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What to Do as a Freelancer When Clients Don't Pay

by Bryce Emley Feb 18, 2014

Paying people to do stuff has never been easier or more precarious than it is today. If there’s “stuff” you can do, there’s someone out there who wants to pay you to do it via the internet, and probably other people still who want to tell you they’ll pay you to do it and then not pay you to do it once you’ve done it.

If you made it through that labyrinthine sentence and are still with me, you’ve probably already been swindled by someone and should probably take some of these accountability actions the internet can uniquely facilitate.

Give it some time.

I’ve had plenty of clients who’ve given me seemingly bullshit excuses for not paying me on time (“I’ve been on vacation [for two months],” “We fired our old accounts manager [and the three after],” “I had a problem with my credit card [and can’t use PayPal],” “What? Payment never went through?”). And surprisingly, they’re usually genuine. Or at least the clients are once they realize I’m not pro pro bono.

The fact is most people who hire you really do intend to pay you, and sometimes things get in the way. People often hire freelancers because they’re too busy to do the jobs themselves, and it’s easy to forget about the formalities. Give it a week, send a reminder, and go from there.

Communicate regularly, not constantly.

Don’t just assume from the get-go that an overdue payment means you’re getting scammed. After the first email, send another in a few days, and just keep stringing along every few days thereafter and gauge the reaction (if any). If there really was an honest mistake, you don’t want to come across as overbearing and untrusting and risk losing repeat work if there really was a good reason you weren’t paid on time. So hold off on the hourly Facebook wall death threats until you’re certain they’re pulling a quick one.

Skype attack.

It helps to do this from the start, but if you missed your chance, you can usually still finagle a Skype request acceptance if you know the client’s name. If the client does accept, you have instant proof that he/she is actively online and definitely still alive, thus destroying the all-too-common excuse of “Couldn’t pay — spontaneously combusted.”

People can ignore emails and claim they never got them. They cannot, however, claim they never got your Skype messages. Especially considering most clients I’ve talked to on Skype are online just about all day every day.

Use BEACON’s Pay Me Please.

BEACON is a stellar new subscription-based news / essay / content outlet that’s trying to change the online media game by having subscribers pay their writers directly for access to their content. Pay Me Please is a service they put on with journalist, freelancer, activist, and all-around badass Iona Craig, on which writers can call out media outlets that are shafting them.

It tracks the payment amount (some in the four figures), how late it is (some well over a year), and who’s doing the non-paying (including the likes of BBC). While this isn’t actually an action-taking process (you’d have to pay someone if you didn’t want to take action yourself), it is a sort of “public shaming” means and support group, as well as a way of keeping track of your pending payments in case you’re not into the whole spreadsheet thing.

Bonus tip: It may be sort of like scouting for a steady girlfriend / boyfriend at Sexaholics Anonymous, but this is also a great resource to find places that (theoretically) pay for content.

Go social.

When you’re writing for a media outlet, there’s always a risk of not getting paid until / unless they send you a contract (and even then it can be tentative). Freelancer websites are supposed to remedy this. But one of the problems with getting freelance work on a site like oDesk or Elance is that some people are good enough at being bad people that they can still cheat the system if contractors aren’t careful, and in that event you’re typically not left with any of the client’s contact info except the site’s internal messaging service.

However, there’s good chance you will have a name. And a name is probably all you’ll need to find this person on any number of the various social media outlets (assuming it’s his/her real name). It’s not likely this person will accept a friend request from the person he/she just ripped off for you to start posting selfies of your middle finger or jpg’s of a decapitated horse head, but you can attempt to reach out via private message. Twitter is great for this, as you can still tweet at anyone or mention them without their say-so and can even prove they’re active by following their tweets.

Consider progressive aggression.

If you do manage to get a method of contact in place with no response, payment is late by several weeks or longer, and your benefit of the doubt has run dry, make threats to report the person to admins (if on a freelancer website), to badmouth them on social media, to report them to an attorney, to report them to the Freelancers Union, to the BBB, to the CIA, to the SEC, to the JAP, to the QVC, to whoever the hell you think will make an impression.

My own worst experience with this came over the course of about a year. Even though I eventually got pretty heated with my messages, they progressed very slowly from gentle nudge to passive-aggressive questioning to I’m-warning-you finger shaking first. After no response for about four months, I’d haphazardly throw out some half-baked threat about contacting the BBB (which it turns out I couldn’t actually do anyway) now and then until someone finally emailed me out of nowhere and set up a PayPal transfer and explained the unfortunate mishap.

And sometimes that’s really all it is. But you need communication to know that. Though the impersonality and general lack of accountability that the web affords dishonest (or even just scatterbrained) people enables them to easily rip honest people off, notice that all these solutions involve internet communication. We’re able to go Zoe Barnes and make public our private betrayals, we’re able to enact our own social vigilantism and enforce accountability to indefinite extents. Ultimately the internet is both the problem and the solution to its own problem.

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