How to collect from a deadbeat

Being a magazine writer for about 15 years, every once in awhile, I've had a publication or two take their time in paying me for an article I've written. Six months is probably the longest I ever had to wait, and that was six months after the article ran; I had turned in in eight months earlier when the check finally arrived after about a half dozen emails and a half dozen phone calls to the accounting department.

That was a few years ago, and of course, I had a happy ending to my frustrations, but today's small business owner, freelancers and contractors do have an interesting option if they're owed money and feel like they've exhausted every other reasonable option available to them.

There's a web site, URADEADBEAT, as in "You are a Deadbeat," that is all about telling the world that your least favorite person owes you money. (It's received a fair amount of press, including making it on a blog for The Wall Street Journal, if anyone feels that they need more information after reading this.)

You have to be willing to pay $9.95 normally to post your information, although currently the website is advertising that it's is free. In any case, the idea is that, in the words of UraDeadbeat's web site, "Here's your chance to tell the whole word who the next deadbeat is. To make it sweeter, at the very moment your candidate is being posted on the web, they will receive an e-mail informing them of their new entry onto the deadbeat list. In addition, an 8.5 x 5.5 postcard will be sent to the candidate affirming their entry onto the deadbeat list (as long as you provide their name, address, and e-mail address)."

It sounds like a web site ripe for abuse, though possibly a solid recourse if you really have been slighted.

Still, if you want to go the old-fashioned route, having had to chase after money owed to me more than a few times, I offer these suggestions, with the obvious advice that if you've exhausted all options, small claims court may be the way to go. But first, I'd think about the following:

Have a contract. Obviously, if you're in business together, a written contract before you do any work for anyone can help solve a lot of your problems. It's obvious advice, but it needs to be said. Think of it as your insurance, in case things go wrong and you do wind up having to go to court.

Don't assume the worst at first. Your client may want to pay you but may simply be waiting to be paid by someone else. The check really may be in the mail, or there really may have been an innocent paperwork snafu that has held up your money. The larger your client, the bigger the company, the better the odds you will get paid eventually. At least that's what I've found.

But don't assume the best either. Several years ago I worked in a newsroom and will never forget hearing my editor, a gruff Lou Grant type who I liked and respected, hanging up the phone and telling a co-worker that it was a freelance writer asking for his check. This editor mentioned that it being November, he was pretty sure he could string the guy along until January and then pay him out of the following year's budget.

Then a few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend who works in corporate at a bank, and he was telling me how a vendor inquired after a couple months about $30,000 owed to him. My friend tried to go to bat for him and was able to get the money owed, later learning that their had been a tiny paperwork error that kept the vendor from getting his check earlier. "Were you going to call and tell this guy that?" my friend asked. "No," was the answer. They wanted to hang onto their money as long as possible.

Don't be afraid to put the human side on why you need to be paid. It's a shame that sometimes you have to sort of grovel and resort to telling someone in accounting that your landlord or mortgage needs to be paid, or that your kids need new shoes, but that person on the other end of the phone or email is a human being, too. If you've held your end of the bargain and they're happy with your work, chances are (I tend to be an optimist in these matters), this person holding all the cards wants to pay you. It's just that until they get to know you, you're just a name or a number. It's possible that they just don't realize what havoc they're putting you through by not paying you. Let them know.

Be relentless and creative. I know one writer who once called the CFO of a company at his house. The wife answered the telephone and heard all sorts of wonderful information about her husband. The writer received her check.

Geoff Williams is a freelance writer who has written for magazines as diverse as Entrepreneur, LIFE and National Geographic Kids magazine, all of which paid him in a very timely manner. He is also the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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