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. I have a few options I am considering:

  • Delete all the client data (that was created as part of the project) 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. How should I this situation

  • Cross-posted to workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/27773/… to get more opinions there
    – Ethical
    Jun 25, 2014 at 15:15
  • 4
    Cross posting is frowned upon on the SE network. Choose ONE place to post it. If you don't get any answers, you can flag for mod attention, to ask for it to be moved somewhere else
    – Canadian Luke
    Jun 25, 2014 at 16:07
  • 1
    I created a meta discussion regarding this post and the cross-post to see if we want to merge the two together. See the meta discussion for details.
    – jmort253
    Jun 27, 2014 at 2:14
  • I am not a lawyer but for me asking for extra to put the data back seems something like blackmailing. Although the first option may be legally OK but I don't think that they will pay if you do so.
    – styu
    Jun 30, 2014 at 22:55

9 Answers 9


Yes, it is definitely unethical. You do have other options. You could:

  • Do nothing. Just take the loss and treat it as a learning experience. Next time you will know to never give the client the finished website until they have paid in full. Always host the site on your own servers during development and only transfer the site to the client's servers when they have paid all or most of the agreed price.

  • Continually remind the client that payment is due. Send overdue invoice reminders every two weeks. I think this works better with paper invoices, but sometimes with small amounts, clients get annoyed at the hassle and pay the invoice just to make the annoyance go away. But given that the client did give vague reasons for non payment and not just tell you to get lost, they may eventually pay up.

  • Remove only your work from his servers. You should not delete anything without having a backup, and you should definitely not touch anything that is not your work. If your work is now entwined with work done by others then you don't have this option. I don't really recommend this, but if you do it, you must let him know that you have taken the site down and that you will restore it as soon as he pays what he agreed to. Do not try to extort any "extra" from him. What you are trying to do is recreate what should have happened in the first place, namely that your site does not get onto his server until you are paid in full.

Even if the client has behaved unprofessionally, that is no reason for you to do so also. My recommendation is to persist in asking for payment for a while, but to treat this as a lesson and move on. Be glad it was only for a small amount, and that you now know better how to protect yourself in the future.


Wait, if I understood:

  • you were hired to make a website
  • you did it and the client did not pay it
  • you have access to admin service hosting the website

If I understood it properly, than the content on his website is still your. Transfer of intellectual rights happens when one side is paid.

So IMHO you should definitely take back your property (source codes), delete content on his server and send him a message (polite one!) that you had to revoke all files because your work was not paid.

This is completely ethical and IMHO proper thing to do.

Unethical part comes when you act in revenge or destroy data permanently.

  • Actually I want to delete his pre-existing data too (that was uploaded by someone else) and download it as backup. My intention is wait made him to pay and then return his data
    – Ethical
    Jun 25, 2014 at 15:17
  • 5
    @Ethical Don't do that. That part is unethical. Simply take back what is yours.
    – Peter MV
    Jun 25, 2014 at 15:20
  • Seems like contractor is always in loss. Even inrare case contractor get his work back he is still in loss as his time get wasted
    – Ethical
    Jun 25, 2014 at 15:33
  • 3
    @Ethical There are as same number of clients who were ripped off by bad contractors. In the future, do 50/50 for such small projects OR set milestones and refuse to start new milestone before the current one has been pair OR work by hour with weekly payments. That is the only way to be in loss as little as possible.
    – Peter MV
    Jun 25, 2014 at 15:35
  • Agree...........
    – nobalG
    Jul 18, 2014 at 20:20

The short answer: YES, it is unethical and likely illegal.

The two last resorts that you describe can be boiled down to two words: vandalism and ransom. Would your business survive being associated with either of those? You can certainly refuse to do future work for that client, but you should limit your own potential losses (of reputation and future work) first.

Since you describe it as being only a small amount, chalk it up to experience and let it go (or send the bill to collections). In the future, you'll want to change your billing practices to require a deposit (money for the project provided up-front as a sign of good faith). This way, if a client doesn't pay at the end of the project, you at least get something out of it.


I believe what your client is doing is also not ethical. So you need to teach him a lesson. I would like to share almost the same experience with me.

I was given 50% of the fees, I completed the work and then he stopped responding to my all modes of communication. I transferred the complete website folder with the name "iausdh"; it doesn't have any meaning. On the root, I create a index file where I wrote a message stating The website is down due to the non-payment. I made it look like a normal 404 Not Found page.

Now, he has started calling me, texting me, and I didn't responded him for 2 days. Then I pick his call on 3rd day, he paid the rest of the amount. And their website was again up and running.

  • 2
    Isn't it a shame (on the client) when we have to start resorting to such tactics just to get paid for work already completed?!?!?
    – Xavier J
    Jul 8, 2014 at 21:25
  • 1
    Yes @codenoire it is a shame! but when clients do this to us we should also teach them a lesson. BTW doing this he (client) is loosing a lot which he might get if he improves the relationship with the free-lancer who worked on the project.
    – Mohit S
    Jul 9, 2014 at 1:40
  • In complete agreement
    – nobalG
    Jul 20, 2014 at 20:15

If the site was HTML-only, then the client may have ripped off the HTML content and moved on. You might be wasting your time trying to pursue the client.

If there is PHP (or another server side scripting language) and then a database, (and this was me) I'd backup both the PHP content and script out the database, and remove the database and content from CPANEL completely.

Your work is not the client's to use and have until it's PAID FOR.


I am facing a somewhat similar issue myself, but I would never, never, never (did I emphasize that enough?) consider doing anything to the deadbeat's site. Don't even use the credentials to keep tabs on it. Why?

1) His nonpayment is simply a civil matter, but you may be committing a felony (Are you absolutely sure that you've got the law on your side?)

2) Regardless of the legality, you give the guy a cudgel to use against you, either at law or in bad-mouthing you.

3) Unless your proposed action is explicitly mentioned in your contract with him, it's very unprofessional. I myself would be very reluctant to hire someone who did what you propose.

In my own case, if I don't get paid, I am considering bad-mouthing the company in a civil "just the facts, ma'am" manner in the company's professional circles. (But even here I'm concerned that the negativity might rub off on me, so I wouldn't do it until I was well-situated with a continuing client.) That might not work for you if your deadbeat is a really small operator. My company is well known in a restricted niche.

Good luck!


Even though the amount due may not be much, it can still be worthwhile to pursue legal action in small claims court, as you can get more than the original amount - depending on the contract you agreed to; If you entered into a verbal contract or no contract at all - this will be a loss you shouldn't pursue.

Provided that's the case, you should examine the contracts of others, along with this experience, and write an effective contract that will fairly protect you.

If you do have paperwork to back you up, you can claim several additional fees which will make using the legal system more palatable, provided you have clauses in your agreement. I would limit the number of points you would pursue to one or two of the worst, as if you go to court and list too many issues the judge might get a bad impression;

  • Interest / Late fees. Since you're not being paid on time, the client may have to pay additional fees.
  • Hours lost. For every hour you're in court or assembling documentation, you can claim time lost which you could have spent on real clients. You may be able to claim these as overtime/unplanned hours if you have a separate rate for them. Have paperwork to back up every minute and don't go overboard.
  • Undue stress; you are being inconvenienced because you haven't been paid. That money might have been part of your budget, which is now unbalanced. This is a weaker point, but might help if you don't have substantial claims.
  • Court costs. Depending on the jurisdiction, you may be entitled to claim any costs associated with filing your claims.

IMO you should bug the client for payment. Keep a log of the dates you talk/email to him requesting payment. If he hasn't paid by the end of the year just write it off as a bad debt on your taxes (if you're in the USA). I've learned this the hard way too.

I only accept projects where a client is willing to pay at least 1/3 of the cost of the site upfront. They need to be invested enough in the site that they're willing to pay something for you to actually start work.

Set up a way for them to pay via PayPal. Yes, you will have to pay a fee if they do pay you but you got paid. Never start work without a deposit.

Set milestones for the project small enough that it keeps your client but large enough so that you can keep your cash flow going.

Finally, DO NOT try to damage or anything else to the client's site. You could get in a lot of trouble with the authorities for doing so.

Chalk it up to a lesson learned the hard way.

Good Luck


If the job is under $5k then go to small claims court and win your case. After the determination by the judge (you won) take the results to the clients bank and get your money. Remember to always get a deposit from the client so you will know what bank they use...

  • This doesn't work for freelancers who do remote work, because the freelancer must file a summons-and-complaint AND show up in court wherever the customer is located. Just doing these two things cost additional time and money. Attorneys can't be used for a small claim. Lastly, a judgment is a piece of garbage if one can't locate the client's money, or if the client is broke to begin with.
    – Xavier J
    Jun 30, 2014 at 18:21

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