Barrett Manor

Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

My scam stories and an apology

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett

The apology first: That last entry wasn't as coherent as I wish it would have been. I can blame the lack of sleep. I spent over an hour on that darned entry; I'd write something and then realize that really wasn't what I wanted to say. Usually I realized I was drifting badly from topic. Delete. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Dinner has perked me up a bit, so I'm going to make another stab at a more coherent entry. Pardon the roving typos, for I know there will be many.

Why do I go on and on about writing scams? Because I've been taken. Okay, not in the classical sense of the vanity publisher taking my savings, but freelancers will get taken sometimes. We don't mean to, but it happens. Back when I started freelancing, the Internet as we know it didn't exist. ("It's life Jim, but not as we know it!") The scam-busting sites of today didn't exist. Writers networked, but the ARPAnet (as it was called way back when) was comparatively small. Usually writers networked via the few BBS systems or word of mouth. I'm told that dinosaurs roamed the planet as well, but I saw no verifiable evidence of that outside of a PDP-10. (Computer humor, sorry.)

Of course, the scammers are still around today. And as always, some people who don't pay for services rendered are not necessarily scammers. Companies do run into financial trouble. At least these days it's easier to warn other writers when a magazine or publisher falls behind on payments.

The first time I was taken still stings. I was young and naive, not long out of college and married less than a year. I'd earned a degree in Radio-Television with a minor in English and was eager to find a job in broadcasting. I knew that living in a large metro area that my chances were not good, so I broadened my search to include other media and more peripheral jobs. This was the early 1980s, when people paid lip service to equal employment opportunities for women. I swear there was more than one time when I sat across a desk from a man smoking a cigar (this was before workplace smoking was a no-no) who would lean back in his chair and say, "you know how hard it is for a woman to get a job in this field." That was code for "we're not hiring women, but just try to prove it with the EEOC." I'd had no luck with employement agencies or want ads (I was often over-qualified for grunt jobs I was willing to take), and I ended up with the state-run Texas Employment Commission. They hooked me up with an ad agency.

This ad agency was located in the suburb where I live now. It was a home-based business, which really didn't raise a flag. This suburb is very friendly to people who work out of their homes, and was back even when it wasn't the norm. Red flag #1: The guy told me he was a partner in a NY-based agency, but was "unable" to tell me which one. That alone made me reluctant to go with the job, but I'd been hunting for months and had absolutely no luck. I figured that I could write ad copy (that turned out to be true), so what had I to lose? Red flag #2: He didn't ask for my Social Security number, nor offer any paperwork. Still, I was desperate for a job.

This thing went downhill fast, and I should have quit when we went to talk to the local newspaper. The guy had no clue about ad agency discounts! This is something fairly standard - media outlets generally offer a discount to an ad agency buying ad space or air time. The ad agency turns around and bills the client for the full rate. This is one way they make their money. I should have walked then, but I was hungry. The guy promised to pay when money started to come in. Clients signed on, but no money came my way. He had the money to incorporate himself, but not to pay me or the other creative staff. When I confronted him with it he responded with Old Testament verses that had no relevance to the situation. I finally quit and joined a temp agency the next week. At least the temp agency paid on time. It was just a bizarre situation. I don't think the man had any intention of paying his employees, and I had no money for a lawyer. And if I had, I don't think I'd have been able to get much out of him.

Young, naive, and hungry. What can I say?

I did eventually get a job in radio and was downsized when the economy went south. I'd been doing some freelance writing on the side and decided that this was the time to strike out on my own. I'd found a nice, tight-knit network of writers that hung out on a BBS system and felt like I was pretty plugged into things and aware of scams. That didn't help when a magazine I was familiar with offered me $300 for an article. I jumped at that money and produced a damn fine article for them. Suddenly the editor was unavailable. Calls were not returned. Where was my $300? After the article was published a fellow writer contacted me via private message on the BBS: "I saw your byline in (publication deleted). Great article, but he owes a lot of people money, including me. Did you get paid?" Yikes. I'd done as much homework as I thought was prudent on this publication, but apparently he stopped paying people about the time he made the aforementioned offer to me. I got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oh, well. Another clip for the files. The publication vanished after about two more issues. I don't know to this day if they just ran into trouble or if they took the money and ran.

I got burned in both cases, but I learned some valuable lessons. In the first case I learned to check into the background of any company that wanted to interview me for a job. Hungry should not equal stupid, though I'll admit that it's hard to think straight when the bills are piling up. In the second case I really do think that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but now I'm very careful to check out markets before I submit.

I still do work with startups and submit to new publications. It's a risk I'm willing to take sometimes.

Another type of scam I've learned to avoid is the people who want to pay far less than market rates to "see how it works out." Generally I avoid those types like the plague. They often go through a string of writers, paying low rates and them dumping them for the next writer willing to work for less. There are some exceptions, but again, I won't work for someone who wants to pay me less than my going rate without a very good reason. That's not to say that I'm inflexible, but I really don't have a lot of wiggle room in my base rate right now. As the economy improves I will raise my rate. And I'm happy to say that things are improving where I live. For a while the outlook for freelancers was really bleak. We got hit pretty hard when the ecomony crashed in 2000. But things are finally looking up. Yay!

But back to the topic, I've been burned and I hate to see others get taken, whether it's by a self-publishing scam or a freelance opportunity gone bad. I felt it was time to let you know why I feel so strongly about writing scams.

Now it's back to laundry! Aren't Mondays fun? (Don't answer that. Just don't.)


Filed under: Writing            
3/13/2006 5:41:00 PM
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