Clients From Hell: Quick Ways to Spot and Avoid Them

Carol Tice

Beware of freelance writing clients from hell.

They pay late, or too little. They’re not sure what they want. They’re unavailable when you have questions, and sometimes downright abusive when they do pick up the phone. They’re clients from hell, and as a freelancer, you just don’t need this grief.

And yet, tales of client woes are an epidemic in the freelance world. Stories of the best friend you went to work for, who underpaid you for years. Or the company that never raised your rates, even as your responsibilities grew. The one that disappeared with your big final payment.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could avoid freelance writing clients from hell like these?

Well, for the most part, you can! There are some classic warning signs that things will go wrong — if you know what to look for.

Here’s my guide to quickly screening out losers:

Find out who they are

It amazes me how many freelance writers take gigs without having any idea of the size, age, or income of a business. They get a message signed, “Joe” — no website listed, no phone number — and the next thing you know, they’re writing for them. And the next thing you know, the writer’s been stiffed.

“Can you believe that?” they ask me. Y E S. Yes, I can. It really pays to spend 10 minutes checking them out online.

Golden rule: If a client can’t give you a website to look at, run.

Beyond their site, easy ways to learn more include checking LinkedIn for a company page — and seeing how many employees they say they have. Under 10 is a red flag. Over 100 makes me more comfortable that they have a clue (and probably a decent marketing budget).

That LinkedIn page is also good for finding out whether the company has been in business longer than a few months. In general, startups make poor clients for freelancers, as they don’t yet have steady income and tend to be chaotic and disorganized.

Revenue numbers can take more advanced research skills to track down, but at least check their website for press releases about sales growth, new clients, acquisitions, and such. Or Google “revenue at <company name>”.

If it’s a big enough company, Google could shoot you an instant answer, like this:

Avoid clients from hell -- find out their revenue first

As you can see, they also throw in competitor info as a bonus — sweet.

For smaller companies, you might try Hoovers. If they’re tech-ish, see if they’re listed on CrunchBase. This site can be a goldmine of information on founders’ past business successes (or failures), and tell you how much investor money they’ve raised.

If you can’t get any intel through these methods, the company is likely too small or dysfunctional to be a good client. Move along! Nothing to see here…

Verify their claims

If a prospect gives you some background on their business, try to verify their statements and make sure they’re real. Don’t just take their word for it. Sadly, I’ve had people impersonate me and hire writers, and then stiff them. There are a million scams online! Don’t be a victim.

A few of the writers who saw ‘Carol Tice’ hiring on Elance took the time to compare the listing’s contact email with the one on my websites. They noticed the two weren’t the same. They reached out to me direct, learned they were the victim of fraud, and didn’t get ripped off. Many others weren’t so lucky.

Fraudsters will tell you they’re from Costco (seen recent reports on that one) or some other major corporation. Follow their links closely to see if it’s really that big company. I like to see my contact’s name on their site, or confirm other company facts they’ve given me.

Scan for gossip

Don’t be in the dark about your prospect’s reputation. Others have worked for these folks before. Did they think this was a nice, ethical company, or a total nightmare? Make it your business to know.

Two quick ways to check for trouble:

1: Look up reviews on Glassdoor (for instance, check out these reviews of notorious ‘news’ website Guardian Liberty Voice). You may see things like this:

Clients from Hell -- GLV review

2: Google “<company name> sucks” and see what you get. The latter can be brilliant for turning up blog posts where writers vent about their bad freelance experiences. You can also try the Blog Search Engine to turn up negative company chatter.

Of course, you should ask your writer community  as well. Sometimes, you’ll learn that dozens of other writers got the exact same email! And mass-mailing is another sign it’s not a good client.

Be skeptical

In all, take a ‘buyer beware’ attitude toward email nibbles and reach-outs you get on social media. Assume that queries you get with absolutely no concrete details about the company or the project have a high likelihood of being from potential clients from hell — because good clients aren’t mysterious that way.

Some bad-client buzzwords I watch out for:

“Let’s collaborate” or “Interested to partner with you” — These are never lucrative offers. More usually, it’s someone who wants to buy a link in a popular post without disclosing it’s paid. And that’s unethical. The other angle here is they may want you to work in exchange for equity shares in their company — an angle that almost never results in a paycheck.

“We’re hiring hundreds of writers” — Bad news: There is no business model that pays writers well, where hundreds of writers are employed. I’ve been researching this angle for a decade, and have never seen a single instance where this works out well for the writer. It’s a guarantee pay is teeny, or that the business has no idea how to make a profit.

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Always get a contract and deposit

Starting work with a new client? Here’s the easiest, fastest way to screen out clients from hell — ask for a deposit.

I like 50%, but I know writers who ask for 100% of the first small piece up-front. In any case, don’t ask for less than 30% up front.

When you require a deposit, something magical happens: 90% of the flaky, loser clients disappear. They won’t pay the deposit. They balk. They have excuses.

Why? Because their plan is to rip you off. Or they never use freelancers and don’t understand how that works — another warning sign of possible clients from hell.

Once you ask for a deposit, follow through and don’t start working until you receive and cash that check.

Sometimes, these checks bounce — in fact, there are common work-from-home scams that send you a bad check as the first step in their process. You turn in some work before realizing the check is rubber, and then the company vanishes.

To repeat: Don’t work without that deposit and signed contract in your hand! I know a writer who’s out $2,000 right now, because she started working on the promise of a deposit…but it never arrived.

You can stop attracting clients from hell

If you get a lot of the scammy, suspicious reachouts from prospects I’ve detailed above, it’s time to take a look at how you’re marketing.

Are you clear on your expertise? Industries you specialize in? Do you have an online portfolio up? A strong LinkedIn profile? The more you do with your inbound marketing online to show you’re a savvy professional, the less scam artists will target you.

Quickly screening out time-wasting loser prospects will leave you more time to perfect your process to get better clients. The end result: You end up earning way more.

Who was your worst client? Leave a comment and give us your client from hell avoidance tips.

Get Great Freelance Clients



  1. Andrea Payme

    Carol, I have a question. In this piece, you referred to making sure that the check is deposited and cleared. I am wondering if you can shed some insight on the risks, if any, in getting paid via PayPal. I am living in a foreign country (US citizen) and everyone pays me with PayPal. Thanks!

    • Carol Tice

      Have you ever had a problem with it? I’ve had only one, when my account was hacked — and paypal and my bank worked with me to get all my funds returned.

      In general, I’ve been using Paypal for about a decade, and I think their process is pretty solid. If Paypal says money is in your account, it’s in. Yes, someone COULD challenge a payment and file a dispute, and I’ve certainly had that. But have found paypal highly supportive if you submit documentation — ie your contract, emails back and forth, and so on. Be sure to have a paper trail!

      I think their process is better than if a client pays with a credit card, where they can challenge it with a chargeback. It seems like more of those, vendors come out on the losing end.

    • Cherese Cobb

      Hi, Andrea,

      If you’re using PayPal, you can create an invoice and accept partial payments. Let’s say that you agreed to write an article for $100. You’d ask the client to send you a minimum of $50. (That’s 50% of your fee.) PayPal usually clears the money in five to seven business days. Then, and only then, do you start working on the client’s article.

      (Side note: if a client writes you a “bad” cheque, PayPal actually keeps trying to take it out of his or her bank every three days, so obviously, they’d end up with HUGE overdraw fees. That should scare some of those clients from hell away.)

      • Andrea Payme

        Excellent feedback. Thank you.

  2. Will Bontrager

    Another clue. Good companies don’t obfuscate their identity on their web site domain records. (Your domain registrar’s who-is lookup can pull up the company’s domain record.) If the word proxy is in the contact information, they’re most likely hiding who they are. Some domain owners say they doing it so they get less spam (which is the sales spiel some domain registrars present). But professional companies know that 3-4 postal and perhaps a dozen email spam per year (which is about what we get for each of our domains) is a small price to pay for transparency.

    • Carol Tice

      Well…I want to agree, except I do a proxy. Those of us who work from home do have legitimate privacy/stalker concerns. I don’t usually dig down to this level with a site…I can usually smell whether they’re on the up and up through my other methods. And certainly major companies aren’t doing it. But at the smaller-client end, it could be fairly common, and I don’t know that I’d necessarily view it as a big red flag, unless I’ve seen other red flags as well.

  3. Tina O'Reilly

    These are great tips, especially a business hiring hundreds of writers. I’m even leery of those hiring 5+ and maybe I shouldn’t be, but I’ve found in my situation if they’re hiring 5 or more the pay is low.

    • Carol Tice

      It’s really so rare that a great writing situation would be hiring more than one writer at a time. Two, I’ve seen, when it’s a huge annual report and the deadline is short. That’s about it, for good-paying gigs.

      It seems to be a hallmark of terrible markets that they brag, “We’re hiring hundreds of writers!” or make claims like “Write as much as you want, about whatever you want!” NEVER a good payer, there.

      Hiring many, many writers is a sign that we want VOLUME content rather than QUALITY content. Which means we pay little.

  4. Neal Eckert

    Great thoughts, Carol. I’m blessed with quality clients at the moment. That said, I think often about how I can protect myself (and family) from the problems you mentioned. You offered some helpful tips to prevent issues before they ever start. Thank you!

  5. Alison Lueders

    Carol – this is a treasure trove of tips that are spot-on – thank you! They’re not just useful, but they actually don’t take as much time as I initially thought.

    This will be my “go to” vetting process from now on.

    • Carol Tice

      It really DOESN’T take all that long…and is so worth it. If you do it routinely, honestly it’s not 10 minutes of me vetting that client before I get a quick sense of whether I want to bother returning their call or not. You get it down to a system.

      But it is SO worth doing, versus getting all excited by every little nibble you get, spending time putting together a bid for $150 a blog post, only to hear their rate is $25. If you vet the client — and find nothing concrete about them, or that they have no employees, or when you Google ‘company name sucks’ you turn up a raft of negative comments…you can not waste your time on them.

      We’ll actually be talking a lot about this in the Close the Sale bootcamp, about PREVENTING objections to your bid. And one big way you do that– and avoid those awkward conversations where their price is way too low — is to qualify prospects first. Know who you’re talking to! It gives you a real edge in knowing what to say, what to bid, how much time to invest in landing them.

  6. Karen Briggs

    Thanks for this!!! Forewarned is fore armed.

  7. Evan Jensen

    I’ve had a few clients from hell. And in hindsight, they can all be linked to failing to heed your advice.

    I used to have the mindset of accepting nearly any project and dealing with bad-client issues later, should they arise. It was a recipe for filling my plate with low-paying work and bad clients.

    Carol’s advice here can save you a ton of time, money, and sanity. Any time I’ve turned down projects, better clients and projects have been right around the corner.

    • Carol Tice

      I think it’s easy in hindsight to recognize the patterns bad clients consistently display…but hopefully this post can provide a shortcut. 😉

  8. Katherine Swarts

    Take a good look at any case where someone got into trouble by trusting the wrong person, and the chances are 80-90% that you’ll find they had misgivings from the start. Ask them why they went ahead anyway, and the answer is bound to include “I was afraid of [looking silly/looking rude/losing an opportunity] if I was wrong.” So one more rule of spotting and avoiding the CFHs is: don’t get into “what if” arguments with your better judgment!

  9. Tony Funderburk

    Thank you, Carol, for the in-depth and well-researched info on how to screen the types of clients you described. Just used one of your methods to “screen” a potential “client from hell” and it worked like a charm. I won’t say which way it went. But the up-front deposit works just about 99% of the time.

    Good stuff!

    • Carol Tice

      Honestly, if you only do ONE thing on the whole list, just ask for the deposit. It really separates the men from the boys, in the freelance client world.

  10. Douglas Winslow Cooper

    A local politician wanted to co-author a children’s book. We brainstormed at a couple of meetings, and I started writing. He paid for the first dozen or so weekly installments, then stopped. I pushed and he paid me half what he owed, promised the rest. Years went by without remainder paid, $300.

    I used the material for my blog.

    • Carol Tice

      Douglas, my dad taught me to think of that as ‘tuition in the school of life.’ Some of us pay college tuition, and some of go to the school of hard knocks.

      As stiffed payments go, that one is pretty modest — as I think I said in the post, I know a writer out $2K right now for lack of a deposit. That one had also told her they planned to hire ‘hundreds of writers’…so the signs were on the wall.

  11. Manoj

    Excellent article Carol. Once I also did some work for so called Ngo but they didn’t pay. They keep promising for payment but till now they payed nothing. Luckly, the amount was small and I took this incident as lesson.

    • Carol Tice

      Yep — see my comment to Douglas, Manoj! That’s exactly how you SHOULD take it.

      If writers are thinking NGOs are do-gooders so that means they never have cash-flow problems and can’t pay…you’d be wrong. You need a contract with them just like any other business!

  12. Maureen

    Thank you for this article. I’m about to graduate from college and want to start freelancing this summer. Those of us that don’t have experience navigating these waters really appreciate the red-flag warnings.

  13. Firth McQuilliam

    This is another interesting topic! My experiences with content mills may not be exactly germane to the thread, but I’ve nonetheless picked up a sixth sense about potentially difficult clients. I’d be hard pressed to put my finger on it, but the way they write their project requests somehow stinks of flop sweat and dishonesty.

    Needless to say, I steer clear of these imps from the nether regions of Heck. Plenty of honest clients are happy to pay for the services of a decent if not brilliant writer. It’s been quite a while since I had trouble with a sleazy client. I’m knocking on wood now. ^_^

    It’s hard to say how well this sixth sense will translate to genuinely lucrative markets once I finish seeping over to that world later this year, but the experience can’t have hurt. This wonderfully informative blog post will help with mastering the art of knowing when to politely decline a gig that reeks of black hattery and con artists. ^^;

    P.S. I just got a great offer via a badly spelt email from a totally unknown startup company in the Bahamas that plans to hire hundreds of top writers at $4 a word for fluffy articles about puppies after the company’s single public contact point has weeded out the losers! The company is expecting a huge investment any day now from unidentified parties somewhere in the Middle East. Wow, I totally should jump on this contract-free opportunity to write lots of stuff on speculation to “prove myself” to these fellows! All I have to do is write four 6,000-word white papers on fiber telecommunications trends and twenty highly detailed, annotated blog posts about recent advances in aircraft jet-engine metallurgy. What could possibly go wrong? O_O

    • Carol Tice

      Ha, I should hold a ‘worst client ever’ contest and see if we can find one that has ALL the red flags.

  14. Clement

    This is a great article that I have greatly adored. In fact, you have brushed me up me another mile. In fact, I can recall late last year when I was scammed by a client that I wrote 50 articles and vanished mysteriously. I did not ask the deposit beforehand as the rogue promised me to pay me after completing my first 10 articles that he/she agreed to pay $5 per article. After I was done with initial 10, he told me to add another 10 so that he could send the payout. I started becoming suspicious but went on writing for him/her. After completing the first 20 articles, he advised me to send the bank details and he had initially promised to send the payout via PayPal. I had initially sent him/her my PayPal address but I resent it to him/her. Then he/she told me to add 20 other articles so that he/she could pay all the submitted work altogether. I wrote and submitted 20 other articles. Then he came out persuasively that he would send the payout and would continue sending the payout as I continued to submit more articles. Unbeknownst to me that he/she was a client from hell I submitted 10 other new articles adding the total to 50 articles. Since I used to demand payout every other moment, I did so after the 50 article. But Ouch! I was scammed. I tried to send messages to the client that all fell on deaf ears. I was speaking to the rocks!! After looking the articles for plagiarism, I found all my articles posted at I got terrified. I tried to contact the site administrator but my my attempts were just futile. Early this year I tried to browse the website but I found that it no longer exists. I think it was pulled down for similar fate other freelancers had experienced and raised the matter to Google.
    If I had read the article above,I believe I could not have fallen a scam victim.
    Thanks again for tipping us off with the invaluable insights!

    • Carol Tice

      You bring up a great point, Clement — in the world of clients paying $5-$10 an article, scams are rife. There wasn’t much pay to begin with, so I think they figure what’s the difference if I just don’t pay you at all? I probably should add to this list, “Get paid more than $5.” By definition, ALL clients paying these rates are clients from hell, because that’s not a paycheck, really — it’s writer exploitation.

      Getting an up-front deposit is magical. Anybody who won’t pay it isn’t a good client. They don’t understand how freelancers work…and as you found out, half the time, they may be unwilling to pay an up-front because they’re planning to simply NEVER pay you.

  15. Bonnie Schooler

    Great advice as usual Carol. I have used Paypal for years personally and now in business. I have never had a problem and they do not hold smaller amounts, they have let me transfer mine same day. I feel safer using it whenever I can.

    • Carol Tice

      What I’ve found is the more volume you do on Paypal, the faster they fire your money into your account. It SAYS 3-5 business days, but mine is always there the next day. 😉

  16. Andrea Kluge

    I have an even more embarrassing and costly story. I received an email inquiry via my website from a “college mentoring” company in NYC requesting a quote.I suggested we talk first over the phone but the contact asked me to check out their website and videos, and then we’d talk. So I did, blithely clicking away, emailed some suggestions and didn’t hear back. I called and the company and discovered the number was a Google Voice number — no one answering the phone. That’s when I knew I had been had.

    Shortly thereafter, my website was hacked with the hacker sending Viagra spam from my website domain email address. My web host suspended my account, Google blacklisted me and I spent mucho time and money getting everything up and running again. I’ve wised up a lot since then!

    • Carol Tice

      I don’t know that there’s a relationship between visiting their sites and your own site being hacked…but hope these guidelines help you avoid wasting time with non-clients in future!

      • Andrea Kluge

        True, just quite a coincidence! Thanks for answering.

  17. Heidi Daniels

    I agree that asking for a deposit would filter those suspicious ones out – there’s no scammer on earth would pay money online. Good point – thanks Carol.

  18. Jon

    I think you tend to develop a sixth sense for bad clients after a while. I’m not sure when that happens exactly, but I can often spot a bad one from the first contact when something’s just not right.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Related Posts

LinkedIn Round-Up

LinkedIn Round-Up

Successful freelancers use LinkedIn daily. After all, it's the only social media where it's socially acceptable to talk about work. In honor of our upcoming bootcamp, LinkedIn Profile Mastery, we wanted to give you a round-up of all our posts on the topic of LinkedIn....