I might be less gullible than an 80-year-old grandma, but my hubris lowered my defenses — and it nearly cost me thousands of dollars. Here’s my story, along with six smart takeaways.
Imagine that you’re a freelancer. A potential client gets referred to you by a trusted colleague. It’s a colleague you’ve been working with for years, and everyone he’s connected you with has proven to be a serious prospect. You’re so excited that you make a rookie mistake known to anyone who’s gone on a first date in the last decade: You fail to Google the guy.
The project at hand (writing the script for a workshop) has an aggressive deadline (less than one week), along with two provisions you’ve never encountered: The client doesn’t care about the tone or style of the text; he just wants it to be “informative.” And he wants it not as a Microsoft Word or Google document, which are easily editable, but as an Adobe Acrobat P.D.F., which is not.
Why is this odd? Most people who hire a ghostwriter care about their words; that’s why they pay big bucks for a pro. Also, most want to tweak writing that goes out under their name; rare is the client who accepts whatever you’ve written uncontested.
On one hand, these requests constitute red flags. On the other, they also make your job easier. Your mind leans toward the latter.
The 5-Minute Call
You schedule a call with the prospect. You explain that his $3,000 budget won’t cover the scope of work. Your rate is $5,000, which you require upfront.
Without pause, he says “OK” and asks you to text him your address. The whole conversation lasts less than five minutes.
Why is this odd? His budget just exploded by 66%, yet he didn’t ask a single question. What’s more, he doesn’t ask for an invoice. Hmmmm.
You get a receipt when you buy fries at McDonald’s, but this man of mystery is happy to shell out five grand without so much a single contractual sentence.
On one hand, this conversation represents another red flag. On the other hand, your job continues to get easier. Your mind leans toward the latter.
In fact, you begin to rationalize. His English is broken; maybe he prefers to communicate by text message? Additionally, the risk seems minimal; he’s happy to pay your full fee upfront — isn’t that ideal? As an Aaron Sorkin character once said, “Once you get the answer you’re looking for, hang up.”
Best of all, he says he’ll overnight you a check. Then he mentions, ever so casually, that the amount will be less than what he promised. His explanation is muddied, but it seems a third party is footing the bill and someone screwed up.
You don’t say anything. You think, “Short a few bucks? I can live with that. Short a few hundred bucks? I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
Then the check arrives. When you open the envelope, your jaw drops. He said the amount would be less. In fact, it’s more. A lot more. It’s $9,980.
Obviously, this is abnormal. And beyond the sum, the check is not from your client but from a “public library” — in a different state.
On one hand, the red flags are turning crimson. On the other hand, he did say the money would be coming from someone else. And shipping something via FedEx overnight isn’t cheap. Maybe by “short,” he meant $20 short of $10,000? Your mind leans toward the latter.
Before you can process all this, you get a text. It’s him. He wants you to deposit the check and to send him a copy of the confirmation slip. You eagerly comply.
Then comes the next set of demands. And in case you’re wondering, yes, this all happened to me; I’m reprinting the messages verbatim:
“The money will be cleared into your account by tomorrow so when it cleared cashout 5000 and I will tell you whom to send it to because we need to get everything set for the workshop.”
On one hand, you don’t have to be a forensic accountant to realize this isn’t how people do business. On the other hand, you just pulled down $10K, double what you’re owed. Your mind leans toward the latter.
The next morning, you get another text. “How are you doing?” he asks.
“Working hard on your script,” you reply.
His next message signals a decisive shift: “Thanks for the work but I want you to listen to my instruction on how to send the leftover of $5000. The money has been cleared into your account so I want you to reply my message.”
Eight minutes later, your phone rings. “You didn’t respond to my text,” he states.
At this point, you’re trapped between emotions. First, you attempt logic: “Look, if you want me to finish the script by Friday, then I need to focus on writing. If you want me to respond to text messages within eight minutes, then I won’t have the time to complete the project.”
He wants to argue, so you try a second tactic: “To be honest, this situation is making me uncomfortable. You have my word that I’ll pay you back the difference after I finish writing.”
He says “OK” and hangs up.
An hour later, he changes his mind. This time, he emails you. He tells you that you can, in fact, find time to go to the bank today. It’ll only take 15 minutes to do a wire transfer, he promises. He even offers you $1,500 for lunch, $50 for gas, and $200 “for the inconvenience.”
Fifteen minutes later: “Sorry I made mistake I intend to give 150$ for your lunch not 1500.”
On one hand… No! At this point, to quote Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, “There is no other hand.” Something is definitely off.
You leave a voicemail for your contact at your bank. Meanwhile, you continue to write; after all, you’ve cleared your schedule for the next few days.
As you wait for a call back, emails start piling up in your inbox. The subject lines blend desperation with pressure — those princes of Nigeria would be proud:
ATTENTION PLEASE !!!
URGENTLY NEEDED YOUR ATTENTION PLS
WHY ARE YOU NOT TEXT OR EMAIL ME BACK
The Harsh Glare of Truth
Fortunately, your banker responds within the hour. His first words: “Don’t do anything.”
He explains that the situation bears all the signs of a classic con. The “mistaken” overpayment via physical check. The demand for reimbursement via wire transfer. The fluctuating amounts. The urgency. The mangled grammar. The suspiciously detailed knowledge of banking.
There’s even a name for these shenanigans: The “overpayment scheme.”
“But the check cleared,” you protest. “It’s no longer ‘pending’ or ‘processing.’”
“Not exactly,” your banker explains. “It passed the first of several tests. It could still be subject to a ‘stop’ order. It could still bounce for insufficient funds. It could still be counterfeit.”
“But the full amount is sitting in my account. It’s available for withdrawal.”
“We do that as a courtesy. It can take up to 60 days before we validate payment.”
“Yep. We’re quick to grant you access to the funds because the banking system wouldn’t work otherwise. But bear in mind that if a check is returned, as the payee you’re ultimately responsible.”
Over the next 20 minutes, you sprint through the stages of grief: You deny what is obvious. You try to bargain your way out. Finally — after the third time your client calls while you’re on the phone with your bank — you accept reality.
And yet, you still cling to a sliver of hope. You can’t believe something like this could happen to you — you, with your finely honed B.S. detector; you, with your payment-upfront stipulations. Plus, you’re deep in the throes of what economics call “sunk costs”: You’ve already spent a day writing, so you’re emotionally invested in the assignment. Thus, you take your banker up on his final suggestion: You call the bank that issued the check.
You say you suspect fraud; they ask you to send a picture of the check. Seconds after receiving your email, you hear the words you were dreading: “I wouldn’t deposit this.”
“To be honest,” the representative continues, “this looks like it was printed on a home computer. Also, there are some formatting issues.”
In other words: The check was almost certainly forged. The whole thing was a brilliant, sophisticated swindle. Thank God you didn’t wire any money.
Had you done so, here’s how the ploy would have played out: The con artist would receive your funds immediately, making them unrecoverable. Within a few weeks, your bank would notify you that your windfall was fraudulent, and the bank would erase the entire amount from your account. As a result, you’d permanently lose about $5,000 of your own money — not to mention the time you’d invested writing the script that never mattered in the first place.
Your emails and calls to the client would go unreturned. At some point, the former would bounce back, and the latter would be blocked. Any recourse you might reach for — to FedEx, to your bank, to his bank, to the F.B.I. — would be fruitless.
Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Freelancing
How could I have avoided this ambush? Here’s the smartest, most practical advice I’ve collected from experts:
1. Question the Source
Neglecting this was my first mistake. Anytime someone refers a client to you, ask how they know this person. Is your contact “just the messenger,” or have they vetted the prospect?
2. Trust, But Google
However someone ends up in your pipeline, always research them. Two minutes of Googling would have revealed that the only digital trail for my newfound cash cow was a LinkedIn profile with three connections and no headshot.
3. Don’t Be Fooled by FedEx
FedEx can charge more than $100 to overnight an envelope. That’s an impressive display of credibility. Of course, that’s the rate for consumers; if you have a corporate account, the price plummets. What’s more, a $100 investment to pocket $5,000 is a return that even Warren Buffett would envy.
4. Draw Up an Agreement
Even if it’s only a paragraph, get something on paper that establishes your scope and fee, which lists contact info for both parties, and which is signed. If your bank hits you with a fine, you can show them you were victimized. Also, had Mr. Moneybags balked at signing a contract, that red flag would have been a dealbreaker. (At least that’s what I tell myself in retrospect.)
5. Insist on an Electronic Transfer
There’s a reason I was snail-mailed a paper check, even as I was directed to send payment back electronically. Wire and automated-clearinghouse transfers can’t be forged or even reversed; they’re the equivalent of cash. This doesn’t mean you should stop accepting checks altogether; just don’t accept them from a new client.
(You’ll be in good company; many landlords require that your first month’s rent and security deposit be paid via money order or cashier’s check.)
That’s as true with telemarketers as it is with clients. If you sense a scam, resist the temptation to play hero or detective. Instead, call both your bank and their bank and report your suspicions, then consider yourself lucky that you caught the con early.
Think You’re Too Savvy to Get Scammed? So Did I
When it comes to being hustled, I think I’m pretty savvy. I’m well-versed about phishing emails. I ignore voicemails purporting to be from the I.R.S. When I sell things on Craigslist, I use a firm cash-only policy. I’m even skeptical of those who use a @verizon.net email address.
How, then, could I have been so naïve? How could I have fallen for such an obvious deceit? The more I reflect, the more I’m convinced that my downfall was that of Icarus: Pride. I was just plain arrogant.
“This can’t happen to me,” I thought.
Of course it can.
Addendum (2/11/2022): Since publishing this article, I’ve heard from other freelancers with similar stories. In fact, a colleague here in the Washington, D.C. area appears to have been contacted by the exact same miserable creature who preyed on me: Same remit. Same offer. Same topic. Same garbled English. Different name and email address. (Happily, my colleague’s spidey sense was sharper than mine.)
Here’s another (almost) horror story: A freelancer who had just started her business pulled a client off a chat board. The physical check arrived promptly, and she deposited it. Then the client started pressuring her to return the funds. He claimed his son got injured and was in the hospital. Happily, the freelancer called the company whose name was on the check. They said she was the fifth person to call.
These shell games target freelancers, who are particularly vulnerable. We’re hungry for work and don’t have the support system of a team. Plus, con artists bank on the fact that most of us haven’t heard of these cons. I hope the above article will help change that.
Jonathan Rick is a ghostwriter in Washington, D.C. As long as you’re not a Nigerian prince, he’d love to help perfect your slide decks, Wikipedia articles, LinkedIn profiles, op-eds, website copy, and more.
A version of the above article appeared in the Washington Examiner on February 5, 2022.