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5 Real-Life Freelancer Horror Stories

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As a freelance writer, I can attest to the many joys of working for oneself: The lack of commute, the flexible schedule, and—my personal favorite—the ability to work in one’s pajamas. Perks aside, working-for-hire can be dicey business. While any job comes with unknowns, freelancing can be super unpredictable in many ways, from getting work, to who you’re working with, to how (and when!) you’re getting paid. There’s a lot of room for error—and a number of people and companies all too willing to take advantage. The following oh-so-true tales of freelancing gone wrong may make those who work in-house all the more grateful for their full-time office gigs. Read ’em if you dare!

[Related: 10 Things That Only Freelancers Understand]

Doctor Who?

“I’m a freelance writer with 14 years of publishing experience. This year, a gentleman hired me to do a rush edit on an e-book about Ebola. This was at the peak of the outbreaks and he claimed to be a doctor who had done a great deal of research on the matter. The day I turned in the work and the invoice, he called to say he’d lost his wallet. A few days later, he quit returning calls or emails. He vanished without paying me or the designer—and after doing research, we discovered he had even lied about being a doctor.” —Alice, 35

[Related: Good Books to Read for Every Mood]

Great Expectations

“I was writing for the website of a major women’s magazine when a huge internal shake-up happened. My boss was unexpectedly let go, and a new editor-in-chief swooped in, bringing new editors along with her. The style of the site pivoted rapidly with the new guard, leaving us writers in need of some guidance. My editor informed me that I needed to seriously change my writing style in order to continue contributing, so I asked her how I could modify my tone in order to suit the site’s new needs. Her response? I needed to start ‘writing like Tina Fey.’ I didn’t tell her this, of course, but in my head I was thinking, ‘Well, if I could write like Tina Fey, I certainly wouldn’t be writing articles for you at only $40 a pop!'” —Natalie, 29

Fully Taxed

“As an independent contractor, I started working as a personal assistant. The job was five days a week, full-time, so upon hiring me, my boss promised to either make me an employee that year or pay my tax burden. Although we had nothing in writing, I trusted him since we’d been working together for a while. At the end of January, I stopped working for him. While he still promised to pay the remainder of the installment plan I have set up with the IRS, I have yet to see any of the money. He owes me thousands of dollars and I honestly don’t know if he’ll ever pay it. Moral of the story: Get it in writing. It’s not a matter of trust, it’s just good business!” —Christine, 27

Too Good to Be True

“Before I came to work full-time as a PR specialist, I was freelancing as a content writer for clients ranging from property care to travel and comic books. One day, on Craigslist, I noticed a post for a freelance gig that would have included enough work to fill my days writing about video games, and it paid well too. It was a freelance dream job for me. But because it was on Craigslist, I was skeptical. I sent in my resume and portfolio anyway, and when the team praised my work, I felt like my hunch had to be correct—this gig was clearly too good to be a real thing. I took my work back and told them why this job was so obviously a scam. They responded politely and took me off their roster. Under further investigation, I found the job was real and for a legit company—everything they offered could have been mine, if not for my skepticism and paranoia.” —Scott, 24

Charity Case

“I was working as a freelance lawyer for a local personal injury law office, reviewing car accident/medical files assembled by paralegals and drafting demand letters to go to insurance companies. It’s pretty routine work when you know how to do it, however, demand letters require many details, and if the file doesn’t have them, your letter will have holes. After receiving a particularly bad set of files (some even had medical records written in a foreign language) and turning in the corresponding letters, the supervising attorney took me to task, saying really awful things to me and brushing aside my explanations. When I requested payment for my work, he only agreed to pay half of what he owed—he also said I must be really hard up financially wanting him to pay me for the work, and that he would just write off the payment to me as a charity contribution. It was galling and humiliating. Several months later I got a voicemail from him, in which he apologized profusely, explaining that he had finally looked at the files I had worked from and my work was very good under the circumstances. He promised to immediately pay me the balance due on my work, and asked if I would consider working for him again. Needless to say, I cashed the check and never returned his call.” —Melissa, 35

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