Freelance writers open themselves up to potential hazards every day and protecting yourself can be exhausting. You have to learn how to protect yourself from identity theft, grow your personal brand, and build your reputation—all while engaging others on social media and taking on new client work with people you’ve never met face to face.
Let me tell you a story.
My favorite gig so far was ghostwriting for a dog. Yes, you read that correctly. When I was a managing editor at a marketing agency, our office dog had his very own thriving website that we used as both a learning and testing site, as well as a case study for potential customers. Writing in the voice of a dog, especially our insanely intelligent and super-cuddly office dog, was my favorite assignment to date, and I’m not sure anything will ever top it.
Since I’ve written a lot about animal health and behavior, it was no shocker to me when I was contacted by someone wondering if I’d consider ghostwriting a new animal site from the ground up. He was enthusiastic about my work, and wanted to know if I could start the project immediately. However, I wasn’t too confident I’d end up helping him complete the work. Why? Well, the first red flag was that he signed his emails from a different name than what was in his email. (For example: the email of email@example.com and a signature of Ronaldo Souza). Red Flag number two was the very little information I dug up after Googling both the name and email (For the record, you should know that I am an incredible cyberdetective.). My guard was up, and I knew not to share anything until I had more legitimate proof he wasn’t simply phishing me to get my personal information.
That’s an all-too-common scenario for freelance writers, contractors, and, truthfully, everyone in the gig economy. But don’t let that shake your faith in your career. While there are inherent risks involved in writing in the gig economy, there are many ways you can learn to protect yourself online. The first step is to learn about the different threats that target freelancers.
Imagine applying for a freelance writing gig, completing all the necessary paperwork to get paid, and then learning that the person you’ve been sharing communications with doesn’t even work for the company. That’s what happened to Stephanie Caudle. After applying for a job on a freelance site, the company contacted her to let her know she got the job, but needed to complete some paperwork in order to get assigned paid work. Because she was sure the company was legit, she completed it all, sharing her social security number, a copy of her driver’s license, and more. Unfortunately, while the company was a legitimate business, the copy editor she was dealing with wasn’t. In fact, he didn’t even work for the company. Caudle unintentionally passed along everything a person needed to steal her identity to a complete stranger on the internet.
According to the 2016 Identity Fraud Study released by Javelin Strategy and Research, there were 13.1 million identity fraud victims in 2015. How scammers get a person’s information varies, but what happens after can be financially, professionally, and personally devastating. And think about how easy a scam like this is to pull off. Remember though, this isn’t the only way identity theft can occur. Oversharing personal information, easy-to-guess passwords, unsecured Wi-Fi, and forgetting to log off public computers are all common threats to your personal information.
Remember how I was afraid that query for a dog ghostwriter was actually a scam? Situations like this happen all the time. Merriam-Webster reports that phishing is “a scam by which an email user is duped into revealing personal or confidential information which the scammer can use illicitly.” If you have a website, portfolio, or announce that you’re looking for writing work on social media outlets, you’re putting yourself at risk that someone may fraudulently connect with you under the guise of hiring you. Then, once they have your personal information, they can use it however they please. Freelance writers are ideal targets for phishing, since in order to get paid they need to provide their personal information to the organization that’s hiring them.
Any time you publish something online you’re opening yourself up to the potential of being harassed via the comment section or on social media. These remarks may be as simple as someone trolling your work, hoping to ignite an argument with you on a public forum. They may want to embarrass you or maybe just rile you up, but they certainly expect a response. The harassment may be significantly more serious, such as rape or death threats. If you’ve been spared from dealing with harassment of any form, consider yourself lucky—most writers experience some degree of harassment regularly, especially women and minorities.
When The Guardian examined its 1.4 million moderator-blocked comments, it found a disturbing trend:
Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10,” one was Muslim and one Jewish. And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.
When I first started freelancing, I responded to a gig on a reputable freelance board for a website I enjoyed reading. I put a lot of effort and personality into my pitch, which was something completely new to me, and I was so excited to get an email back from the editor within the week. They were very happy with what they read in my portfolio, but had a practice of doing a paid trial post to make sure the writer was a good fit for the team, and wanted to know if that was okay by me. Of course. The trial post was at a slightly lower rate with a slightly higher word count than I was used to, but they made it clear that the rate would raise significantly after that first post. So, I dove right in—and let me tell you, I put a ton of effort into that post. I interviewed people from each business I highlighted in my pitch, and their quotes were stellar. Each section included three takeaways different industries could implement immediately. I felt so confident turning the first draft in. Plus, I delivered it earlier than promised.
The first email back from this company told me that the CEO would be reading it and they’d get back in touch with me. Abnormal, I thought, but let’s see what happens. The next email said that they couldn’t publish my post as is, but they’d be happy to give me a second chance. That’s it. There were no details as to what wasn’t working for them. I asked for more feedback so that I could tweak the article to their standards, but was only told they didn’t love the businesses I included in the story. (Ehh, okay?) I edited it again, which meant sourcing entirely new companies and interviewing them to get new quotes. After resubmitting the article, I was told that they didn’t want that post anymore, but they were willing to give me one more chance to write something on a completely new topic. I might have been a new freelance writer at the time, but I certainly knew that communications like this would only get worse if I were to write on retainer for them. I was confident in the content I submitted, and then rewrote and resubmitted, to them, and I didn’t want to waste any more time guessing at what would make them happy.
When I let them know that I was grateful for the opportunity, but I didn’t think we should continue, they ghosted me. Vanished. This was fine, except for the fact that I was never paid for the trial post. You know, the one that I wrote and then completely rewrote for them. By nature, there’s a risk that a trial post won’t pan out to both parties satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean it should go unpaid. However, since I didn’t have a contract, and they didn’t respond to my request for payment, I was out of luck (and money).
There’s a really simple way to protect yourself online. Want to know what it is? You need to be diligent and never let your guard down. Here are a few suggestions of actionable tips:
Create strong passwords, and change them regularly. Be careful what type of personal information you share online. Yes, I love connecting with like-minded people via Facebook groups and other social media platforms, but if you share your birthday, hometown, children’s names, and more and more, you’re giving away little pieces of the identity puzzle scammers can use to commit fraud.
Some businesses might not have their own freelancer agreement, but that doesn’t mean you should skip a contract entirely. Freelancer’s Union has a general contract template that you can personalize for your own needs, or your lawyer can draft a template up for you.
When you sign a client on a retainer package or a large project, invoice them immediately before beginning work. Whether you require a deposit or the entire amount is up to you, but so you don’t unintentionally work for free, make it a requirement that you must be paid before work begins. Because most freelance writers have public portfolios, your client should already feel confident in your ability, and this shouldn’t be a problem to legitimate businesses.
Whether someone contacts you or you find a great lead on a job board, take the time to research both the company and the person you’re communicating with. And remember Caudle’s experience above. Don’t just research the company. They may very well exist. Make sure the person actually works there. Contact their accounting or human resources departments if you have questions. Check the email address to make sure it’s a legitimate business account. For example, if you emailed someone at FakeCompany, their email may look like this: firstname.lastname@example.org. However, you may be contacted by someone at email@example.com and if you’re not paying close attention, you may fall for it.
Are you part of any freelancer writing groups on Facebook or do you regularly chat with your peers on Twitter or Slack? While theses people may be your competition, they can also be your greatest help. If you’re feeling uneasy about working with a potential client, ask if anyone in your circle has worked with them, and what their experience was like.
What’s the best tip you’ve ever received when learning how to protect yourself from identity theft online? Share in the comments below.