Freelancer (from Norway if that's relevant) is approached by Mr. X (from unknown origin, if that's relevant) about creating SoftwareX, they agree on the scope and price. Mr. X does a small prepayment, and shortly after development starts, Mr. X casually explains that SoftwareX will be used for illegal activities.

How should the freelancer react to that? Just ignore it and continue development? Cancel the whole deal (if so, how?)? Something else?

  • 7
    @Kilisi So you'd be happy to write code for me that is going to be used to scam innocent people out of their life's savings by tricking them into handing over their bank account details?
    – Peter M
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 23:10
  • 21
    @Kilisi Marcus Hutchins got in a lot of trouble for creating malware on a contract basis, even as he may not have been 100% willing, so please don't advise that it's "just software". There can be serious consequences for doing so.
    – scaryclam
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 0:16
  • 5
    Here in the US, this is known as aiding and abetting. Selling someone a product knowing they’re going to use it to commit a crime basically makes you a co-conspirator. I don’t know what the law is in Norway but I can only imagine that helping someone break the law is considered a crime just about anywhere. Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 4:29
  • 4
    It really depends on how criminal it is. Writing a page that you know is for scam is a bad idea, but building a Taxi ordering website that doesn't 100% comply with local regulations of all markets, might be a different story.
    – Helena
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 6:00
  • 4
    Why is this question getting downvoted? It seems on topic to me.
    – Erik
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 7:12

4 Answers 4


You walk away as quickly as possible and alert the authorities if it's bad stuff.

You can potentially try to keep some pre-payment for hours already worked, but it's much safer and more ethical to just return it and keep your nose clean.

  • 13
    The last thing you want to do is to "owe" (rightfully or not) money to criminal organizations. This isn't a petty street thug you're dealing with. Refund, walk away.
    – Nelson
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 5:12
  • 3
    @Nelson: There is nothing said about "criminial organisation". Facebook also uses software for "illegal activities" (storing more user data then allowed by law) yet I wouldn't call it a criminal organisation (sounds like mafia).
    – guest
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 6:19
  • 15
    The main point is not whether it is really a big time criminal organization or not. The main issue is this person engaging in illegal activity is organized enough to actually go through a round of work proposal without sounding like a complete moron. This is a massive red flag. This criminal is more organized than some businesses, and you want to get away from this guy ASAP.
    – Nelson
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 8:18
  • 17
    I think the point is more that you don't know, and don't want to know whether this person is part of organised crime or not.
    – Kaz
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 8:22
  • 1
    @Nelson: Yet, Facebook does not sound like an organisation who does not pays its debts or will kill you or threaten your family or whatever. I don't think it's so absurd to owe them money.
    – guest
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 11:16

I see three possible cases here.

  1. MrX is a stupid petty criminal who needs qualified help to enact his sordid schemes but who will never pay Freelancer more than some token amounts to keep him working.
  2. MrX is a member of a well-organized crime syndicate who will recruit Freelancer deeper and deeper into aiding and abetting until he doesn't dare try to break away.
  3. MrX is a government agent who will gather a little more evidence and then throw Freelancer into jail.

None of these cases involves a sustainable contract.

The only safe thing for Freelancer to do in any case is to cease work immediately, suspend all correspondence with MrX, and report everything to the highest police authority that will listen to him.

I don't know who you'd report to in Norway. Here in the U.S.A. I would talk to the FBI.

  • stupid sounds about right, it amazes me how people doesn't keep stuff like that on a need-to-know basis (as i assume the smarter ones does)
    – hanshenrik
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 11:41
  • 3. is called entrapment.
    – buckminst
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 3:36

I suggest to do the most obvious thing: Ask the client which laws they intend to break. Then go forward from this, asking the following questions yourself (which you should also ask if the client does not do anything illegal):

(a) What do my ethics say about the client's activity?

That something is illegal does not mean it is "bad". Indeed, there are eg dictatorships with laws prohibiting free speech, denying women's rights etc. You may have a different opinion than the law about drugs, pirating songs etc. Note the fact that something is legal might also not imoly that you are okay with the activity. Cheating in exams may be legal, but maybe you would not feel okay in creating a "cheating-abing application". Some illegal activities are "bad, but not that bad". Yesterday, I was longer (voluntarily) at work, my boss saw it but did not say "go home now!". This was illegal for the boss, but no so bad that I would call the FBI.. Facebook collects data illegaly but nobody would call it a "criminal organisation".

(b) What happens to me if I do the activity and get caught?

I dont know the laws in Norway but I would hope "helping someone to murder" gets punished, but "helping someone to jaywalk" does not get punished. Also, it might be that in your jurisdiction the activity is not a crime (probably no set of two countries has exactly the same laws..). Conversely, it could be that the activity is legal but you could get reprimanded if you do it (bad reputation). Consult a lawyer, if necessary!

(c) Is the client trustworthy?

If the criminal activity involves directly money, it could be that you don't trust the client to pay you. Of course, this could also hold for "legal clients": if they have a repuation of going fully lawyer and thus avoid payments, you could also decide that you don't trust them.

Note that I am not a subscriber of the theory presented in the comments "the client could kill you". I dom't believe that "being capable of doing any crime" implies "being capable of doing all crimes". Nevertheless, of course, depending on your answer to the three questions, you should not only determine if you want to work with the client, but also if you want to report them.


There is a chance Mr. X is just running his mouth to seem important.

But even so, or one of the A. I. Breveleri variations your only option is to stop communicating with Mr. X and report what you know to the authorities with solid evidence and your communication history with Mr X.

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