Upwork scams are (relatively speaking) few and far between. But that doesn’t mean people don’t sometimes fall foul of dishonest clients and people trying to get something for nothing.
For those who don’t know, Upwork (formerly oDesk) is a huge online freelance job board. Most online freelancers have heard of it, and many have tried it and formed an opinion of it.
These opinions are often fiercely positive or savagely negative. (I have future articles and a detailed Upwork review planned, where I will defend Upwork in many respects, as I’ve personally had plenty of success on the platform and earned a healthy living from working there – but that’s for another day).
I’ll start off by answering two key questions:
- “Is Upwork safe?” – Absolutely, so long as you take the kind of sensible precautions you should in any business dealings.
- “Is Upwork worth it?” – Very much so, if you’re prepared to learn the platform and pay your dues.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that Upwork scams don’t exist. This article is all about helping you avoid them.
How to avoid Upwork scams – some background and context
One fundamental problem with Upwork is that some unscrupulous people see it as nothing more than a way to extract cheap labour from eager or desperate freelancers.
Some of the most vocal Upwork complaints you hear are from novice freelancers who are put off and discouraged by clients trying to get work for next to nothing.
While some of these Upwork complaints are valid, some come from people who’ve not taken the time to learn and understand how the platform works.
Upwork is a global freelance marketplace and a true meritocracy. In some parts of the world, $5 per hour is way in excess of the average wage. This is globalisation at work, and – love it or hate it – people will inevitably tap into this resource.
As such, there are some people who have no intention of using Upwork to hire people who charge anything more than rock-bottom rates. It’s essential to realise that this doesn’t mean these clients are out to scam anybody. These are just some firms and individuals who want to pay as little as they can for certain services – just the same as blue-chip companies often outsource call centre work and manufacturing.
At the other end of the scale, there are some Upwork contractors (such as native English writers and expert developers) regularly landing $50-100 per hour or more for their services.
So, don’t fall into the trap of thinking Upwork itself is some kind of scam. It simply isn’t. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that a great deal of the negative press Upwork gets comes from people who haven’t managed to make a success of working there.
How to recognise Upwork scams
With that out of the way, the fact remains that there are people out there who are on a mission to scam unsuspecting Upwork users. Some may be trying to get work done for free, others may be involved in slightly less dodgy (but no less immoral) practices.
Here’s how to avoid them:
1. Beware of people asking for unpaid sample work
It’s quite reasonable for clients to want to see a sample of your work before hiring you on Upwork. However, it’s not reasonable to expect you to write an entire article speculatively or produce prototype designs for logos or websites.
For this reason, be on your guard if a client asks for too much before formally hiring you on Upwork. By all means, provide example work if it takes you a small amount of time, but provide a paragraph, not an entire article. If your portfolio is strong, you shouldn’t even need to do this to prove your worth.
Professional clients will offer paid test tasks as a matter of course. Someone who wants, for example, a whole article written before taking you on, may be asking the same of 20 other freelancers, intending to grab the lot before disappearing.
2. Check out what clients have paid their past Upwork freelancers
It’s always worth doing some “due diligence” on new Upwork clients.
One warning sign is if a client is asking for “experienced freelancers only,” when their past employer history shows they’ve been paying all their other contractors no more than a couple of bucks per hour.
These clients are not scamming, but they are likely to be cheapskates! They’re therefore best avoided.
3. Avoid clients asking you to do dishonest work
It’s reasonably common to find people on Upwork wanting to pay freelancers to do sketchy things like writing positive reviews for products and services they’ve never seen. (As far as I’m aware, this is against the terms of service, but I do see these tasks slip through).
While these can seem like easy money (and are not necessarily Upwork scams, as such), one has to wonder about the scruples of people who are paying to game the system in this way. If they’re willing to be dishonest with potential customers, the chances are they aren’t that fussed about how they treat their freelancers either.
I saw a particular example of this recently, with a company offering to pay people to leave positive reviews on Glassdoor, pretending to be happy employees. I would have serious misgivings about having anything to do with a company who felt they had to resort to this!
4. Be wary of fixed price jobs
Fixed price Upwork jobs leave you with far less protection than hourly rate contracts. If there’s a dispute over payment, there’s very little Upwork can do when you have a fixed price arrangement.
That said, there are plenty of positives to fixed price jobs too. The fact that you can agree a rate for completing a task means that exactly how long it takes you is your business and nobody else’s. This is key to boosting your overall income as a freelancer.
But it IS riskier. Which leads us onto the next point:
5. Request a deposit
One way to mitigate the risks associated with fixed price Upwork jobs is to request a deposit before starting work.
While a few clients may be unhappy about this, professional businesses will recognise and accept your desire to cover the risk associated with doing business with someone new. If a new client refuses, you are left with the choice of shouldering the risk of a scam yourself, or simply walking away.
For what it’s worth, I’ve always insisted on 50% up-front with new Upwork clients. The VAST majority have had no problem whatsoever with this.
6. Beware of “scope creep”
It’s important to be on the look out for clients who push the boundaries of what’s been agreed and try to force more work out of you. Although this isn’t a blatant Upwork scam, it’s one of the more irritating things that can happen. If you don’t end the relationship well, your feedback can suffer and make it harder for you to pick up more work.
Thankfully, you can usually spot clients like this quite early on in the relationship. Often, it’s better to “cut and run.” Refund the money, protect your Upwork reputation and move on. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.
7. Avoid clients who try to move you away from Upwork
Quite often, Upwork freelancers receive job invites that look legitimate, but include an “apply here” link that’s completely outside of Upwork.
The chances are that these ARE real Upwork scams. It’s made very clear to people hiring on Upwork that they shouldn’t move contractors outside of the platform. People trying to do this before they’ve even established two-way communication with you are almost certainly up to no good. Reject them, block them and consider reporting them too.
Upwork Scams: Conclusion
As I made clear at the start, Upwork is not a breeding ground for scams, despite what some people may say. Following the tips above should help you avoid most of the pitfalls.
The usual rules of common sense apply: If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. But with thousands of new opportunities every day, Upwork remains a rich source of freelance home working opportunities. Be cautious, but don’t let the relatively small chance of being scammed put you off working on the platform.
Do you have any experience of Upwork scams? If so, share the details in the comments.