Unfortunately, Upwork scams are a thing.

With Upwork being the biggest and most popular freelance marketplace online, it’s not surprising that the occasional scammer tries their luck on there.

What an Upwork scam looks like

A classic Upwork scam is a client asking multiple freelancers to do a free trial job or test before hiring anyone.

You can see an example of such a scam in this video:

An article on the Upwork website lists out several other client behaviors that you should be wary of, including:

  • Asking you to pay money to get the job.
  • Trying to blackmail you for good feedback.
  • Offering to pay you directly outside of the Upwork finance system.
  • Asking you to contact them (or vice versa) outside of Upwork.

Regarding the last one there, we’ve heard of prospective clients adding you on Skype to send you a .zip file. They claim the files inside contain instructions about the job, but they are actually malware.

How to avoid Upwork scams and find the best jobs

Only a tiny minority of clients on Upwork are scammers.

But it’s not just the scammers you have watch out for: the sad truth is that there are a lot of terrible clients on Upwork as well.

  • Terrible clients post terrible jobs, hire naive freelancers, and proceed to crush their souls.

If you’d like to keep your soul intact, you must be on the lookout for five “flags” whenever you evaluate a job on Upwork.

No, sorry, only five.

These five in particular, which we’ll teach you to recognize in a moment:

  1. The Money Flag
  2. The Pro Flag
  3. The Newbie Flag
  4. The Snowball Flag
  5. The Location Flag

Each flag can be RED or GREEN.

Green flags are good. Red flags are bad. Most jobs on Upwork will contain a mix of both.

Smart freelancers avoid jobs with mostly red flags, and apply for jobs with mostly green flags. If you do the same, you’ll avoid Upwork scams and terrible Upwork clients.

Let’s go through the flags one at a time.

The 5 Flags

1. The Money Flag

This is the first thing you should check for. It will give you an answer to this question:

  • Is the client willing to pay for quality?

To determine whether or not that is the case, look for the following four things in the job posting:

  • Budget (if set)
  • Experience level required
  • Total Spent
  • Avg Hourly Rate Paid

Example 1A – Awesome Client

Upwork scams: Money Flag

  • Budget of $1,000 and the client doesn’t even expect an Expert Level freelancer for that price, happy to hire someone at Intermediate Level.
  • They’ve already paid more than $60,000 to only 14 freelancers on Upwork.
  • The average hourly rate they’ve paid isn’t huge ($28.41/hour), but not unreasonable for an Intermediate Level freelancer.

Example 1B – Awesome Client

Upwork scams: Money Flag

  • The client hasn’t set a budget for this job but we can see that they’ve already spent more than $8,000 on Upwork, paying freelancers an average of $53.63 per hour.

Example 1C – Terrible Client

Upwork scams: Money Flag

  • Looking for an Expert freelancer but only willing to pay $10, a clear indication that this client is insane.

Example 1D – Terrible Client

Upwork scams: Money Flag

  • Looking for an Expert freelancer but only willing to pay $20.
  • $40,000 total spent, but the average hourly rate they pay is a ridiculous $2.16.

2. The Pro Flag

This flag helps you answer the following question:

  • Does this client seem professional / someone I would like to work with?

To find out, look for these two things in the job posting:

  • Positive reviews
  • Clear requirements (as per the job title, job description, and listed questions)

Example 2A – Awesome Client

Upwork scams: Pro Flag

  • Twelve reviews, all 5 stars.
  • Very clear title and requirements for the job. They’ve obviously thought this through and know exactly what they’re looking for, which means you can get to work right away instead of going back and forth with the client trying to figure out what needs to be accomplished.

Example 2B – Awesome Client

Upwork scams: Pro Flag

  • Six reviews, all 5 stars.
  • Clear title and very specific requirements, not a job that was posted on a whim.

Example 2C – Terrible Client

Upwork scams: Pro Flag

  • Less than a 2.5-star average on 11 reviews means this client is most likely a nightmare to work with.
  • Incredibly vague job title and description.

Example 2D – Possible Scam

Upwork scams: Pro Flag

  • No reviews yet.
  • The job title and job description give little information. They don’t specify how many “amazing pieces” they’ll want you to produce or in what timeframe, nor do they specify what topics they want you to write about.
  • Don’t be surprised if a client like this asks you to provide a “free sample” of your work before hiring you. If several freelancers do this, the client will have received loads of free content without paying a dime.
  • Advanced Upwork Proposals
    If you’d like to further improve your Upwork proposals, check out this highly-rated course on Udemy: How To 10X Client Responses Fast. It has hundreds of reviews, a 4.8 star rating, and was created especially for freelancers brand new to Upwork.

3. The Newbie Flag

This tells you whether or not a client is new to Upwork.

Some newbies are obviously worth taking a chance on, but they are an unknown commodity so if you spot a newbie flag you should be extra diligent checking for the rest.

Tell-tale signs that a client is new to Upwork:

  • Payment Method Not Verified
  • 0% Hire Rate

Example 3A – Awesome Client

Upwork scams: Newbie Flag

  • Payment method verified (as signified by the green check mark on the right side)
  • 41 jobs posted and a 96% hire rate.

Example 3B – Terrible Client

Upwork scams: Newbie Flag

  • Payment method not verified.
  • 3 jobs posted and a 0% hire rate.

4. The Snowball Flag

The question you’re looking to answer here is:

  • What are the odds of getting hired for this job? 3

Obviously you can increase your odds by writing a great proposal, but that’s not the only factor at play. You can also get a good feel for the odds via a careful perusal of the job posting.

In particular, you should check:

  • Hire Rate
  • Number of proposals already submitted by other freelancers

Example 4A – Awesome Opportunity

Upwork scams: Snowball Flag

  • This client has an 88% hire rate and only 5 people have already submitted proposals for the job. If you can submit a quality proposal fast, the client is very likely to see it and you’ll have a solid chance of getting hired.

Example 4B – Terrible Opportunity

Upwork scams: Snowball Flag

  • More than 50 people have already submitted proposals for this job, and the client only hires someone about half of the time (54% Hire Rate), so you might as well be competing with 100 other freelancers.
  • Also, with so many proposals already submitted, it’s unlikely the client will even see yours at this point.

5. The Location Flag

The geographic location of the client can be an important thing to check for two reasons:

  • Time zones.
  • Language and culture barriers.

These things can make it difficult to communicate and collaborate effectively.

For example, say you’re a freelancer in the United States and you’re hired by a company in India to write blog posts. There’s likely to be a long lag in communication because you’re working while they’re sleeping and vice versa. And if their level of English isn’t great, it could be a pain to resolve even the smallest issues.

Example 5A – Terrible Client

Upwork scams: Location Flag

  • A vague job posting from Spain with multiple typos. Fairly safe to assume that communication with this client would be muy difícil, especially if you’re in a time zone far far away.

Example 5B – Terrible Client

Upwork scams: Location Flag

  • Uhh…

False Flags

You’ve seen above which pieces of information you should pay attention to when viewing a job posting on Upwork, helping you avoid possible scams and terrible clients.

Now we want to show you three “false flags.”

These are pieces of information on Upwork job postings that newbies often get excited about (for better or worse) but don’t really mean anything.

They are:

  • Experience Level
  • Everything listed under “Preferred Qualifications”
  • The client promising more work in future

Let’s go through them.

Experience Level

Many inexperienced freelancers on Upwork see “Expert Level” in a job posting and immediately back away.

Upwork scams: Experience Level

Even if you’re new to your craft, don’t let “Expert Level” jobs intimidate you.

Many clients have no idea what level of freelancer they need. They select “Expert Level” when posting their jobs because they know they’ll scare off a lot of the bottom-feeding freelancers and won’t have to waste so much time wading through their crappy proposals.

Check the 5 flags we listed above. If they are mostly green and you believe you can do a good job for the client, go ahead and submit a proposal.

Everything Listed Under “Preferred Qualifications”

Upwork scams: Preferred Qualifications

Same story here.

If a job has enough green flags and you believe you can deliver the goods, don’t let a lack of “preferred qualifications” deter you from submitting a proposal.

After all, they are preferred qualifications. Not required.

The Client Promising More Work In Future

Beware of clients who write stuff like this in their job postings:

  • “There will be a lot more work for the right candidate”
  • “Long-term collaboration potential”
  • “If this first job goes well, I will hire you on an on-going basis”

Usually the clients who write stuff like that are trying to justify a really low budget, or there’s something else unsavory about the job that they’re trying to distract you from.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t apply for the job. Just don’t get your hopes up that it will turn into something more.

Upwork scams: Long Term Relationship
I bet you say that to all the girls.

How to fast-track your flag check

To save you from wading through tons of crappy jobs, you can fast-track your flag check by going heavy on the search filters Upwork provides.

For example, if you were looking for blogging jobs, you could use the following filters.

Upwork scams: Filters

With that, the jobs showing up in my search results are much more likely to be worth your while, and you can filter even further if needed.

5 Flags Cheat Sheet

1. The Money Flag

Answers the question:

  • Is the client willing to pay for quality?

Look for:

  • Budget (if set)
  • Experience level required
  • Total Spent
  • Avg Hourly Rate Paid

2. The Pro Flag

Answers the question:

  • Does this client seem professional / someone I would like to work with?

Look for:

  • Positive reviews
  • Clear requirements (as per the job title, job description, and listed questions)

3. The Newbie Flag

Answers the question:

  • Is the client new to Upwork?

Look for:

  • Payment Method Not Verified
  • 0% Hire Rate

4. The Snowball Flag

Answers the question:

  • Do I have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting hired for this job?

Look for:

  • Hire Rate
  • Number of proposals already submitted by other freelancers

5. The Location Flag

Answers the question:

  • Am I likely to have issues communicating with this client?

Look for:

  • Location, duh.

Don’t be too picky

We must emphasize here that there’s no such thing as a perfect job on Upwork, so don’t hold out and only apply for jobs that have 5 green flags.

There are plenty of jobs on Upwork with 3 and 4 green flags that are well worth applying for, and you’re likely to find a few of those listed every day.

Proof this stuff actually works…

Here are some of the emails and Facebook messages we’ve received from freelancers who we’ve helped avoid scams and find great clients on Upwork:

Upwork scams: Testimonials-01

How exactly did we help those people (and many others) achieve such great results on Upwork?

Four ways:

#2 above is rarely talked about, but it’s absolutely crucial to your success on Upwork.

Use what you’ve learned in this article, and you’ll be far ahead of your competition in this regard.

Get more Upwork success tips

This article is part of a 7-part series:

P.S. If you’re still unsure whether a job on Upwork is a scam or not, screenshot the job description, upload that screenshot to imgur, and post the link in the comments below. We’ll take a look and give you some guidance.