Freelancers, be wary of assignment scams by email

Carolyn Crist

About Carolyn Crist

Carolyn Crist (@cristcarolyn) helps AHCJ’s freelance members find the resources, tips and contacts they need to create and run a successful business. A freelance journalist and author, Crist covers health, medicine and science stories for national news outlets such as Reuters, Runner’s World and Parade. She also writes for trade and custom publications. Contact her at carolyn@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Trending Topics 2019 via Flickr

In recent weeks, many freelance writers have received the same email — a consultant says she needs help with a writing project for an upcoming workshop. She wants to create an article on a specific health topic that will be given to the workshop attendees as a handbook. She’s already drafted an outline, and she wants to know if you can help.

I received this email, as have several AHCJ members, and a few of us responded to this email. The request looks both legitimate but also suspicious based on the phrasing and vague details. If you respond, the consultant often replies with additional information, including the word count, a $1/word rate, and a deadline.

The reply seems straightforward until the final lines, a red flag: “Finally, what would be your preferred mode of payment? Though I’m proposing a certified bank draft, a cashier’s check or bank certified check.”

This is a scam. Please be aware of any phishing attempt that offers upfront to send a check to you. Often, the senders will issue a check for more than the assignment amount, say they want to “contract more work later,” and then they cancel the work and request the difference. They may also send a bad check and request payment from the bank after the check has been deposited, or attempt to glean bank information from a canceled check.

Several freelancers I know cautiously moved forward with this assignment and received the check in the mail but immediately caught the “red flag” of the overpayment and reported the incident to their banks. Some freelancers may not have been so lucky.

If you see a cold pitch for an assignment like this, what should you do? Here are a few tips:

  • Research the sender online. As you would do while researching sources for assignments, look up the person online for any personal or company information. In most cases, you won’t find any online presence whatsoever, such a social media, the sender’s email, or phone number (if a phone is even included). Dead email links and fake-looking websites are another giveaway. In some cases, scammers may use well-known company names that seem legitimate. Check for the proper email address format, and call the company directly to check if the sender really works there.
  • Ask for details. In most cases, these emails are vague, but scammers have become smarter over time by using legitimate-looking names, email addresses and assignment details. Although the person, in this case was specific with the word count, payment rate and deadline, she still doesn’t give information about the workshop, attendees or organization. The outline also seems vague and not a good fit for a workshop. Also, if you ask about the payment details for this assignment, the response is that a “sponsor of the workshop” will pay for the entire project upfront. They won’t use a payment portal such as PayPal, and instead, they insist on sending a check overnight.
  • Watch out for platform-switching. In this particular scam, the sender says she has a speech disorder, which implies that she needs to communicate by email and not the phone. If you respond throughout the process, the email may come back as “undeliverable.” One AHCJ freelancer texted the number provided in the email, and the sender claimed the email was hacked and provided a new email. Be cautious — the email likely was flagged as “spam,” and then they resumed the scam under new email addresses. In other scams, senders may switch accounts, contacts or platforms to reach you, claiming that the first person is “involved in another project.” This is another way to quickly move on when the other email address has been flagged.
  • Look for discrepancies. If you’ve responded, ongoing communication can highlight more “red flags.” Emails may have grammatical errors, different fonts, different colors and different assignment details since different people respond to the emails.
  • Notice urgency. In these fraudulent emails, senders often overemphasize the payment terms, and if a check is sent, they urge you to deposit it immediately. They also say to “get to work immediately” since the project timeline is soon, even if it’s weeks away.
  • Call your bank. If you’ve received a check, the envelope typically arrives with nothing but a check. It appears to be bank-issued and not handwritten, but doesn’t come directly from a bank. Look at the return address on the envelope, as well as the details on the check itself. Then report the incident to your bank, as well as the bank that may be listed on the check. They may advise you to take the check to a local branch and report the incident there, too.
  • Don’t respond further. Depending on where you are in the process, don’t feel the need to respond to the sender further. You may receive additional emails or texts to confirm that you’ve received and deposited the check. Report the scam to your bank and other fraud hotlines, and then ignore the email chain.

Finally, be aware of the latest scams. Check the following for more information:

  • The FBI’s Scams and Safety page discusses advance fee schemes, business fraud (such as overpayment tactics) and business email compromise (by spoofing a legitimate email address).
  • The USPS has a guide to mail fraud, including this section on fake check scams.
  • The Federal Trade Commission issues alerts for the most recent scams, which include chain letters, text messages and dozens of COVID-19 scams. The site also features several articles about fake check scams and the opportunistic nature of scammers who pay attention to the news — including the fact that writers have lost work recently and would be excited about a high-paying assignment.

2 thoughts on “Freelancers, be wary of assignment scams by email

  1. Helene Epstein

    This happened to me as well. It’s called a check kiting scam. The vagueness made me uncomfortable initially because a vague assignment leads to too many rewrites. The word count was also weirdly specific: 2550 words. I was in the middle of trying to pin the “client“ down by discussing specific details in advance when I got the same email, almost word for word, from a second person! They both mentioned they had “apraxia“ which they both said affected their speech. The first one even provided a telephone number which has the area code for the county she said the workshop was occurring in. But who would initially make a phone call to someone who said they have an illness making speech difficult? And then of course, how do you lead a workshop when you have an inability to form words correctly? Of course I looked up apraxia and learned that it was a degenerative muscle condition but not one which specifically affected speech. They both used common names that I was able to find on LinkedIn that matched too many people vs. a name that doesn’t exist on social media. I notified both writer groups I am active in and posted the warning on social media.

  2. Carolyn CristCarolyn Crist Post author

    Thanks for sharing, Helene! All of these details help as the scam continues to evolve. Since the post went out, I heard from another freelancer who said the sender has also given the assignment and a deadline and says a payment is coming. As they fail with more freelancers, they’re changing tactics. Thanks to everyone who can keep sharing details so we can stay informed.

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