.
- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- If you’re being offered a large bonus or premium out of proportion to the work, that bonus may well never show up. This is often part of the “buy crypto/in-game currency/gift cards/etc.” scams.
Again, this list is almost certainly not complete. Let me know if you think something should be added. Thanks.