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I was hired for a small web development job by a client. The job was small and of less budget. After I finished the job and notified the client, he didn't replied for several days. This made me think he is planning to not pay for the job. After several days and multiple E-Mails client finally told me that he is not going to pay me giving some some vague reasons. Since the job is of small amount I can't opt for legal options which it will be more costly and troublesome.

But accidentally client forgot to change the cPanel login details and I can still login to the server. So the only option I am left with is:

  • Delete all the client data (including that was not uploaded by me) and move on.

  • Download the client data, delete it from server and ask client to pay (extra) to get his data back.

What do you people think? Is is unethical to do so? I tried to be professional but it was client who started unethical behaviour. He has left with no options.

closed as primarily opinion-based by IDrinkandIKnowThings, Joe Strazzere, Jim G., gnat, Monica Cellio Jun 25 '14 at 15:48

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Please don't cross-post. – Oded Jun 25 '14 at 11:50
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    Comments removed. Please take discussion to The Workplace Chat. – Monica Cellio Jun 25 '14 at 17:44
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    @etical, it sounds like you are considering deleting or stealing the client's data, not simply undoing/removing your own work until you are paid. The first sounds problematic, but the second might be OK. Which is it? – MGOwen Jun 26 '14 at 6:14
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In practically every country, executing either of these two options is illegal. So your question about 'unethical' is hardly relevant.

Is it unethical? Yes. And unethical behaviour cannot be justified by pointing to someone else and shouting 'unethical!'.

Is it unprofessional? Also. Really professional would be notifying the client that he forgot to change his cpanel password.

It is also not true that these are the only options you are left with. Don't frame your question that way.

Third option: Take your losses, drop the case. Consider it a lesson learned.

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    Take your losses, drop the case. Consider it a lesson learned What is the lesson here? Bear loss? – etical Jun 25 '14 at 12:07
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    @etical - The lesson is - don't make final delivery till you get paid. – Michael Kohne Jun 25 '14 at 12:13
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    If you go to criminal court for hacking the client's site, the fact that what the client did was illegal, unprofessional and unethical first won't help you one bit. Committing a crime is not how such cases are supposed to be solved. Google for "get clients to pay". – gnasher729 Jun 25 '14 at 12:14
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    Illegal, unethical and unprofessional and only a child would do such a thing. You are in the work world now, try to behave as an adult. – HLGEM Jun 25 '14 at 13:08
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    @etical Anything you do to the client's web site, at this point, could be considered illegal and actionable against you if you do not have permission to access the site. Never mind that they've been foolish/ignorant and haven't changed their cPanel password. You have options other than what you've laid out, including reporting them to authorities, taking them to collections, or naming-and-shaming (risky. be prepared to lose some freelance opportunities if you do this) And next time...take portions of the payment at certain project milestones. – user22432 Jun 25 '14 at 13:48
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Taking vigilante-type retaliatory action will ruin your reputation and your reputation is your bread and butter. You'll make your former client look like a victim, you'll make yourself look like a bad guy or worse - a thug, and the long arm of the law will be reaching for your neck. And you did all that to yourself. After the client screwed you, the score was 1 to 0 in favor of the client. After you screw yourself because you were mad at the client, the score will be 4 to 0 in favor of the client. Try acquiring a new client after that.

Take my advice:

  1. when you are in a bad game, cut your losses and take it as a lesson learned and since only a small amount of money was involved, you learned a lesson on how not to do business on the cheap :) The client did you some damage, but no one can damage you like you can. Don't cut your nose to spite your face because somebody slapped you. It won't make you look prettier in the mirror :)

  2. Stay away from any thoughts about revenge. Your prospective clients won't do business with those who scare the hell out of them and they won't care to be targeted by you if for whatever reason, you are mad at them..

  • Cut loses: correct. Thinking that anyone will know or care or feel sorry for you that your client screwed you - not gonna happen. Nobody cares. – Peter M. Jun 30 '14 at 16:56
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What do you people think? Is is unethical to do so? I tried to be professional but it was client who started unethical behaviour. He has left with no options.

Yes, it’s unethical, illegal, immoral & will not make you look good to other clients. Lack of payment for services does not grant you the right to do something like that.

But if you feel slighted & feel like you need to act in some way, the best thing you can do is—if you have a portfolio site—have a page on the site that lists “Delinquent Clients.”

Now, not everyone wants to do something like that—even I don’t—but if you you feel you need to out them, creating a “Delinquent Clients” page seems like reasonable step to protecting yourself & warning others of bad clients.

The approach I would suggest is simple: Don’t make it a spiteful explanation. But basically just state the facts: On this date I agreed to do work for a client for this amount, on this date I delivered work as promised & as of today I still have no received payment.

The key is to highlight the good work you did, the good faith you acted in & focus on how despite these efforts the other party did not fulfill their agreement. You might also even want to couch the claim in the wording of “I do not believe this client was acting in bad faith, but I did work, contract agreements were not fulfilled & I am at a loss to understand how to handle this.”

But the key is would you want to hire someone who sabotages client work irregardless of circumstances? And would you want to hire someone who keeps a public list of grievances. A “Delinquent Client” list on your portfolio site can help you if you make sure to not be spiteful & stick to the facts. The goal is to show the world you have been treated unfairly by a client, not that are vengeful.

And the reality past all of this is you should have asked for a 50/50 split on the work done. Meaning, you do not begin to do any work unless the first 50% of the payment is received. And you will only get the next 50% when the work is fully completed. The benefit of this is if things go bad in them middle of this project you can walk away maybe not with the full fee desired, but at least you have something.

  • This is actually a decent answer. You have to be careful of what is actually said to describe the client, it should be facts, that can be proven. But the beauty of it is the fact, you gain exposer, for doing the work of said client. – Donald Jun 27 '14 at 13:38
  • @Ramhound you have interesting definition of "decent". It is stupidest suggestion so far. I cannot imagine doing business with someone whose policy is to shame it's own clients for whatever reasons. of course you may have different preferences. – Peter M. Jun 30 '14 at 16:52
  • @PeterMasiar Did you miss one of the first sentences where I say, “Now, not everyone wants to do something like that—even I don’t—…” because I agree this is not a great tact. But if the choice is between explicit sabotage and some list of a clients on a portfolio, that is the lesser of both evils. In general there is no clean way to “get back” at a bad client. The best thing to do is to enter the relationship with a 50/50 split. Which is all to say, the whole concept of this question is confrontational & negative. Nothing best can be done than to say perhaps, “That is just a bad idea!” – JakeGould Jun 30 '14 at 17:20
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You have no boss. You cannot just report situation to boss and move on.

Crosspost on freelancing website has I believe optimal solution: remove your content only from website and (politely) notify client what you did and that he needs to change password.

My assumption is that your client is a small mom-and-pop business (say 3-person car mechanic shop) asked you (a kid living in parent's basement with no office and no company) to create static 3-page business website for yellow pages or some cheap web hosting company or something similar trivial task. Then the client noticed TV ad which promises creating website for free and decided not to pay you. Client has no legal department to sue you, or not even a friend attorney who will sue you for free, or the client is not a local attorney.

My answer is based on these assumptions, which are most likely hypothetical:

  1. You want to design websites.
  2. There is nobody else responsible to collect from clients, who understands local laws.

Whatever you do, do not delete any data which don't belong to you. What actions you take should have no impact on client's business (other than not having access to design which was not paid for).

Still, you need to move on. Don't waste time trying to sue or damage customer. Consider lost money as your tuition you paid to learn following lesson: you should have milestones and get paid for every milestone. And next time evaluate clients more carefully.

You can make more money per hour doing what you know how to do. Consider how much time you will spend to learn something you don't know to do (suing your client in small claims court), compare skills you gain if you spend same time building websites for other clients. Which skills are more valuable? What is better use of your time? Hint: is not suing.

But as an option (as a small shop), consider changing master password so next time customer needs some website change he needs to go back to you. Website will be up and undamaged, but no more changes possible until client pays.

You should decide what kind of business you are dealing with, and what kind of risk is acceptable to take to get the payment which you deserve. Nobody's reputation will be destroyed if the website is up and running, while you are waiting for the payment.

I agree that no serious company should sabotage another serious company. But that's not the case here. Neither one is a Fortune 500.

I wouldn't suggest having a page on your website with customers who owe you money. You don't want to advertise that you are vindictive towards your clients. My advice: Don't do anything as stupid as that. It will NOT win you new clients, it will scare them away.

Sure, my assumption could be wrong, that job might be from real company with legal department, or at least attorney on retainer, or website for attorney. They will sue you in no time, and you want to avoid this. Then, of course, my assumptions and my advice is invalid. But that is unlikely, I like my chances.

You learned the lesson about getting paid for milestones and don't deploying to client hardware the final product until you get paid.

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    Hey Peter, it's been a month; as a result, I suspect the dust has now settled. I edited this a bit so the answer addresses our readers and uses a more objective tone. You might want to take a look and clarify anything you feel needs clarification that I may have missed. As a suggestion, you might consider clarifying whether changing the master password is something one should do only on hardware the consultant owns and how this should be addressed on hardware the client owns, as I suspect there could be a difference there. Hope this helps. – jmort253 Aug 3 '14 at 21:13
  • I fixed wrong edit. I am still not ready to return back to this forum. I think it was wrong to delete (@jmort253) all the comments suggesting I should rot in jail for giving such advice - because I still think it is a valid advice for dealing with misunderstanding between two small businesses. I run small business before, without legal department or HR. Treatment I received formed my decision to stay away from this forum, that my opinion is not valued. Maybe by reading those deleted comment, readers could learn a lesson about importance of civility. – Peter M. Jan 15 '15 at 23:07
  • Hi Peter, our site isn't setup for lengthy discussions, so those comments would have likely been removed anyway. Instead, summarize your points in the answer itself, but keep it clean, professional and objective. Hope this helps and hope you reconsider contributing to the site. – jmort253 Jan 16 '15 at 0:43
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I think the only option you would have is to remove the work that you did and were not paid for.

What did your contract say about ownership of said work. I put in my freelance contracts that they do not own the work until I am paid.

Since you technically (theoretically anyway) own your work, you should be legally in the right and I think ethically as well to remove it. If they wanted your work, they should have paid you.

BTW. Don't say anything, if they contact you, just reply with a notice indicating simply that you are waiting on payment. At the time of payment work will be released to the client.

When you do release it, just send them the files, they can put it back themselves. Once you pull down your work don't touch the cPanel or even their site again, you don't want to open yourself to potential "hacking" charges.

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    I should ad, that even if you have the ability to take a snapshot of the site, don't. Anything that is the clients and not yours that you posses or they think you posses is a liability. If you need evidence take screen shots of the public showing before and after you removed your work, to indicate that no damage was done. Even this may be difficult if you are taken to court, so take that into consideration when you act. – Bill Leeper Jun 25 '14 at 14:44
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    I have some huge concerns with this. Suppose, by removing something off the client's site, you inadvertently create downtime or a bad situation for one of the client's customers? Suppose there's SLA's involved or it happens to involve life or death situations? While removing/not removing content is debatable and I can see arguments for both, I really think the issue of third parties needs to be accounted for and considered strongly before doing something like this. – jmort253 Jun 27 '14 at 4:16
  • If its on their hardware, which is their property, you accessing their hardware to retrieve your data is still illegal in many places. This isn't really sound advice. – Donald Jun 27 '14 at 13:36
  • He was already granted permission to access that hardware as part of his contract, since that contract was not closed (by them paying) it would still be in force IMO. – Bill Leeper Jun 27 '14 at 15:51
  • "Since you technically (theoretically anyway) own your work, you should be legally in the right and I think ethically as well to remove it." No. Owning the work is not the same as owning copies of the work. For example, no dispute between the author of a book and the publisher of a book allows either of them to destroy a copy of that book that's in my library. – David Schwartz Aug 15 '16 at 10:35

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