We'd all like to believe every opportunity on the Internet is legitimate, but unfortunately that just isn't true. Independent contractors and freelancers need to be aware and keep themselves smarter than the scammers. If you avoid businesses and individuals with these red flags, you can prevent yourself from falling for a costly and embarrassing online work scam:
Red Flag #1: Needing to buy software or other equipment from the company to get started. If you are being asked to buy anything - like software or special equipment - to get started, get ready to run in the other direction as fast as you can. This includes medical billing software -- a very popular online scam. Software needed to work with any given company online should either be provided at no cost to you or easily available at your local computer store (i.e., you aren't paying a faceless entity for something you may not be able to use or return).
Red Flag #2: "You too can make money emailing!" This is the online version of envelope stuffing and is a one-way ticket to both boredom and frustration. What you aren't told upfront is that you are spamming email accounts (probably with the same scam) and that you are only paid if the people you send the email to fall for the scam like you did -- even then, it's just a fraction of what the originating company will earn. This won't add anything worthwhile to your resume, it won't be profitable, and it's a bad idea.
Red Flag #3: Non-answers about the company and what they do. The bottom line is that if you can't find out details about what the company does, see where they're located or surf their web site, then you might want to rethink your involvement with them. Ask questions! If you don't get answers you're comfortable with, there's probably something the company is hiding. Some young companies may not have established a website or other online presence yet, in which case you should ask questions about the people you are working for. What is the founder's experience? Who is funding the company? What market will the company be competing in? Ask questions and trust your instincts to judge when you're satisfied with the answers.
Red Flag #4: "We'll talk about payment methods later, right now we just need you to get started." If there ever was a flashing warning sign, this would be it. Payment method, payment amount, payment frequency - how you get compensated for your work is always a priority. Don't let a scammer push you into starting a job without the details hammered out. As a freelancer or independent contractor, how you spend your time is directly related to your earnings. Don't let anyone push their agenda over your income.
Red Flag #5: "You can't afford to turn down this job offer." If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! If it's so easy to do and such a fantastic money-making deal, ask yourself why the company needs total strangers on the Internet to do the work. Wouldn't they have plenty of friends and family members lining up to join them in their amazing profits? There's no such thing as free money. Don't buy into the hype.
Red Flag #6: Unsolicited job offers. If the job offer came to your email in box and the sender doesn't seem to know you at all - at least from an online resume or mutual acquaintance - then you should think twice. If it smells like spam and looks like spam, it's probably spam. Clicking on that link in the email will end up paying them, not you.
Red Flag #7: Unprofessional communication. We're not all masters of grammar, but the odds of an up-and-coming entrepreneur emailing you the exciting details of his business opportunity in texting lingo is probably a bad sign. Be wary of Internet job listings that seem unprofessional or rely too heavily on gimmicks to sell the position.
At the end of the day, remember that you have skills to offer and there are legitimate companies out there willing to pay you fairly for your work. Seek those opportunities and earn a living wisely. Be smart and think twice when red flags pop up! "Get rich quick" schemes and job offers that sound too good to be true can destroy and derail the hard work you have put into your career.
Ever fallen for an online work scam? Many of us have at one point or another. Tell us about it, and keep someone else from doing the same!