Having the most effective art directory on the Internet has its downside. Our high listing on search engines and general use by a wide range of visitors also has the effect of attracting services of dubious value as well as outright scams designed to rob us. Adding them up since September, 32 artists have written to mention peculiar offers they have been made for paintings displayed on their websites. Yesterday’s letter from Constance Hartle of Juneau, Alaska, tells the story:
“An online buyer agreed to purchase a painting for $250. They then mailed a cashier’s check for $4,000. Acknowledging their mistake, they asked me to send, via Western Union, the remainder to the shippers. When I wrote back, they decided to buy an additional few paintings to make the sale up to $1,000. Well, the check turned out to be counterfeit, but if I hadn’t queried it, and had merely deposited it, and sent the change on my own check, I would have been out $3000. Normally it might take as long as 12 days for a check to clear. It’s pretty goofy, but the prospect of someone wanting to make a purchase does cloud the mind.”
Thanks, Constance. This “cheque overpayment scam” is a nasty species of Internet fraud that is common and growing. Several hundred thousand dollars have been bilked from artists so far this year. Since many never admit to their gullibility, the figure is probably much higher. Artists are advised to file complaints online with the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (a branch of the FBI) especially while the attempted scam is in progress. Local and foreign Better Business Bureaus (where they exist) ought also to be notified. Another organization, CCIPS, traces and reports on computer and Internet crimes. If you get the slightest whiff of a smelly deal, by all means wait out the cheque clearance time. If a deal is legitimate, it’s my experience that buyers are understanding about the risks for artists, and expect that their purchase will not be shipped until their cheque has cleared.
It seems obvious to me that all email addresses ought to be linked by law to actual physical addresses. Even with the wonders of modern technology, for the most part cop cars cannot easily pull up at an email address.
PS: “The check came from London, on a bank in Arizona, the work to be shipped to South Africa. Scotland Yard returned my email, and the FBI (Juneau having a single agent) doesn’t answer my calls. It’s weird still getting urgent emails from these creepy people, but I thought maybe they could be traced backward if I didn’t cut them off.” (Constance Hartle)
Esoterica: Some galleries are now reporting as much as 40 percent of current sales are Internet assisted. Every day we get letters from artists who are making direct sales to collectors who were led to their websites through our links pages. Dealer-artist connectivity is now almost totally via the Internet. We know that the system is working and will continue to work even better. For savvy artists, a world of empowerment is being created. With it comes a new blessing of international trust. There are some who would sabotage this trust.
Other links contributed by Ellen Fisher in 2017:
by Jacqueline C. Satterlee, Elmira, NY, USA
I read your letter on our Yahoo Watercolor group which was forwarded by one of your direct subscribers. Although I read about this scam too late, here is what happened to me and the artist I represent in my Gallery. An online buyer agreed to purchase 2 paintings for 2500 Euros. They then mailed a cashier’s check for $4,000 Euros. The woman said she was moving to South Africa, and the shippers would pick up the paintings. After we received the check, the shippers said they had to have payment via Western Union, before they picked up the paintings. We refused to send the paintings and the balance to London, and (stupidly) sent them to South Africa. Well, the check turned out to be counterfeit — we did not query it — just deposited it and sent the change on by bank check. We were later told by the Paris bank that a check can take as long as a month to clear, and they took the money back out of the account. I still can’t believe I got taken in so easily and lost 2 paintings and 1700 euros.
Letter spawned more letters
by Laura Carberry, Victoria, BC, Canada
I have my own web site and am listed on several others including your art directory. order from a lady said to be living in Japan, wanting to buy art for her sister living in Nigeria and to be done in a hurry for her birthday. Of course I insisted on payment first, credit card number first and asked that order form be filled out on web site for security purposes — not done — when credit card number finally provided — check — found it to be stolen. I, of course, told her never to write me again, but as a result I was put on many different programs asking for money, asking that I be an agent for their company, and asking that I sell art to someone in Nigeria. The really crazy part is that the first woman changed her last name and again tried to order something. She stupidly set the order out the same way using the same font and language, including spelling errors. I simply wrote back, “We have already been through this before — forget it” and did not hear from her again. I now block each email address I get from Nigeria or any African country. In fact you can just block the service provider by putting “@whatever” on your block list to cover the most common providers they use.
Went back to painting
by Sylvia Garland, Tucson, AZ, USA
I also was approached through e-mail for a purchase of one of my works — a whole convoluted story about a woman, pregnant, living in England, moving to Australia… I was sent four U.S. postal money orders with a Kansas address, for about 1000 dollars more than the cost of the painting. The bank would have cashed them but I felt there was something not right. I took them to the post office and found they were phony money orders. The gimmick was: the shipper would pick up the artwork and I was asked by the purchaser to pay the shipper in cash for her. Then about two weeks later, the bank would call to tell me that the money orders were no good and I had to make restitution. I was also called by another artist in this country who was approached in the same way — this time my address was on her phony money order. She was very gung-ho about tracking it all down so I left it in her hands and went back to painting
(RG note) Thanks, Sylvia. And thanks to all who wrote with stories too similar to repeat. While Nigerian authorities claim they are making progress against these thieves, the perpetrators continue to make a joke of targeting people with something to sell. “I Go Chop Your Dollars” is a popular Nigerian song that has become the anthem for the scam. North Americans, particularly, are seen as weak and stupid and deserving of fleecing. Christians and other religious people are particularly prized because “they’re the most gullible,” according to scammer Mugubu Bungbu. “As patient as fishermen, the young men toil day and night, trawling for replies to the emails they shoot out to strangers half a world away.” (Robyn Dixon) Another reporting site that was not mentioned in my letter is Victim Assistance Online. They have a listing of Cybercrime organizations, some of which (RECOL, VACAN) are Canadian.
Follow up questions about the art
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA
I have warned my local arts organizations about this scam. It not only happened to me online, but I also received a call via the tele-service for handicapped people. Imagine receiving a phone call in which a legitimate party is translating type from a “deaf person.” Another way (besides the overpayment concept) to recognize the fraud art purchase is to ask a question about the art. During my most recent scam attempt, I responded that I had that bronze he asked about in two very different patinas and sent a link in which the buyer could view images of his choices and choose between them. While these thieves are very clever in their initial attempts by naming specific pieces to let you know they have seen a specific artwork, my experience has been that they rarely respond to specific questions about the art after that point. (And if it is a legitimate buyer, I have only been helpful.) I had heard a story that some people are taking matters into their own hands by simply wasting the time of the would-be thieves. So I tried it. After I received the check and confirmed it was counterfeit, I mailed it with printouts of my e-mail correspondence and the original envelope to my state’s District Attorney’s office (as directed by bank officials). But I kept responding to the thief that I had not yet received his check and later, that perhaps it was lost in the mail and he should do a “stop payment” on his check and send another. I never did hear back from that suggestion.
Physical addresses and email
by Russ Williams, Austin TX, USA
Your remark: “It seems obvious to me that all email addresses ought to be linked by law to actual physical addresses” is flawed. Many obvious things don’t work if you look a little closer. Besides this idea being uselessly unenforceable in practice (e.g. requiring coordination and cooperation of every country on earth), many people are homeless (either by economic misfortune or by intentional nomadic traveling) and have no physical address, yet surely should not be barred from having email access. Plus there are real privacy concerns. Consider political dissidents in dictatorships who use email to keep in touch with the rest of the world and inform others about what’s going on. It would be life-threatening for some people to have their email address tied to a physical address. Whistleblowers, etc also have legitimate serious privacy concerns. I’m sure you can imagine other situations where people have legitimate privacy concerns.
What would be useful would be an optional way to attach a verifiable physical address to an email address, and sellers could choose to do business only with people who have verified addresses.
(RG note) Thanks, Russ. Your optional idea is the way to go. It seems we owe a lot of the remarkable growth of our site to the fact that we publish a physical address with every twice-weekly letter. People trust a physical address.
by Brian Gilbert, Chattanooga, TN, USA
I wrote a column about this same sort of fraud for the sailing magazine I write for. It’s actually a very common fraud attempted on just about anyone selling anything large over the Internet. It’s called the “419 scam” after a section of the Nigerian Criminal Code. There are a few countries, Nigeria being one, that will not extradite for this sort of crime. My very favorite website that I found is 419 eater. It turns out that there are a few people who have the peculiar hobby of interacting with these con men, the goal being to waste as much of their time, money, and energy as possible by appearing like a patsy.
Taking the bozos for a ride
by Elin Pendleton, Wildomar, CA, USA
There’s a very humorous web site where a young lady who sells horses has been taking these bozos for quite a ride. She keeps a tally on the amount of money she has caused them to spend as she strings them along. A most enjoyable read because she shares not only their emails, but her replies and sidebar commentary! As I do paintings of horses and occasionally sell a horse, as well as many paintings, I ran into her site on one of my ventures in selling a horse online.
(RG note) Thanks, Elin. Another funny one sent in by Harriet Brigdale is The Car Buying Scam.
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
I’ve gotten a lot of scam offers with overpayment. I’ve also sold to a lot of legitimate clients who paid by check. I’ve also sold to a lot of legitimate clients who paid by check.
When someone emails me wanting to purchase by check, I respond by telling them two things: the check must be for exact amount of purchase only, and that the artwork will not be shipped until after the check clears. When I get a response telling me they’re planning to overpay, then I know for sure it’s a scam. I forward the message to the authorities, and I do not communicate with the “buyer” anymore.
1. They claim to have been to your website, but they don’t mention any particular artwork by name, just want to buy something. Anything.
2. They want three or four editions or copies of artwork that is one of a kind.
3. They want to arrange for their “agent” to come pick up the artwork instead of having it shipped directly to where they claim to be–usually they say they live overseas. I find it odd that somebody’s “agent” happens to be in my town at just the right time.
4. If you’re on a group website and you find out they have emailed all your colleagues with the same offer.
The above red flags don’t actually prove a scam, but they are grounds for suspicion in my book. It’s the offer for overpayment that tips the balance.
I do not give out any personal information until I’ve exchanged a few emails with them in order to see where they’re at. Anytime it looks suspicious, I stop all communications with them and forward the emails to the abuse team.
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Yes, there’s a world of empowerment via the Internet. One only has to look at iTunes and the iTunes and the music business to see that the future for artists will depend less and less on galleries. But, this transfers responsibilities to the artist. Artists need to connect themselves to PayPal. They handle the entire financial end of a business online. Think of them as a “back office.” They take a small percentage for the service, but it’s well worth the cost. Or one could think of the transaction fee as a non-Mafia “protection plan.” PayPal emails you a notification of a transaction which you have to respond to and acknowledge the transaction, then PayPal deposits the payment directly into one’s bank account and you ship the item. They also shield the seller from all financial information about the buyer, protecting the seller from computer theft of financial information (read identity theft and all other funny business). PayPal also sends you a quarterly report for your accounting and tax purposes. There are other online payment services, which artists should look into and then choose the one they think best fits their requirements.
by David Reeves, Quispamsis, NB, Canada
One type of unsolicited e-mail I get is from vanity galleries. Traffic of this type has increased dramatically as a by-product of your wonderfully effective art directory. Although legitimate, the large fees required from artists for the privilege of gracing their gallery walls with creative works does not sit well with me. Whenever I get one of these, they leave me with the feeling that a scam is being attempted. Image: Redemption, watercolour.
Group has its own alert system
by Bill Whiting, Clayton, ON, Canada
There are so many different scams that fall into about four categories. We have seen a lot of the ones you describe sent to members of the Worldwide Nature Artists Group. We have a special scam alert system available to our members to post any suspected or confirmed scams. We have about 40 posted.
(RG note) Thanks, Bill. The WNAC is active in promoting nature art and conservation worldwide.
Our distinct advantage
by Ron Ukrainetz, Great Falls, MT, USA
I sympathize with Constance’s woes. But there is an upside to the Internet and suspicious communications and offers. Artists, too, now have the means at their fingertips to check out these ‘too-good-to-be-true-offers’. We talk to each other through miles of separation; scams are found and reported faster than ever before; websites like yours keep us alerted and on our toes. Constance did the right things, and prevented monetary losses. She also brought this scam to the forefront on many levels.
As artists, and creative souls, many of us are lacking in some other areas (like bookkeeping). Computers, the Internet, and emails are forcing us to add on yet another huge learning curve. It is to our distinct advantage to stay on top of the electronic world of spammers, counterfeit scams, and con artists. We are, in some cases, much like the elderly in our potential for gullibility. We all too often expect honesty and sincerity from others, and are rewarded when it happens. Artists bare their souls in their works, honestly and sincerely. Maybe there’s a lesson for some others in the world to follow suit.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Jeanne Long of Minneapolis, MN who wrote, “This Thanksgiving I am giving thanks for all of the wonderfully life-enhancing lessons passed on in your beautifully crafted letters.”
And also Susan Crawford of Cedar Glen, CA who wrote, “I don’t have any proposals from scam artists because I have enclosed the information that no artwork will be shipped until the payment clears.”
And also Richard James (Gentlehawk) of Livingston, CA who wrote, “I’m one of the “32” who asked your input when I received the order from London for some prints. I now have a phony check for $4000 hangin’ up. It makes me feel more abundant when I look at it!”
And also Maria Scaringi of Don Mills, Ontario who wrote, “Shame on them.”