What to watch out for when looking for online side gigs in college

Most college students and young professionals are strapped for cash even though many of them already work. A Georgetown University study found 70% of college students were working while in school in 2018. Still, a nationwide study by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found 45% of college students that same year didn’t even have enough money for food.

To make up for their lack of cash, many college students turn to the internet to look for side jobs they can do in their free time — and they aren’t the only ones. According to Fortune, 45% of Americans under the age of 35 now have a “side hustle” to earn extra income, whether it’s driving for Uber or writing code on an as-needed basis.

While side hustles can be a huge benefit for college students, they don’t involve the same protections you’d expect from traditional employment. And when you’re looking for side gigs online, it can difficult to tell which opportunities are real and which ones are scams.

Why you should be careful of side hustles

Not all side hustles are bad. In fact, many of them may be just what you need to improve your financial situation. If you’re good at promoting yourself and managing your time, you can even make a full-time career out of freelance work.

But you must be wary of the many job scams that exist online. Generally, these scams look like a great opportunity to earn some easy money, but they are instead targeting you for your personal information or your money.

In the worst cases, scammers can get you into legal trouble by tricking you into breaking the law. At the very least, they’ll waste your precious time and energy.

You may already be aware of the most blatant types of scams. For example, you may have received an email about an “investment opportunity” that asks you to transfer a large sum of money overseas. Phone scams are also prevalent these days. A caller may ask you for personal information to resolve an issue with a bogus account, or they may pretend to be a government official and threaten you with legal action if you don’t pay them.

Side hustle and job scams aren’t usually this brazen, but they can lead to the same types of trouble. For example, a fake job posting might look like it’s from a reputable company, but it may just be a phishing attempt. They may ask for your bank account number so they can give you an “initial deposit,” or they could require you to pay a large sum of money for the “equipment” you’ll need to work from home.

According to internet security news site Dark Reading, based on numbers reported by the FBI, there were almost 15,000 reported incidents of employment fraud in 2018 resulting in more than $45 million in losses to consumers.

How to spot a scam

Luckily, there are a few easy ways to spot a scam before it’s too late. Before anything else, know this: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Legitimate opportunities are straightforward. You should know who you’re working for as well as how much, when and how you’ll be paid. If there are any doubts in your mind, it’s safer to look elsewhere.

In the meantime, here are some of the most common red flags to watch out for.

Employers that require you to pay upfront

You should be getting paid for your work, not the other way around.

Any side hustle that requires you to pay for software, equipment, learning courses or leadership seminars upfront is likely a scam. At the very least, they are a waste of your time and money.

Jobs that make you deposit money into your account and transfer it

This is what’s known as the “money mule” scam. In most cases, a scammer will offer you a cut of the profits if you deposit money into your own bank account then transfer some of it to another account (usually overseas).

Listings that offer too much money for your skills and experience

This scam falls into the “too good to be true” category. While it’s important to know what you’re worth and to expect reasonable compensation, it’s also important to understand the realities of the job market.

If you find a listing on a job board that offers to pay you an extremely high amount for menial tasks, it’s probably a fake listing. Listings like these may be full of vague job descriptions and incomprehensible jargon. The people behind them may ask for a verbal agreement instead of clear documentation, and they may be too eager to hire you despite your limited qualifications.

Opportunities that obfuscate the identity of the company hiring you

Before sending any personal information or agreeing to do any work, you need to know who is paying you. If it isn’t abundantly clear who is asking you to work for them, don’t send them any information. There’s a reason they are keeping themselves hidden.

Do some research on the company before you agree to send them any information. If they don’t have an online presence, they may not be legitimate.

Side hustles that can be scams

Although side hustle scams can come in many forms, some jobs are more often fraudulent than others.

Online surveys

Survey schemes appeared the moment people began looking for ways to make money online. This type of scam usually requires you to pay an initial fee before you can start taking surveys on a “platform.” But you’ll quickly learn there is no way to make money this way.

Even if you are technically being “paid” to take surveys, it will be a minuscule amount that doesn’t add up to a substantial income. You may have to take hundreds of surveys just to recover your initial fee.

Copy editing and copywriting

Freelance writing and editing are two of the most popular ways to earn money on the side. As such, freelance writers and editors are popular targets for scammers.

This scam often begins by making you do an online interview instead of communicating via email. This ensures there are no email trails for auditors to follow. The scammer will then have you write some sample content or do some editing work, but they’ll never contact you again and you’ll never be paid for it.

Medical billing

Medical billing side gigs are a real thing, but they are also a prime opportunity for scammers.

This type of job usually requires you to review medical documentation, then apply codes to medical services so that insurers can process claims. Most jobs will require you to have some experience or at least some familiarity with medical coding, so be wary of any job listings that require no qualifications.

Scams related to these types of jobs usually require you to pay upfront for software, equipment or training, but the scammers have no connection to any real medical center or doctors. They’re just after that initial payment.

Good side hustles

Of course, no one would be doing a side hustle if there wasn’t a benefit. With the right online gig, you can make money from the comfort of your home, and you can often charge more than what you’d make with a regular job.

Take freelance editing as an example. According to the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), fees for basic copyediting start at $30 per hour. If you were to spend an extra two hours each business day doing basic copyediting work, you could make an extra $300 each week. If you do this consistently week after week, you could make an extra $1,200 or more each month.

Not everyone can get these types of rates when they first start out, but that’s still a significant boost to your monthly income.

There’s also no pressure with a side gig. As a contractor or freelancer, you get to choose when you work and how often you work. You can do a little bit every day, or you could take one weekend each month to do a substantial amount of side work.

Here are some side hustles you should consider.

Market research

According to Glassdoor, market research contractors generally make $53,712 per year on average, or about $25.82 per hour.

Market researchers gather information about market conditions in specific locations or in designated markets, including online markets. They analyze customer data and research competitors, then report this information to the company that hires them.

You may need a background in market research to get this type of role, but many companies just need someone to research their competitors online and write a report.

Audio and video transcription

Freelance transcriptionists make about $21 per hour according to ZipRecruiter.

As a transcriptionist, your job is to listen to audio and video files, then generate a transcript of what is said and by whom. When transcribing video, you may be required to write down what occurs in the video.

Transcriptionists generally transcribe interviews, voicemails, phone calls or webinars.

Online tutoring

The average pay for an online tutor is about $21 per hour.

Online tutors may connect with students via an audio or video link to instruct them on a subject. As a college student, you’re in a good position to instruct high school-level students and under on academic subjects or on how to get into college.

Remote tech support

Remote tech support specialists generally make about $25 per hour.

You may need some computer skills to occupy this role, or you may need to be familiar with a specific type of software. You’ll help people or businesses solve their technology problems, usually over the phone, over a video link or on a voice-over-IP (VoIP) line.


According to the EFA, ghostwriters generally make between $50 to $60 per hour. There are different types of ghostwriting, however. Ghostwriters who write publishable nonfiction can typically expect to earn this much, but they’ll need the experience to justify those rates.

If you’re doing ghostwriting for business websites in the form of blog posts, you can expect the rates of a typical copywriter, or about $30 per hour or more.

Ghostwriting involves writing a text that will be accredited to another person. It’s common for famous people to hire a ghostwriter to write their biography, but ghostwriters also write anonymously for business blogs and news websites.

Quick tips

Working a side hustle is different from working a traditional job. If you’re considering it, here are a few things you need to do:

Put aside money for taxes

With a traditional job, you’ll be given a W-2 form during tax season that details all the money your employer withheld from your paycheck for taxes. As a contractor, it’s your responsibility to put money aside for taxes. You’ll also need to pay quarterly taxes if you make more than $400 in a year this way.

A general rule is to set aside 25% to 30% of your freelance income in a separate account, then use that money to pay taxes each quarter. The dates you need to pay are April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15 of the following year. You can pay taxes online via the IRS website.

Companies you did work for may provide you with a 1099-MISC form around tax time. This form lets you declare income from that source. If they didn’t, they may have paid you through PayPal or another payment settlement service. You can also obtain a 1099-K form from these services to declare that income.

If you were paid in cash or by personal check, you can declare that income using Form 1040 Schedule C. You may want to work with a tax preparer to declare freelance income.

Focus on what you’re best at

Start with what you’re good at. If you’ve got a knack for building websites, coding or writing, you may be able to turn those skills into some extra income.

Manage your time

Balancing schoolwork, a regular job and a side hustle is no easy task, and you still need to give yourself time to unwind. If you don’t already, try sticking to a schedule.

Allow yourself to only work on your side work for a specific number of hours each week. Don’t take on tasks that will force you to work overtime. Focus on paid work as much as possible, but give yourself enough time to find work when you need to.

Don’t sell yourself short

As a college student, you might feel like you’re at the bottom of the professional food chain. While it’s true that you’re probably just starting your career, that doesn’t mean you have to accept substandard pay.

Both your time and your skills are valuable, and you deserve to be compensated for them. You might want to keep your rates low at first so you can find work quickly, but don’t be afraid to charge more if you can.

Marketplaces for side jobs

If you’re ready to look for side gigs now, here are a few marketplaces you can start with:


Upwork is one of the most popular marketplaces for side gigs and freelance jobs. Upwork freelancers can do writing, software development, design, translation, customer service and much more.

Upwork does charge a 20% commission for all the jobs you complete that are under $500. Upwork also charges freelancers a small fee to buy the digital tokens they need to apply for jobs. Referred to as “Connects,” they cost 15 cents each and most job applications require a minimum of two “connects” to submit a proposal. This means it costs freelancers an average of 30 cents per job listing to fire off an application.


Fiverr is another marketplace platform like Upwork that hosts freelancers from all over the world. There are categories for design, digital marketing, writing, programming and more. There are no fees for using Fiverr as a freelancer, but they also take a 20% commission of your pay.


Freelancer.com is an Australia-based job board for many different types of freelance work, such as data entry, SEO, writing, software development, internet marketing and more. It’s free to set up a profile and use, but you are only allowed to submit bids for eight listings per month — unless you pay for a subscription. Freelancer memberships range in price (and benefits) from $0.99 per month to $69.95 per month.


Craigslist is simple and free to use. Click on the “Gigs” section to search for freelance work and apply for the listings you like. Just be mindful of potential scams — anyone can post a job listing on Craigslist, and it has a history of scam content.


BloggingPro is a job board that hosts full-time, part-time and freelance writing jobs, both on-site and remote. You can filter the available jobs to only display remote freelance gigs. This may limit your selection, but the site is updated regularly. BloggingPro is free to use.

Own your side hustle

Doing a side hustle from college may seem like a difficult prospect, especially with so many other demands on your time. But if you’re careful and prepared, you can earn the money you need to do the things you love, get a head start paying off student loan debt or start saving for future expenses.

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