Work on the web serving clients for awhile and you'll meet them all: the absolute delight, the steady worker, the brilliant entrepreneur, the total flake, the miser, the nut and, yes, the crook. With good people skills, you can work successfully with many personality types, except for that last one - the guy or gal who is getting through life by ripping people off and who will one day phone or email you, benefit from your services and then refuse to pay you for them.

I feel lucky that in nearly a decade of working in web marketing, we've attracted just a handful of crazy clients and only one genuine rip off artist. There was the client who was perfectly lovely by day, and then at night would send me totally bizarre and angry emails. I had to eventually suspect alcoholism with this unfortunate soul.

There was another very strange client who sent us a photo of a construction worker to put in her logo and then flipped out when we delivered the finished logo because it had a construction worker in it. Wow, that was a weird one! We quickly refunded her money and ran away.

Neither client, needless to say, appears in our portfolio; nor will the website of the worst-case-scenario bad guy who booked my time and then failed to pay. Chances are, sooner or later, this will happen to you and I want to recognize and dignify your experience by sharing my own, plus three options for handling this lousy experience.

The Emotional And Financial Strain Caused By Being Ripped Off

Yes, it hurts your wallet, you feelings and your pride when someone steals from you. Unless you are making so much money right now that you honestly wouldn't feel the loss of a client defaulting, chances are, you can ill afford to lose the money owed you.

In my own Case Of The Crooked Client, I had his $750 payment earmarked to have a crown put on one of my molars to prevent it from cracking further and having to be extracted. My small firm (just my husband and myself) really had to scramble to find the money elsewhere for this emergency dental procedure. This meant taking money away from other needy areas of our budget to cover the loss.

Additionally, when a client fails to pay, there is the inherent loss of time that could have been spent on other paid work.

Finally there is the loss of dignity in having to interact with someone who is behaving unethically. There is something so disheartening about witnessing the shenanigans of a grownup pretending they have paid you, then when payment doesn't arrive and you follow up about it, turning the scenario around into an opportunity to share with you the various curse words that they know and generally insulting you.

In this case, the client didn't (and couldn't) deny that we had delivered everything outlined in our contract. Without a legal leg to stand on, he made a grandiose speech to my husband about the differences between people from his state (where people presumably rip one another off with great ceremony) and we liberal Californians. He also claimed he didn't know how to use PayPal (very peculiar, as that is how he'd made his downpayment). He insulted my husband and when I tried a follow up call a week or two later, he insulted me. Suffice it to say, it was all very bizarre and I felt deeply embarrassed for him because of his absurd behavior. And I knew that at the bottom of it all, he was putting on this unseemly show simply in order to avoid paying us. Money used to make people dance the charleston for days on end in order to win contests, and it is still making people do the strangest things.

I'm relating all of this because if, like me, you feel good about the ethical way in which you run your own business, having to talk with someone who lacks ethics and breaks laws can be genuinely disturbing. Spending your time dealing with criminals is probably not part of your vision of yourself or your work as an honest business person. None of your standards of politeness, morality or legality apply when you are face to face with a crook.

So what can you do? You've been robbed and are going to have to respond in some way to the situation. Even if you decide to do nothing, you can make that a conscious decision so that you aren't left feeling like nothing more than a victim. I see three options. Sometimes, just knowing that you've got a choice gives you back your agency after being taken advantage of.

Option #1: Retaliate

Please note, that I am not advising this, but I think most SEOs will remember what happened when presidential candidate John McCain's staff used a MySpace template without crediting its creator, leading to an announcement of unqualified support for same sex marriage.

More recently, the case of the web designer who publicized his client's non-payment right on the homepage of their chiropractic site has made headlines, and just today, I suspect that some similar instance of disgruntlement may be at play in the embedding of some rather stinky photos on an insurance agent's Google Place Page.

Frankly, I couldn't believe the lack of wisdom of my own bad client in failing to pay me after handing me the keys to his Google Places account. I wouldn't ever do anything like this...but someone else just might.

Remember, retaliating for non payment with an attack on whichever of the client's properties you have access to might very well make you feel better at first, but in the long run, it's not likely to reflect well on the professionalism of your own business. When we start acting as badly as our foes, evil triumphs.

A healthy way to deal with the urge to retaliate might be to write down a list of the things you'd like to do and joke about this privately with your business partners who have been negatively affected by non-payment. You might draft an imaginary email telling the jerk what you really think of him. Don't send it, though. I think you'll come to regret it if you do, but the act of getting your anger off your chest could work wonders in restoring everybody's good humor.

Option #2: Go To Small Claims Court

I see this advice given frequently in forums and the like. Every state has its own set of regulations regarding this. Here is a list of the allowed monetary limits for small claims suits, state by state, and each state has its own filing fees, as well.

If you're in the same state as the client who has failed to pay, this might be a good option. Unfortunately, so many Internet Marketers, Website Designers and SEOs work remotely with clients all over the map, and from what I've read on various legal advice sites, out-of-state small claims suits can be a real hassle and mess.

You will need to determine whether it is worth it to miss work, pay out for travel and lodging, pay filing fees and any other attendant costs in order to recoup the money owed you by the client. If you have the contract and proof that you've been wronged, you do have a chance of winning, but not without having to devote your time to dealing with the one bad client at the cost of being able to focus forward on your other projects.

Some business owners will decide it is important to go through the motions of taking legal action, as a matter of principal. Alternatively, they might try to stay out of court but pay an attorney a small fee to draft and send a letter requesting payment. I've read of instances where this has worked. Or, you might investigate the possibility of booking the services of a collection agency who will begin phoning the client on a regular basis, requesting payment. You do have options and are not without power and you may pursue one of these paths as a means for standing up for what's right.

Option #3: Intentionally Do Nothing

It's the 'intentionally' part that counts. For the health of your own self esteem, don't let someone abuse you and let it slide or drift in and out of consciousness as an unresolved issue which haunts you. Instead, sit yourself down, or sit down with your business partners, and come to a decision about how you will handle a case of non-payment.

I'll be completely honest here and note that the timeline of coming to a resolution about our own crooked client was a little rough and bumpy. When the client was rude to my husband, I was angry. When the client was then rude to me, my husband was furious, knowing how much time I had put into consulting with this business owner. This resulted in us having an argument at first about how to handle the situation, because both of us had been offended after witnessing the other being ill-treated. And, if you'll recall, we really were counting on that money for a medical matter. The loss of it made our feelings a bit raw and in retrospect, I'm not surprised that our private initial reactions were a bit heated.

After we cooled off, though, we were able to come back to the issue and effectively discuss the relative merits. We both concluded that we have a lot of good things going on in our work life right now and that the prospect of trying to take an out-of-state client to court was about the least appealing thing we could think of. We decided to write the client off as a crook, consoling ourselves with the theory that his bad behavior would surely one day catch up with him. A karma sort of thing.

Money is funny. When we allow it to represent our self-worth, being unlawfully deprived of what we've earned can cause us real feelings of depression, anger or bitterness. I think the worst possible outcome of serving a client well and then being cheated by him would be for you to end up feeling poorly about yourself or lugging around even one iota or self-destructive anger. A crook may take your money - whether he has rooked you in business or mugged you on the street - but don't let him steal any more of your time by dwelling on his misdeeds once you've decided to walk away. You and your life are about so much more than dollars and cents.

If you've reached this article because you've been ripped off, I want you to know I'm sorry that it's happened. From what I hear from my colleagues, this happens to everyone eventually. It's been awhile since I was ripped off by the client in question - I wanted to reflect for a good period before I tried to write about it, and I hope what I've written has felt meaningful and true to you. My best advice is to empower yourself by finding a way to cope with this unwanted situation in a manner that's in tune with your ethics, sense of justice and priorities. The last thing I said to my own bad client, in an admirably measured tone, was that I supposed this matter would be on his conscience, then. Time to walk away and get back to business.

June 24, 2011

Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.


Thanks for the article, and sorry to hear about you being ripped off AND having to deal with an abusive crook client. I went through this a few years ago, over a measely $2000 (not measely really). I never did receive payment... and I had this particular client ranking #3 for "sunrooms" in Google - which for him, as a small sunroom/patio room whatever room contractor in Florida... this was huge for him. I built his site from scratch with a custom admin back-end, and he ended up with many other related terms in the top 10, as well as just killing it locally in the serps for anything sunroom related.


I didn't get it, how someone can choose to just stiff you, and yes it bugged me personally for quite some time... still does actually. We had a contract and I had met (exceeded actually) what we had agreed to. The amount was right there at not worth pursuing because, you have to think, how much time and effort is it going to take to fight for it? I eventually just "let it go" as you suggest. Karma is a tricky thing I guess... I take it this place went out of business within a year... site gone, disconnected phone. And in the end... what probably bugs me the most is not the $2000, it's that the site would have been a great testimonial to my seo results. Arrrggg. "Nothing for you!" Ha... thanks for letting me vent though ;~) At least reading this reminds me that I'm not the lone ranger as far as this goes...

~ Jim Summer

Timely article, this is something which has happened tome recently -- I was ripped off by my first ever client probably shouldn't have taken her on in the first place) to the tune of about £1,100 -- she says she's going to pay but I'm reticent to push for it mainly because another client of mine is a good friend of hers and he's a pretty high paying client...

Business, can't beat it, eh?

Greetings, Jim,
Thanks for taking the time to share your own ripoff story - and thank you for empathizing with mine. Sounds like the sunroom guy was destined for failure if his business didn't make it a single year. And, yes, I can see how galling it would be to have such a successful SEO campaign and then not be able to show it as a sample of your good work because the business owner stiffed you and disappeared. Hopefully, since then, you've gotten some excellent clients who appreciate what you do and are more than happy to pay you!

Hello, Gareth,
That does sound tricky with the relationship angle of your client. Maybe you could set up a payment plan with her that she would actually follow through on? Sometimes, you've got to try to be OVERLY reasonable with a client like that. Could she afford 100 a month for the next ten months? Maybe so. Good luck and thanks for reading this article!

I'll tell you what we do. We never start working on anyting before payment, period. No rip offs and this works very well and clients accept it also for largers sums.

It is best to ask for payment first but in some cases it gets sticky. If it is not a lot of money just forget about it. If it is a lot of money never agree to work before payment!

The only way to get out of these type of issues is to work after payment. If the payment is in your hands then no one can do any harm.

It's amazing how an unscrupulous business owner will try to wiggle out of paying for SEO and web design services. I can't imagine they would be fine with one of their customers refusing to pay for their products. It's an unfortunate side effect of running a business, but luckily those clients are few and far between.

Nice article. Well I have been ripped off already, but as you said, I just let it go away and intentionally do nothing. I thought about revenge, but I figured that it was just too time consuming and not worth my time.

Everybody gets ripped off nowadays with the way the Internet has done with the way we do business. Just take a deep breath and move on. I am sure you will have plenty of clients that will appreciate you for the work that you do.

I'd like to encourage anyone with an unpaid debt to consider hiring a collections agency, and/or taking some more drastic actions before calling it a lost cause.

First, I'd try calling anyone you know to be associated with your client. Try calling people with the same last name in his or her community and asking if they know your client. Try calling your client's customers or other potential business partners and asking them if they've heard from your client recently. If you tell these people that you're trying to get a hold of this person to discuss an unpaid debt (and that's as specific as I would get - you don't want to sound bitter), they make have some sympathy for you and talk to your client on your behalf. If not, at least they come away from that conversation with an idea about your client and who he or she really is.

Next, I'd suggest sending a certified letter (with return receipt) to the client demanding payment for services rendered. This constitutes legal notification and, unless your client's a professional criminal, they will probably be stupid enough to sign that they received this letter. Once you have their signature acknowledging receipt, the onus is on them to respond with a certified letter disputing the invoice. Otherwise, they're almost guaranteed to lose in any sort of court action. Failure to respond is viewed as acknowledgement of the debt.

Finally, if neither one of the actions above work (or if you don't have time for these things), hire a collections agency. Many of them will work on a contingency basis (you only pay for results), and the most they'll take is 50% of your bad debt. 25% is more common. I don't know about anyone else, but I'd be happy to get 50-75% of the money I'm owed rather than nothing.

Sorry to hear that you were ripped off...

Amazing post... Love the information that is being shared with this post it will help many to avoid on what happened to you ... I will definitely do what you said... Thanks for sharing...

Here are some ways we avoid getting ripped off by clients.
1) Always get a signed contract. This contract should be very comprensive and leave nothing unstated.
2) Always get a half down deposit for websites, and at least one month prepayment for any pay per click.
3) Always develop websites on your own server or at your own url, and never give the ID or PW to that site. The client can view the work in progress at this url, but cannot access or copy the work.
4) Only turn over the completed website to the client upon receipt of full payment of the remaining balance due. If the client doesn't pay the remaining half, you have at least paid for most of your expenses from the deposit.
5) Make sure your contract statest that any legal action takes place in your city/state, not the client's. This way you can file legal action at your geographic location. If the client doesn't show up, you win by default. Sometimes just being sent a judgement from a court gets the client to pay.
You cannot get most services without a deposit, so our profession should not be any different. Requiring a deposit also helps gauge how serious the client is, and whether or not they have the budget to pay you. Anyone that refuses to sign a contract or give a deposit is already telling you they are likely to be a problem. We don't do business with anyone that doesn't sign the contract or pay the required deposit.

Hi again Miriam....

great post and for another look at how others have responded to this kind of a non-paying client, pls go over to Mark's blog here and read how he handled same....

we all face this kind of problem eventually and getting a "feel" for how to handle same is a boon to those of us who're SMB owners, eh!



Hi Rebecca, SEOWriter & Kate,
Thanks for taking the time to comment. While I believe it's quite customary to request a down payment of 1/2 the project cost (my firm does this) I'm surprised that you client are willing to pay the full amount before you've delivered anything. It seems to me that this arrangement doesn't offer any protection for the client, who would then be in danger or being the one who gets ripped off should he hire an unscrupulous marketer. For very small consulting projects, I sometimes ask for the entire amount up front, just for the sake of convenience, but when you are dealing with contracts involving thousands of dollars, I'm just not sure about an arrangement in which the marketer gets everything before the client gets anything. It's interesting that you have found your own clients agree to this.

Thanks for seconding my advice about potentially hiring a collection agency. I appreciate you listing the options you have found to be successful. Having options is so important!

Hi Jim,
Thanks for stopping by and, whoa, the suture article was a bristling one! The saddest part is seeing the client's signature on the contract. For an ethical person, that signature is their solemn promise that they will uphold their end of the bargain. It's really disappointing that crooks simply don't play by those rules.

Great article! Another side of the rip off is a negative review from a competitor or customer who didn't even tried your product. That hurts too! :)

@Miriam....thanks for the reply....

and about the only really nice thing or Karma about this kind of a "suture" ripoff - in fact for any ripoff that is blogged about -- is that Google indexes same....and the facts get reported as that blog post rises and rises....

try "suture express" - the name of the firm as a google query - and yup, Mark's blog on their shennanigans is #2....ya just can't miss it, eh!



I hate being ripped off, but I am still a sucker once in a long while. My friend, Jim Rudnick (above) sent me this article, because he knows how much I hate cons. I hate being ripped off enough to have a separate kind of portfolio that allows me to better express myself to would-be non-payers. The top client in my alternate portfolio is a company named Suture Express.

Now, when people google their company name, I hold between four to six of the top ten search results, plus spots in several of their most desired keywords, and the names of each of their top executives.

After they hired another SEO to "fix" it, and that failed, they started trying to bribe me with an offer for much less than what they owe me. That clearly did not work.

I still hear from them now and then, but I hear from their competitors and missed customers a lot more.

Now, I consider their company name as another word in my vocabulary, but not as a proper noun.

Example usage as a verb: "If you tell me the check was sent, but you lied, I will suture express you."

Example usage as an adjective: "They really ripped you off. That was so suture express of them."

Hello, Mark!

It was nice of Jim to forward you this. I'm amazed that with all the effort you've made to expose a fraud, the company hasn't sent you payment in full a long time ago. Maybe you haven't expected this as the outcome, but I certainly would, considering the time you've spent pursuing it.

I'm curious about you hearing from the company's competitors. May I ask...are they writing to hire you, or are they just writing to say hello?

One of the things I saw people expressing surrounding the recent chiropractic non-payment hubub was that they feared the designer would scare off other clients. I wondered about that. Would his actions really scare off other clients (who found his actions unprofessional) or would his actions actually just scare off potential thieves? I think you're in a really good position to comment on this, based on the experience you've had since going live with your own report of being ripped off. Has it affected your business in one way or another? I would love to know!

Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience. Very interesting!

I had this happen twice last year, both people being referrals from some of my best clients, and therefore I did not bother getting payment up front. My mistake, and won't happen again, ever.

Thanks for article. I'm currently going through something like this now (again) It sucks. One of your suggestions was to have an attorney draft a letter. I use a service called Prepaid Legal Services. (my husband is an associate) Regardless of what you may know about the service, I can tell you 100% that a letter drafted by attorney gets their attention. In my 10 years in business, I've had to use the service at least once a year and have had an 80% success rate. Paid in full within a week of receiving the letter. I'm getting ready to do that with me the current client who is playing hardball. I do try to exhaust my efforts of collection before using the legal avenue. But it sure does work.

it's also nice to know that I'm not alone in this crazy game. The funny thing is when a crooked client rears his ugly head, God brings another, more kind and more profitable, client to my business to replace the deadbeat. I am truly grateful!

This topic of discussion hits a little too close to home. There have been a handful of times where we have worked with some real crooks but the word attorney usually helps things move along as smoothly as they can. Also, I completely agree with KC's comment! Even if someone is referred to you by your best client it is always best to stick to protocol. It's not only safe, it's also organized and professional.

Thanks for the article. As a web-designer and internet marketer I had a similar problem with one of my clients. I quoted him for the design and afterwards I told him I will send a writer/reporter to interview him to get more details to put on his site as he didn't gave me enough. I told him that it will be extra on his bill. He even called be later to ask when the interview will be. Well, after I finished designing the site, I had trouble getting the money from him. He didn't replied on my mails nor calls. I put his site offline (one perk of Joomla) and 10 minutes after putting his site offline he called me and we met to discuss payment. Luckily, for me, he paid the money owed to me.

A few weeks later I visited his restaurant for a dinner with my brother and there he accused and cursed at me that his site doesn't show up in Google when typing in certain keywords and that his customers didn't know he had a website. I tried to explain that he didn't want to do SEO as it was to much for him to pay and that he has to market his website offline as well. Acting calm and cool and trying to explain the process, he told me to get off his property. Well, I left, feeling that my dignity has been stripped away from me. I started planning how to get back at him and how to use his website against him, but at the end, professionalism prevailed and at this moment I did nothing to put him in a bad light. I got my money and his site is still up and running.

Greetings John -
Agreed, always use contracts, always get part of the project cost up-front. This will take care of most projects, unless you are dealing with an absolute crook who won't respect any boundaries.

Greetings, Christo -
That sounds like a terrible situation. So sorry to hear about that! I think you've taken the right road with this, though. You were paid and while it's definitely time to walk far away from this kooky client, retaliating would not have been professional. Best of luck with your current clients, whom I hope are all good ones!

Thanks to everybody for the valuable comments!

Ann had great advice about getting everything written in the contract. But once seo is done there are no take-backs. You can't unbuild the links or unoptimize the website. I would use whatever resource available to outrank them similar to the Suture Express case from above. Do a ripoff report and some other webpages add some linkbuilding then move on.

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