A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese customer who called himself Kenny Moore and used the email address (firstname.lastname@example.org). “Kenny” wanted to buy a series of large format framed prints. Having recently read in the news about how strong the yen is against the dollar, and how many Japanese are buying lots of American goods right now, I didn’t think anything of it.
My usual policy is to wait until I have full payment up front before beginning a print job, and with an overseas customer, I was certainly not going to deviate from that method. I waited until he gave me his credit card number, along with his billing and shipping info and credit card security code, and when my bank verified that the transaction had gone through, I send the image files to the printer. When the prints came back, I even got so far as to take them to my framer, but since they had to order more mat board, nothing was done on the job yet.
All seemed fine until the “customer” told me that instead of using Fed Ex or UPS to ship the prints, he wanted me to use his preferred shipping company, Crystal Freight. He gave me their email address and I sent off for a quote. The amount was around the same that I got from Fed Ex: $1550 for express freight from Anchorage Alaska to Kobe Japan. The red flag came when I received an email from the shipping company that they only accept international payments via Western Union.
I tried to find out some information about Crystal Freight on the web, and found Crystal Freight System, based in Lahore, Pakistan, Crystal Freight Services, based in Singapore, Crystal International, based in California, and Crystal Logistical Services, Ltd., based in London. These are all legitimate shipping companies, but according to my “customer,” they were different companies, and not “his” Crystal Freight.
That’s where I balked, and luckily so, because after doing a little more Google research, it became clear to me that the entire sale was nothing more than a scam.
Here’s how it works: Artist (You) gets paid with a stolen credit card (or counterfeit money order), completes the order and packages up the work. In the meantime, artist contacts Fake Shipping Company, who is really just the scammer using a different email, and is told to make payment via Western Union. Artist goes down to the local Western Union office and sends away his cash, never to see it again, goes home and emails the scammer the MTCN number along with shipping details. Scammer walks into any Western Union office in the world, collects money and walks away. Your art sits, packaged up, ready to go, but noone ever comes to pick it up. Then, credit card (or bad money order/check) is charged back to your account. Suddenly you’re out the $1550.00 for shipping, plus a $15.00 charge-back fee, in addition to the time and cost of producing your art, which now has no buyer.
Luckily I caught this in time. This morning, I called Chase Fraud Services and was told that the credit card that was used to pay me had been cancelled, which meant that I’d be charged back the full amount. I went ahead and refunded the transaction before that happened, and so I’m only out my time and the cost to produce six 16″x24″ Alaska Landscape prints, for which I can hopefully find new buyers.
Apparently, this type of scam is pretty prevalent, so to help alert others, here is some simple advice that will help you avoid being scammed.
1. NEVER WIRE MONEY TO ANYONE OR ANY BUSINESS VIA WESTERN UNION OR MONEYGRAM. You might as well put money in an envelope and throw it away, because it’s the same thing. It’s completely untraceable, and you never have any way of knowing who may have picked it up on the other end. In other words, you’ll never see it again. No legitimate organization does business through Western Union, and anyone who expects this is trying to commit fraud.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Just about every legitimate business can be found by using Google. If you can’t find the shipping company that your “customer” gives, it probably doesn’t exists. Often, it will have a similar name to a real company, which may throw you off. You can also find examples of similar scams through google as well. If it’s happening to you, it has probably happened to somebody else who has written about it on some blog post… which is exactly why I’m taking the time to write all this!
Download My Free Photography eBook
Expand Your Skills. Be More Creative
Let me show you some techniques that will help make you a better, more proficient and more creative photographer!
3. AWAYS DO BUSINESS WITH A COMPANY DIRECTLY THROUGH THEIR WEBSITE, NOT THROUGH A LINK THAT SOMEONE GIVES YOU IN AN EMAIL. That “link” is usually nothing more than a link to the scammer’s other email address, which he uses to pose as the fraudulent company.
4. NEVER EVER ACCEPT PAYMENT FROM ANYONE IN AFRICA!!! realize that there are many legitimate, and honest people in Africa who might want to do business over the internet, but unfortunately, the HUGE number of scammers in Nigeria and Ghana have ruined it for them. However, be aware that scammers operate out of or pose as if they’re in any country. My own situation is proof. I’d never heard of a scam run by a Japanese person, but that’s probably why it got as far as it did. I know that he was Japanese, because he called me on the phone a few times, to “check on that status of his order.”
(Edited 1/23/10) *Please note my revision to Tip #4*
4. While there are certainly legitimate customers who reside in Africa, sellers should be EXTREMELY CAUTIOUS about any sale from a buyer who CLAIMS to be from Africa. It’s true that most scammers originate in the US, but the majority of Internet-based ‘Advance Fee Frauds,’ which is how this type of scam is correctly defined, either operate out of Africa or operate from a scammer posing as someone from Africa. Again, do your homework and VERIFY AND WAIT FOR ALL TRANSACTIONS TO FULLY CLEAR BEFORE PROCEEDING.**
5. AWAYS VERIFY THE TRANSACTION. Call the bank and verify the name, address, billing info and security code on the credit card. Even if it goes through, it can still be charged back if it’s a stolen card.
6. WAIT FOR PAYMENT TO CLEAR BEFORE DOING ANYTHING. If you do accept payment from a client who you think might be for real, wait at least 30 days for the payment to clear. If not, you’ll be out when the payment bounces.
7. IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT PROBABLY IS. I was guilty here. Bad economy, big print sale.. hey, we all want more business, right? Just keep careful track of everything that transpires regarding a job, as well as any transactions, authorization numbers and receipts, and most of all, use your head. I was lucky that I caught this before it went any further. Hopefully this post will help alert and inform a few more people so that “Kenny” won’t be able to find any more “work”.
Unfortunately, internet scams are here to stay, and they’re constantly evolving. Stay informed and be smart. For those people who are interested in reading more, check out Scams and Swindles, by Silverlake Publishing. It’s a great little book that explains in detail how most of the prevalent internet scams work and how to protect yourself from getting ripped off.