Scammers swoop on the self-employed

A freelance web designer has alerted Freelance UK to a scam that involves crooks posing as small business clients, in an audacious bid to steal thousands of pounds.

The idea behind the illegal operation is not new, and nor is the advice to thwart it in its tracks.

However, it is worthwhile reminding our readers to thoroughly check the authenticity of any new requests for work, regardless of your profession.

Freelance UK has been forwarded a request for services from a web designer who was approached by someone with a Yahoo! e-mail address.

In this scenario, the request was for a 4-page static design, whereby the designer requested a 50% deposit. The female enquirer agreed.

But in an e-mail the following day, she said her accountant had made a mistake by sending the designer a cheque for £2,600, which was £2,000 over the deposit required

The e-mail then demanded that the designer immediately refund the £2,000.

Hopefully such scams are rare. In this case, both the generic e-mail address and poor spelling of the enquirer convinced our reader that the request for business was spurious.

Yet scammers are prepared to do some homework: often they use online databases such as Companies House and Freelance UK to find potential victims.

In this case, the scammer appeared to be wise to the now commonplace practice of freelancers requesting a deposit in advance.

But Matthew Knowles of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says that overly complex transactions, especially those involving first-time clients, should scare freelancers into caution.

“Normally, transactions should be relatively straightforward. When they’re not, it’s worth telephoning the prospective client to ask a few questions,” he said in an interview with Freelance UK.

“Ask for a few customer references – even though these can be faked, sometimes simply asking is enough to defeat scammers and make them hang up.

“Start challenging the party about their authenticity if you have any doubts. Once you do this, only the most brazen scammers will dare to continue.”

With any new client, Freelance UK recommends that you obtain their full details before commencing work: address, landline phone numbers, business URLs.

It is also recommended to run a Companies House name check, further to a credit check, where possible, to ensure the venture is on a sound financial footing.

Crooks search online databases to obtain details on the self-employed, such as e-mail contact, so they can use this basic data to coax their victims into handing over sensitive information.

Typically, this type of scam involves an individual posing as a Companies House official or bank manager.

They will explain why they need your information; they may say their database needs updating, or that your files have been lost. They will insist that only you can update your personal details.

“Officials from Companies House will never ring up a business on their database and ask for information, because they already have those details,” the Federation warned.

“Generally owner-managers should be cautious of telephone calls or e-mails that ask for their personal details. Be aware that if you think a request to your company doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t. Moreover, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”

If you have been recently approached by a hoaxer seeking your details, or freelance services, please let us know so we can alert the freelance community.

Similarly, if you have perfected ways of detecting or avoiding such scams, please email


9th October 2006

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