Is Client Nonpayment the New Pandemic?

Working as a freelance writer, I’m used to isolating myself for days on end. That’s fine. But when COVID rolled into town and my friends went into hibernation mode, I found myself needing a way to connect with others, even if it was just virtually.

So, I joined a bunch of freelance writing, marketing, and design groups on Facebook.

As much as I hate Facebook, these groups have been immensely valuable and I’m grateful to have them in my life. I’m especially thankful because they were there for me when dealing with a client nonpayment issue.

Say “Hello” to My First Non-Paying Client in 7 Years

Look, it’s not as though I haven’t had shitty clients before. But this is the first time in my seven-plus years of writing that I’ve had a client outright refuse to pay. And what shocked me was that it was simply because he didn’t feel like paying.

This was the response my client sent me after I emailed a nonpayment notice and invoice reminder for the article he said he loved, immediately published to his site, and which continues to sit on his site and build credibility for his agency to this day.

“Forgive & forget, Suzanne.

Do you know how many mother fuckers owe me money, but instead of wasting my fucking time on them – I much prefer concentrating on making new sales.

Be careful with your actions; my reach is very far.”

Sadly, this isn’t the only threat I’ve received from him for trying to recoup the money he owes. As of writing this — five months after he published the post to his site — the debt remains unpaid.

Sadly, I noticed I’m not the only one who’s been stiffed, ghosted, and/or threatened this year.

Client Nonpayment Is a Plague

Friendly client stealing money out of the pocket of an unsuspecting freelancer. Client nonpayment is a plague. (Credit: Canva stock)

A 2020 report from 99designs found that 22% of freelance designers, in particular, have been ghosted by at least one client (not to mention all the cancelled projects, diminished budgets, and dried-up leads freelancers have been dealing with thanks to the pandemic). Based on what I’m seeing in my groups, they’re not alone.

Writers, marketers, photographers, and tons of other creatives are being cheated out of their hard-earned money.

The number of stories that show up in my Facebook feed about client nonpayment is staggering. To be clear, this isn’t a matter of clients being unable to afford freelance services because of COVID disruptions. That’s something we can all understand and work with. This is something entirely different.

These are business owners and organizations that have become very good at scamming freelancers, all so they can pad their bottom lines while also reaping the benefits from the work we do for them.

Why do I call this a scam? Well, when I shared my story with one of my Facebook groups, I found out that my non-paying client tried to pull an identical scam with another writer/SEO. I didn’t even mention his name, the company name, or his location. She knew exactly who he was based on the details I provided and privately messaged me about him.

So, I did a Google search for “[client name] + scam”. And that’s when I discovered a scam report that a former client had logged against him at another agency he runs. Turns out he was a bad service provider as well as a bad client.

What to Do About Clients That Won’t Pay?

via GIPHY

So, what lessons have I taken away from all this?

Lesson #1: Always do your research on a prospective client, starting with a prospect assessment questionnaire (use this one if you’re a designer and this one if you’re a writer).

Then, turn your attention to Google. They might be able to pay for glowing reviews and delete the negative ones, but they can’t hide from scam reports. If they’ve screwed over someone before, they’ll do it again.

Lesson #2: Collect upfront payment when you can. Generally, I work with reputable magazines and SaaS companies and don’t need to do this.

However, when working with business owners and agencies, I’d suggest always setting a flat fee for freelance work so you can get paid upfront. An honest client won’t take issue with that.

Lesson #3: Don’t internalize a client nonpayment issue. Not only will the stress, frustration, and anger eventually boil over, it’ll hurt your concentration and confidence when working for other clients.

Being able to open up to other freelancers and get their insights on what happened and what to do to resolve the issue was a life-saver.

Lesson #4: Document. Fucking. Everything. I brought my case to a number of small business lawyers and collection agencies. Without the signed contract and SOW, the email exchanges, or the avid approval of the post in question, it would’ve been difficult to defend my case.

Thankfully, I have all the proof well documented and they were able to provide me with helpful guidance as a result.

Lesson #5: Do everything you can to collect your payment — and to help other freelancers do so, too. I’m absolutely shocked at how many people chastised me for not getting paid upfront. Rather than provide useful tips on what to do, they made me feel bad for something I no longer had control over.

What’s more, I continue to see freelancers telling those dealing with non-paying clients to just “forget about it” and consider it a “lesson learned”. Absolutely not.

This is why these scam artists get away with this in the first place. Because once they successfully screw one freelancer over, they know they can do it again. This is going to happen more and more if this is the precedent we set for ourselves and for others.

Wrap-Up

So, what should we be doing to stop this client nonpayment pandemic in its tracks?

  • Collect payment upfront whenever possible.
  • Include a section on nonpayment and late fees in your iron-clad freelancer contract.
  • Always keep a (digital) paper trail. You never know when you’ll need to remind a client about something they agreed to or when you need to use it for legal purposes.
  • Know what sort of recourse is available with non-paying clients. If they operate in the same country as you, small claims court is the first step. If they don’t, take your case straight to a collections agency.
  • Stay on top of them until you get paid. If you can’t recoup your funds, file a DMCA and force their web host to yank your work (or their entire website) down, whenever possible.

While I’d love to be able to tell you to put them on blast on social media, Google, or other review sites, that should be a last resort. While it’s important for other freelancers (and even clients) to know about the scam, someone that unethical and unapologetic would have no problem turning the tables and lying about you on these platforms.

If you’ve dealt with a non-paying client this year, I hope you’ve been able to recover your funds. If not, don’t give up. If we fight for our rights and our due pay as freelancers, these bad business owners will get the message.