5 Ways to Identify Shady Web Design Companies

Original photo by Simon Gehrig (link)



DEFINTION: of questionable merit.

SYNONYMS: dishonest, underhanded, unscupulous, questionable, deceitful

Looking for a web designer is a true challenge because the web design industry is like the wild, wild west: there are no certifications, tests, or diplomas required in order for people to make a website in exchange for money. Although there are many hardworking, honest, and competent web designers out there, the problem is that there are just as many lazy, dishonest, unprofessional, under-skilled or shady ones.

I have been working on websites as an independent contractor for 2 years. I get a decent number of clients that come to me because their former website contractor moved, disappeared, or otherwise stopped returning their calls. I’ve heard plenty of web designer “horror stories” and this article has been written to help you find someone that isn’t shady and can truly help you with your website projects.

Here are 5 ways to identify shady web design companies:


1. They’re not in the state business registry.

Businesses need to register to do business in the state they reside in. This is to ensure that they are registered to pay taxes to the state. If the business name, the business owner’s name, or the business alias (d.b.a.) do not show up in your state business directory, this is a “shady alert.”

If a business is not registered, it may mean that they are not paying taxes. We can expect young freelancers and people that just moved from another state to not be registered, but if they are an established business, it may mean that they are trying to avoid taxes, do not understand taxes, or their company does not exist. All of the above are bad signs.

For people in Hawaii, we have a Tax License Lookup (link). Your state should have it’s own business registry.


2. There are no photos or names anywhere.

There’s a reason why crocodiles hide and it’s the same reason why shady people hide. By Donald Hobern. CC BY 2.0

Look around the web designer’s website. Is there a photo or name around? If not, this is a “shady alert.”

The term “shady” is a figure of speech: people that are dishonest tend to not fully reveal themselves because they have something to hide.

Not having a photo or name or link to a social profile on a web design company’s website is definitely considered hiding. The first thing that comes to mind is that the person does not want you to Google their name(s). The second thing that comes to mind is that they’re not a real company or no longer in business. The third thing that comes to mind is that they’re located overseas and posing as a local company (which is not a good idea because it makes future legal action very difficult).


3. They don’t respond to your emails or calls.

People who work with websites for a living should be checking their work emails at least once a day. After all, their work is done 99% at a computer and 99% of the work requires the internet, so why wouldn’t they?

One thing to consider is that some companies after going bankrupt still leave their website up, so that’s why they may not return your calls. If however, they don’t return your calls after getting a check from you, you should then be really concerned.

If your web design company doesn’t reply to you, they may be busy or on vacation … or they could be irresponsible… they could be playing the latest Call of Duty… they could be asking their subcontractor to do what you asked to be done. The reasons are diverse, but more often than not, it’s a case of someone being shady.


4. They ask for 100% of the money upfront.

As a client, your best defense against shady contractors is withholding money. By Chris Potter. CC BY 2.0

It’s normal for service companies to ask for a deposit. This is because a service company’s main asset is time and every month, there are many, many prospects that are not serious or are not fully committed and a deposit helps to weed them out to save time. If a prospect of mine refuses or hesitates to give me a deposit, then I take that as a sign that they’re not serious.

A partial deposit is reasonable and a norm in my industry (I do 30% upfront). A 100% deposit, however, is not reasonable at all. You should never give 100% of the money upfront. Money is your leverage and you hold it hostage until they do what you asked them to do. Worst case scenario is that you give them the money and then they don’t return your calls. I’ve had many clients tell me that they’ve experienced this. It’s called “taking the money and running.”

An exception to this rule is if the work is really small. For example, if it’s only $25 of work, then neither you or the web designer should be insisting on deposits.


5. There is no contract.

You should really think about how complicated a web design job is and how ambiguous it is to work without a contract.By Victor1558. CC BY 2.0

Having no contract is the biggest “shady alert.”

When I first started making websites, one of the first things I did was look up a template for a web design contract to help make my own contract. When my first redesign job came along, I already had my contract made and I put my entire list of contract duties (also called the “project scope”) and a list of deadlines into that contract.

Websites are too complicated a thing for you to not have a contract in place. Aside from complex legal contingencies like copyrights, you also be thinking of basic things like

“Is he going to teach me how to edit my website?”
“Is he going to provide pictures for me?”
“Can I request changes if I don’t like something?”
“Is there a warranty?”

All of the above are important things that have to be addressed ahead of time. And that’s exactly what a contract is for. A contract doesn’t need to be a formal document full of legalese and typed by a lawyer — you could make a contract on a restaurant napkin. The main thing about contracts is that outline everything that’s ambiguous or important. A contract would also help you out in court in case you decide to sue or threaten to sue.

One possibility for there being no contract is that the person you’re working with is an amateur and completely unaware of legalities and contractual agreements. Working with an amateur is better than working with someone shady, in my opinion, but still holds the same risks.



The point of this article is this: be careful. As I said before, it’s a wild, wild west out there, and you need to play defense in order to avoid all the shady contractors out there.

Have an experience with shady people? Please share in the comments below.

7 comments on “5 Ways to Identify Shady Web Design Companies

  1. I don’t think the title of your article matches the content lol. Just kidding, mainly because I had some doubts after reading the article.

  2. Also make sure to look up customer reviews to see if the company is worth spending money on! This can be a great way to determine if you have a future with the company

  3. Biago media in Los Angeles the owner Sean has poor communication gave me a contract expecting me to pay the full amount at one time. He never is available eveytime I call him he is asking me to call him back. He took my money $340.00 in cash and money order and refuse to provide me with a receipt he has done nothing to my site I am now asking him for a refund and he is refusing to give me back my money and now asking for more. I am now having to get my attorney involved. He has fake yelp reviews paying people to say his work is legit and its not, he is SUPER SHADY!! people be aware of this guy he is a scam…

  4. As a frequent user of web design forums, I see alot of Indians posing as American companies. Using American names. Using American lingo. That’s very “shady”. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of high-quality Indian web and software companies out there but I guarantee you that they’re not posing as something they’re not.

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