Client or grifter? The free work stops now

For far too long, a sneaky customer scams his way through the system to procure free work from unsuspecting developers

Stop sign with the words Collaborate and Listen painted on it
Credit: flickr/rick

How do you stop a repeat rip-off artist? If you're in tech, you may unfortunately fall victim before the culprit is stopped, but with your knowledge and experience, at least you can block the next offense before it goes too far.

I first encountered this serial offender while employed at a company that sold customized systems. Mostly, we worked with open source software, then modified a few details to suit the client.

One of our salesmen reeled in what he said was a hot customer, but couldn't figure out which of our usual packages would be best for him. He passed the question on to me, the senior software support engineer.

"How would that work?" asked the client, "Mr. Jones," after outlining what he wanted. I explained the flowchart as best I could over the phone. "I would have to see it," he said. Fair enough.

I used my code generator to create a few menu screens, so he could get an idea of how it would look. Nothing behind those screens worked, but it would once that code was written.

I printed screenshots of the menus and a few data input forms. After mailing off a nice, thick packet of printouts, I waited a week to make sure he got it, then called him to follow up.

The scam set in motion

He called me about a week later. He had the packet, but he was nervous about whether the program would work and told me he didn't want to pay for anything until he saw it working.

In short, he wanted the entire program written before paying a cent -- excellent.

At this point I had put in 20 hours of phone calls, programming, and proposal writing. The boss was mad. He told me to wrap it up, pack it up, and never call this guy back. The boss was certain it was all a scam intended to get as much free work as possible.

The boss called the client directly and asked for the sale, in case his theory was wrong. The call did not go well: Mr. Jones tried to scam the boss by shaming him. He said we hadn't done enough to earn his trust and described me as lazy and slow to respond.

As instructed, I stopped taking his calls, and the sales rep was given the same instructions. After a couple of weeks, the calls stopped.

Positive ID

Several months later I ran into a friend who specialized in custom programming. We had contracted with him a couple of times for small jobs and referred a couple of clients to him that we couldn't handle. "John" was a peach. We set a date for lunch at a quiet nearby restaurant.

At lunch, John asked me for help with a very difficult client. The guy had paid him for some of the work he had done, then the cash stopped while the work went on. No matter how hard he worked on meeting the payment milestone, it always moved. He was fed up.

"Who is this odd client?" I asked.

As he talked, I recognized Mr. Jones's shenanigans and shared our experience with him. Sometimes working in a small town is a great boon.

John and I had lunch more frequently after that. While it wasn't fun to compare notes on Mr. Jones's scamming habits, it definitely saved us both any further grief.

John stopped working on that program and focused on the paying clients. Eventually Mr. Jones sort of settled up, and after that check cleared John stopped taking his calls. We soon saw ads in the newspapers for custom programming help. Through the grapevine, we heard a student fresh out of college got hired for it.

We meet again

About 10 years later, I was working in the direct marketing industry. A top client called me in to talk with me about this new, wonderful, amazing customer. I recognized the name: Mr. Jones was still running the same business as he had when I met him. Mr. Jones and my client were in negotiations to do a huge new contract. Mr. Jones mentioned they needed help with their software, and my client thought of me.

"That's a guy who tried to scam me 10 years ago!" I exclaimed.

My client couldn't believe it -- the person seemed so sincere on the phone. "He tried to scam my friend John, too, and almost got away with it." As I explained the story, my client tensed and his eyes grew sad.

The next day, my client called to thank me. He had curtailed negotiations with Mr. Jones, who had grown angry when faced with less lenient credit terms. The credit check had come back with bad news, and my client decided to cancel any further dealings with Mr. Jones -- and felt relieved.

Sometimes, working in a small town in a niche industry is a huge blessing, not only in keeping track of a weasel, but in finding someone to commiserate with.