Love it or hate it, Upwork is one of the world’s most-used freelance job platforms. Most people on Upwork are perfectly legitimate. But with over three million jobs posted every year, the platform has long been a popular target for scammers.
Upwork scams are relatively few and far between, but when they catch you, it hurts. At best you may waste a bunch of time working for an unscrupulous client. At worst, you could be putting your money and personal data at risk.
So, what sort of job posts should instantly raise a red flag?
What do new freelancers and clients need to know to keep themselves safe on Upwork?
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What is Upwork? Is It safe?
- Common scams, and how to recognise them
- Warning signals for clients
- Upwork rules and why you should follow them
- How to protect yourself from scammers and fakes
We also, towards the end of the article, share a real life example of an Upwork scam we encountered ourselves!
Let’s start right at the beginning.
- What is Upwork?
- Common Upwork Scams – Freelancers Beware!
- How To Protect Yourself from Upwork Scams
- Warning Signals for Clients
- Guard Against Scams by Following Upwork’s Terms and Conditions
- A Real Life Example of an Upwork Scam
What is Upwork?
For those who don’t know, Upwork is a huge online freelance job board. By most metrics it’s the largest in the world.
Most online freelancers have heard of Upwork, and many have tried it and formed an opinion of it.
Those opinions are often fiercely positive or savagely negative. We won’t debate Upwork’s controversial fees in this article, or discuss whether those who dismiss the platform simply haven’t done enough to make a success of using it.
You’ll find plenty on all that elsewhere on the site, and we’d suggest starting off with our huge review of Upwork.
For the purposes of this guide to Upwork scams, we will answer two key questions before we begin:
Is Upwork Safe?
Upwork IS safe, so long as you take the kind of sensible precautions you should in any business dealings.
Is Upwork Worth It?
Upwork is very much “worth it,” if you’re prepared to properly learn the platform and pay your dues when you’re starting out.
Despite the two facts above, Upwork scams DO exist. This article is about helping you avoid them.
Common Upwork Scams – Freelancers Beware!
Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous individuals all around the world who prey on the innocent and the unwary.
We’ve all had those annoying phone calls promising unforgettable holidays abroad if we only sign up to X…
And how many are taken in by ads promising a miracle cure at a bargain price, only to find their credit card charged month after month for pills that don’t work?
The point here is there are scammers in your neighbourhood, on your phone and on the internet.
And, yes, they’re on freelance platforms too.
So watch out for these potentially fraudulent tricks:
People Asking for Unpaid Work
It’s reasonable for potential clients to ask for a sample of your work before hiring you on Upwork. However, it’s unreasonable to expect an entire article, prototype designs or artwork without paying anything for it.
If a client asks you for free work, they might be:
- Unaware of the protocols — in which case they’re not scamming, just mistaken, and you can politely enlighten them.
- A cheapskate trying to get something for nothing.
- Part of a more elaborate scamming scheme.
Beware of a job hiring multiple freelancers AND asking for a free sample piece. The clients may be asking each applicant to write a different “test piece.” They won’t hire any applicants, but when they put all the pieces together, voila! All the work is done, and they leave without paying a dime.
If it’s your first time on the platform, or you’re desperate to pay the rent, you may be vulnerable to this sort of scam.
Remember, if a genuine client is trying to decide between several freelancers, they’ll ask you to do a PAID test. That’s legit! Ultimately you may not win the job, but you will get paid for the work you did.
Clients Suggesting You Take Work “Off The Platform”
It can be very tempting to move work away from Upwork to avoid paying fees, which can be up to 20% for freelancers. Clients often want you to do this, as they pay fees too.
Most of the time it is a bad idea, especially as Upwork has become way stricter about this over the years.
Upwork call it “circumvention” – and it’s entirely against the rules unless you pay Upwork a “conversion fee,” (or if you’ve worked with the same client for over two years.)
It’s not only about following Upwork’s rules. If you work away from the platform you lose the protections you gain from keeping all of the work arrangements and transactions within Upwork’s framework. In a worst case scenario, a client could take your work and disappear, leaving you unpaid and without proof that you even submitted it.
When you keep your communication and transactions on Upwork, you’re covered by their Payment Protection agreement. The timer app logs hourly rates, but fixed milestones are also protected. The client has to deposit the agreed milestone amount before you start work. Even if they don’t sign off on the milestone, Upwork automatically pays you 14 days after you’ve submitted it.
As a freelancer, you will likely end up working “direct” with some clients in time, but moving Upwork clients away – against the terms of service – puts your account and your income at risk.
Oh, what a scam this is! And totally against the rules, of course! Don’t let anyone persuade you to share your account with them.
These scammers are preying on your need for income. They’ll sound very genuine as they tell you how much more you’ll make. But once they’re into your account, they could lock you out and steal your money. What’s more, they could use your identity to scam clients (see below.) They may even hold your account to ransom and force you to pay for access.
Protect your Upwork Account as carefully as you guard your bank account and NEVER share your personal information with anyone.
The Check Scam (AKA “Pay for Stationery and Supplies)
This scam has been around offline for a long time. Like so many things, it’s now made its transition to the online world.
It involves job postings that often use the name of a real brick-and-mortar business to make them seem legitimate. The “client” then lures applicants away from the Upwork platform to interview and “hire” them.
Once you’ve signed on, the “company” sends you a check to buy the stationery and supplies they say you’ll need. When you bank it, the check clears because, by law in some countries, banks have to make that money available to you within 2-3 working days.
You then follow the instructions to purchase through a particular supplier and use money transfer apps like Zelle or CashApp.
Later, the bank discovers it was a false check and takes the money back out of your account.
The scammers have your money. The banks won’t help because the money has gone through a transfer app. Upwork can’t help because it can’t monitor conversations and hires taken offsite.
The people who run these scams go to great lengths to seem plausible and charming. They’re experts at persuading the unwary. Remember the golden rule: if a job seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Attempts to Infect Your Laptop
These scams are all over the internet, luring you into opening dodgy documents that have keyloggers hidden in the code.
We have a post featuring a real-life example of this sort of con, discovered when our founder answered a suspicious-looking job post on Upwork.
The “client” set up a Skype interview (off Upwork alert!) and sent a virus-laden ZIP file.
Thankfully we saw the red flags and didn’t succumb – but these scams are effective enough to catch many people out. If they weren’t, the scammers wouldn’t persist in running them.
Clients Asking You to Do Dishonest Work
It’s reasonably common to find people on Upwork wanting to pay freelancers to do sketchy things. A common example is writing positive reviews for products and services they’ve never used.
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. Look at it this way: If they’re willing to be dishonest with potential customers, how well do they treat their freelancers?
There was an example of this a while ago. A company (who shall remain nameless) offered 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 that felt they had to resort to this!
How To Protect Yourself from Upwork Scams
If you follow a few common-sense rules, you’re far less likely to fall into the scammers’ traps:
Do Your Due Diligence on Clients
- Check their feedback. Have they hired on Upwork in the past? Do other freelancers give them five stars and positive comments?
- Are the five stars genuine? Many high ratings with no words attached could mean that they’ve rated themselves through hacked accounts.
- How do they rate other people who’ve worked for them? If their comments about freelancers are consistently negative, they may be genuine but also impossibly hard to please.
- Do they have a verified payment method? You want to know they’re able to pay promptly and securely.
- How many people are they seeking? And how many interviews seem to be happening? A high number of each could suggests a possible scam.
- Are the rates unusually high? A client advertising oddly high rates, especially to people with limited experience, may be doing so to “hook people in.”
Never Divulge Personal Details
In the real world and online, never give out account details, passwords, or bank account numbers. Keep all your payments through Upwork. That way, you’ll have a record of all transactions, and you can use Upwork’s mediation services if necessary.
Warning Signals for Clients
We’ve covered some of the pitfalls for freelancers. But what about if you’re a client who wants to hire an independent contractor through Upwork?
What scams should have your antennae quivering?
Fake Freelancer Profiles
Clients need to do some due diligence too.
Don’t accept a freelancer’s profile at face value. They could be stretching the truth about their qualifications. Or their account may even have been stolen (see above).
Occasionally people fake their location through a VPN. Or there could be a suspiciously high number of five-star reviews with generic remarks or no comments at all.
If they claim to be a native speaker (generally of English), pay attention to their vocab and grammar. Does it ring true?
Can you find them on LinkedIn or other social media? Do they include testimonials that you can check from another source? Are the examples of work in their portfolios genuine?
Plagiarism and Spun Articles
Merriam-Webster Online defines plagiarism as “stealing and passing off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own or using another’s production without crediting the source.”
In other words, you are claiming an idea or work as your own when someone else wrote it first.
Spun articles are reworded from existing articles and passed off as original pieces. It’s possible to do this with software, as well as with lazy writing!
Genuine freelance writers research from a wide variety of reputable online sources and draw from their own experiences. Then they use the information to write an original article — as I’ve done with this one.
Plagiarists copy and paste large chunks of someone else’s work and claim it as their own.
You can use several online tools to check that you’re getting original work.
- Google reverse image search lets you search to see if or where a photo is used elsewhere on the internet.
- Codequiry checks that you’re not getting copied code from your developer and that code doesn’t potentially infringe someone’s copyright.
Requests for Payment Outside Upwork (or Before Work is Completed)
Neither clients nor freelancers should be taking their transactions off Upwork if they’ve hired (or been hired) through the platform. So, be VERY wary of someone asking you to use another payment method.
Also, be careful if someone is asking for total payment up-front before they start work. When you hire a freelancer, you pay the money to Upwork, but they don’t release the funds until the job is signed off (within 14 days). That gives you time to review and query the work if necessary.
That said, some experienced workers may ask for an initial payment to protect themselves against client fraud. You can distinguish between a genuine, top-ranked freelancer and a scammer by their professional communications and verifiable details.
Sometimes a freelancer will accept a high-paying job then contract someone lower-paid to do the work for them. This is surprisingly common in the freelancing world, so if you don’t get the quality job you are expecting, you might be a victim of this scam.
Check on their profile to see how frequently they’re working. If an individual freelancer seems to have an unrealistically fast turnaround, they might be outsourcing some of the work. (Do note that Upwork also offers work from agencies, who are essentially doing the same thing, but in a legitimate way!)
Systems Hijack and Ransomware
Suppose you give a freelancer complete system access. In that case, you open yourself up to losing information, money, and possibly even control of your website. You might even have to pay a ransom to get it back.
If you’re hiring a software developer, vet them very carefully before allowing them into your system. Limit their access, so they only get where they need to be to do the work. Regularly monitor system logs so you can keep an eye on what’s going on and spot potential problems early.
The Affiliate “Scam”
A relatively new “scam” on Upwork is where a technical freelancer convinces you that you need a new product or service in order for something to work “properly.”
A common way this is executed is for a freelancer to tell you that your web hosting isn’t up to scratch, but that it will all be fine if you switch to their recommended provider. This provider will usually be at the “top end” of the market, and one that pays huge commissions to affiliates. And you can be sure that the person recommending it will be one of those affiliates.
This isn’t an Upwork scam, as such, but it’s highly disingenuous. It’s surprisingly common nowadays for techies to accept low-paid web jobs in order to use them as an “in” to try to sell something that will make them far more money than the job itself.
Guard Against Scams by Following Upwork’s Terms and Conditions
The easiest way to stay safe on Upwork is to stick to the rules. Terms and Conditions are there to protect everyone who uses the platform.
Yes, the fees are a drag. But remember you’re paying for a comprehensive service and that Upwork adds and refines tools all the time.
The golden rule for both clients and freelancers is simple; keep all conversations and transactions on Upwork. Don’t be lured off the platform by promising schemes or dodgy deals.
A Real Life Example of an Upwork Scam
To demonstrate just how easy it is to run into a real-life Upwork scam, here’s the sorry tale of where our founder, Ben, encountered a scammer on the platform himself.
It provides a great insight into a common Upwork scam technique – AND he screenshotted the whole thing to share with you!
The incident began with a seemingly innocuous job advert. However, the application he sent through was rather half-hearted, as there were already a few reasons for suspicion. They’re marked in the screenshot below.
So what raises suspicions here?
- The client was brand new to Upwork, with an unverified payment method. Now, every client is new to Upwork at some point, so there’s no reason to actively avoid everything advertised by clients without feedback. However, it’s always best to at least be wary, and…
- The client wants 20 freelancers right from the off? This would mean a big operation – it doesn’t sound right.
- The payment. $80 per article isn’t at all unusual for experienced freelance writers, and may seem low to some. However is is high for an advertised starting rate on Upwork.
- The advert, despite being long, is completely non-specific as to what subject matter writers will be writing about.
Despite his suspicions, Ben spent two minutes sending an application off, if only out of curiosity. He didn’t know at the time that it would end up forming part of an Upwork scams article!
It didn’t take long to receive a communication back from the client. He asked Ben to add his “editor” on Skype, as per the image below. Names have not been redacted to protect the guilty!
Ben added the Skype account and quickly received the first communication:
The suspicions really began to mount.
First off, this “Judith Cooper” wasn’t using a legit photo.
And the weird ZIP file certainly indicated that an Upwork scam was afoot.
Inside the ZIP file were two files:
The PDF file was a generic style guide, but the “Payment Terms” file (the one that potential freelancers are going to be in a hurry to open) was a .LNK file. This is a file that triggers the loading of another file, but only on Microsoft Windows. As Ben uses a Mac, opening it would do nothing.
However, Ben decided to take a look inside the file. What he found inside had “virus” written all over it. Anyone opening this on a Windows computer would have ended up with a keylogger installed on their computer, ready to log their keystrokes and send them back to the hackers behind this scam – who could then have used them for financial gain and for hacking into online accounts.
By this stage, the fact a scam was in progress was no longer in doubt. Ben even found a report on a hacking-related site from someone who had encountered the scam before and written about it.
So, all it was left was have a little fun with the scammer. Sadly this was rather short lived before Ben was sworn at and blocked, as you’ll see below:
After this, Ben headed back onto Upwork, where I reported the job to the “Upwork police” as “phishing or fraud.”
While Upwork deserve credit for quickly removing the job, I’ve seen the same scam numerous times since, and other other reports of it. These people don’t give up!
Yes, you do need to be aware of potential Upwork scams. But equally, you can guard against them by taking sensible precautions.
I’ve personally been working through Upwork for a year, and no one’s offered me anything that looked like an outright scam. However, I have seen plenty of jobs that I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.
In the Freelance Kickstarter Course, there’s lots of sound advice on things to watch for in job posts. There’s a specific video lesson that shows examples of legitimate, well-presented jobs. But it also highlights jobs with red flags, and explains why you should avoid them.
So, in conclusion, be cautious, but don’t let the relatively small chance of being scammed put you off working on the Upwork. With thousands of new opportunities every day, Upwork remains a rich source of freelance home working opportunities.
Lyn is the author of Culture Smart NZ (2022). A freelance writer and blogger from New Zealand, she specialises in content for lifestyle magazines, blogs, podcasts and virtual summits. You’ll find her blog on writing, farm life & talented New Zealanders at lynmcnamee.com