Monday, 27 June 2016

Anatomy of a scam

I wonder if anyone has researched how much time lapsed between the invention of email and the first use of it to attempt a scam. I would like to think it was longer than half an hour.

The arrival of email made life easier for all of us but unfortunately that included petty criminals and con artists who no longer had to go to the trouble of knocking on doors, picking up a phone or paying for a stamp. Now they could target hundreds of potential victims with a single click from the comfort of their own homes. Many of these scams are ridiculously easy to spot (you didn't really think an uncle you had never heard of had died in Brazil and left you $10,000,000 did you?) but a worrying number are apparently sufficiently plausible that people are still being taken in and robbed. In this post I am going to explain how scams on artists work (both what the crooks hope to achieve and why people fall for them) and how to spot a typical one.

Who are the victims? Why are they singled out?

The less experienced you are in doing business, the easier you are likely to be to con. This is why private individuals using sites like eBay and Gumtree are often targeted. Unfortunately, the scammers have realised that this lack of business acumen often applies to artists and craftspeople too; when someone whose total previous experience of commerce has been the local village fete decides to open a worldwide online shopfront on Etsy or their own site, then they are seen as ripe for picking.

Who are the crooks?

They can be anyone, but a high proportion originate in Africa and the emails often come either from there or, increasingly frequently, from temporary residents in Europe. This statement is not the product of horribly racist and bigoted prejudice, but a pragmatic description, and in fact the commonly used term '419 scam' derives from a section of Nigeria's criminal code which deals with fraud. Sadly Nigeria was indeed the birthplace of a lot of this activity, due to a perfect storm of political, economic and societal factors which it would take longer than one blog post to unpick.

What are they trying to steal?

They want your money. That's it. It's as simple as that. This is where, I'm sorry to say, artists are particularly vulnerable. There is a natural instinct, born of a little vanity, some insecurity and a lack of experience in the art market, that encourages people to believe that their artwork is so valuable someone would go to elaborate lengths to try stealing it. They focus on protecting that, often responding to warnings from others with things like "I'm not stupid; I won't send my painting until the cheque has cleared", and completely miss where the danger really lies. Think of it like someone making a grab for your phone in the pub. You thwart them and sit down feeling pleased and triumphant, only to hear your car revving up in the car park. While you were concentrating on your phone the thief had been going for your car key.

How does it work?

The most common scam is an overpayment. Having gained your trust (by the simple expedient of complimenting your artwork, so desperate are many artists for validation) they either 'accidentally' or with forewarning send you too much money. If it's an 'accident' you might be asked to send the excess back or forward it on to a third party, perhaps even keeping a little for your trouble. Or if forewarned you might be told the crook owes some money to a friend in your country or needs to send some funds to a relative, and with exchange rates and money transfer charges it would be really helpful if they could send it to you and you send it on. Because THEY trust YOU (ha ha ha). Most commonly of all, the extra is to pay the shipping company that the buyer has arranged (see how to spot scams below) and you might be asked to send payment to them. In the most audacious examples, the 'shipping company' (ie associates of the scammer, or even the scammers themselves) will actually turn up to collect the artwork or other item and take payment there and then. (So then yes you lose the artwork AND the money  - and guess what, the crooks don't care about the artwork and will most likely dump it. Seriously - phone/car key).
But how can you lose money? If you just wait for their cheque to clear then you're safe, right? WRONG. A cheque will be deposited into your account with only the most basic authorisation. Banks do not have time to scrutinise and authenticate every piece of paper that passes through their system and a faked cheque or money order might not be spotted for weeks, even months. And then you lose your money. You can't get back the money you sent on. You have no recourse.

How to spot a typical approach

There are many small clues (and some massive ones) to look out for; each on their own might not be conclusive evidence, but put together they tell a story. Here's an email I received last week. Have a look at it and then see how many of the clues listed below are there.
Sender: john page
Sender IP:

Am John Page, I would like to place an order from your store for my daughter wedding gift,but i would be glad if you can list some of the items you have for sale with the prices,also my only method of payment is by Bank Check.
So, I will be happy to hear back from you if you can email me on my private email (REMOVED) for more details like the names and the prices you  have for sale.
       Waiting for your reply.

Poor English/grammar/punctuation

We all make mistakes, and plenty of educated and highly qualified people can't spell (*stares at husband*), but use of American spelling in an email purporting to come from someone British is a small red flag. Bad grammar and strange syntax are stronger indicators that someone is not typing in their first language, and when an email claims to be coming from a doctor or lawyer (as they often do) you would definitely expect a more professional finish, or at least a passing acquaintance with spellcheck. Of course the fact that someone is not typing in their own language does not make them a crook, but if they are presenting themselves as a London based professional with an English name then it might cast doubt on their honesty. On the subject of names, these scammers often take inspiration from literature and history assuming that they must be credible English names. I have had emails from Lorna Doone, Robert Peel and Winston Smith. I'm sure there are real people out there with these names (what were their parents thinking?) but as I said earlier, all the little clues add up.

Odd use of language

You can save a lot of time by immediately deleting any email that starts 'My dear' or 'Dearest'. No need to read any further. Trust me.

Lack of specific detail

'I would like to buy some items, I wish to order artwork, I want to buy a painting.....'
Really? Just anything? You would think someone who has fallen in love with a pricey bit of artwork would be a bit more specific. Actually the more cunning scammers will name a particular piece, but 9 times out of 10 it will be the first one shown on your gallery page. The REALLY clever ones name the second one, because you'd never rumble that...
(Most hilarious are the ones which name an artwork but have failed to remove the [brackets] from the template they got from the cons4u scammers forum).

Asking for information readily available on your site

'Please send me a list of items and prices'. It's right there on the site, dude. Why are you wasting my time? Oh that's right, because you're trying to engage me in conversation and find out how gullible I am.

Mentioning shipping

Any mention of shipping is an IMMEDIATE KLAXON. (See 'How does it work?' above). Delete, delete.

Commonly used scenarios/back stories

You will start to recognise recurring themes such as the wedding gift for a daughter in this example. There was a time when a lot of people were moving into new apartments and wanted to 'beautify their homes' (see 'Odd use of language' above). A very common scenario is someone having erratic internet connection which apparently explains why they need to pay by money order, and the most widespread cause of this unreliable connectivity is being an oceanographer. It seems like every oceanographer in the world is bobbing around on the sea looking for artwork in the precious minutes they can get an internet signal.

Dictating payment method

'Yes I know your site allows quick, easy and completely secure international payment by credit or debit card but here I am in London in 2016 and the only way I can pay you is by cheque or money order, but that's OK because you will be so delighted to make such a big sale it won't occur to you to question why.'

Their visit to your site

It can be very useful to check your web traffic to see how this person reached you and behaved on your site. In this instance 'John Page' went straight from the home page to the contact page and had fired off an enquiry in minutes. GENUINE BUYERS DO NOT DO THIS. Real customers take their time. They have a good look at several items, they probably wander further off into the site and look at your 'about' page or cv to get a feel for who they are buying from. They might click on the terms and conditions and delivery information, or have a look at your events to see if you're exhibiting near them. They are very likely to go away and have a think and then make a second or third visit. Think about your own activity on shopping sites - believe me you are normal.
Incidentally, I have obscured the website from which this scammer arrived as it is an innocent third party, but I can tell you it is an old link on a French site which lists me incorrectly as an English watercolourist. Another huge red flag (if I needed any more) is that this visitor clearly has no knowledge of or interest in what I actually do.

So now you can spot a scam, what should you do?

Yes it is tempting to contact the writer and give them a piece of your mind. It is even more tempting to tell them you have blown their cover and deride their pitiful attempts to trick you. FOR ALL OUR SAKES YOU MUST NOT DO THIS. In the short term, any communication at all makes you vulnerable. The tiniest snippet of information you reveal can and will be used against you in the future - that includes your IP address which you have given to the scammer simply by replying. At the very least you have shown your email address is live and active and you will thus get added to a dozen scammers' mailing lists. Most importantly though, every email that tells them how they went wrong and what mistakes they made educates them and makes their next attempt on some other poor soul more likely to succeed. Why the heck would you want to help them and give them tips on writing plausible emails? This is why I have removed the email address above because someone reading this blog (no not you obviously, you're smarter than that) will not be able to resist contacting the scammer and telling them about this post.

So there you have it. I hope some of those reading this will find it useful. At least one person (again not you) will believe they know better and that I am being unduly suspicious and thinking the worst of people. You can find people like that on online forums every day. Sadly the scammers can find them too. Don't be that person.


  1. Well explained Jane. It doesn't just happen to sole traders, I know a successful company that has had a spate of overpayments using stolen cheques, followed by a demand the excess is refunded. The cheques had been 'banked' so it seemed legit at first but as you say there are tell-tale signs.

    1. That's interesting to know Celia. I simply don't accept cheques in business anymore but as a sole trader I have other practical reasons as well as worries about security - a round trip to the bank to pay it in takes me the best part of an hour and then the bank charge me for the privilege too!

  2. I must congratulate you on your writing style. Clearly put, well presented and a writer I can tell you that this is NOT always easy. Good for you for spending the time to warn others.


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