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I’ve been stiffed by exactly three clients in my five years of freelancing, but the sad thing is that I probably could have avoided all three incidences if I’d listened to my instincts. Before you’re tempted to do what I did and let a client walk away with the money they owe you, look for these warning signs:


They’re a Person of Mystery – This person has contacted you through email, but hasn’t given you a company name, a location, or maybe even a name. Watch out for someone who says they are working for a company but won’t name or let you contact that company. A good rule of thumb: Make sure you can find someone on LinkedIn or Google their website before you start working for them.

They Won’t Nail Down Rates – I’ve seen Craigslist ads that promise X rate “if you do a great job.” Nope. Rates and expectations for what a “great job” entails should always been nailed down in writing before you starting working for a new client.

They Refuse to Sign a Contract – This is a big red flag. Most bad clients won’t be forthright about refusing to sign a contract. Instead, they might delay, or have mysterious scanner problems. Don’t start working until you have their name on the dotted line.

They Request Changes to Your Contract – If they ask you change the contract such that you can only sue them within their jurisdiction if they don’t pay up something is clearly wrong. Furthermore, if you’re in Washington D.C. and they’re in Washington state, your client can be sure you won’t fly out to sue them unless they owe you a substantial amount of money. If they ask you to sign an agreement, be sure to pay attention to the details.

They’re Working Toward Future Earnings – The first client who ever stiffed me hired me to ghostwrite her book. What I should have realized when she asked me to meet her at her shady apartment is that she was only planning to pay me after the book took off. I never saw that money. (Though she apparently forgot she owed me when she sent me a LinkedIn request three years later…)

They Don’t Pass the Google Test – I’m not saying people who have mug shots online won’t pay you, but you might want to be a little extra weary, especially if you find that they’ve stiffed other contractors in the past.

Their Checks Come from Odd Sources – Watch out for checks that seem to have been written by grandma or are sent from a holding company that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with your client. While this could all be legitimate, it could also mean they are playing a dangerous game with their own funds, and you won’t be a priority when the house of cards falls.

Have you ever been stiffed by a client? Did they exhibit any of these warning signs?

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Jennifer is an Atlanta-based freelance writer, blogger and social media consultant who specializes in corporate blogging and creating social media strategies that attract your customers to your little corner of the web. She prides herself on two things: writing clearly and concisely for clients and learning something new every day. Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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