Today I received an email that, to my mind, was an obvious fraud. Just to be sure, I did a quick internet look-up of the aliases used in the scam. Sure enough, I found Dozens of pages featured people who reported being taken in, or warning about this specific scam.
Thankfully, I had dodged another bullet, but I want to share some tips and help people in the business avoid such pitfalls. The printing industry is not the only one being targeted. In my search today, I found the same scammer’s name being used to attack visual artists in many fields. Beware! Scams and identity theft are everywhere.
As the internet expands its usefulness to millions of users each year, there is a steady crop of neophytes exploring, doe-eyed, into the strange new world of email, internet marketing, social networking and online business. They are the perfect pray for clever (or even persistent) internet predators. Sadly, many of these newbies are print and graphic arts business owners. They have probably heard tales of mom-and-pop businesses turning into booming digital giants over night. They even may be grizzled veterans who have finally bitten the bullet and launched websites and online ordering systems of their own, only to be hooked by Nigerian internet cafe scam artists.
I am suspicious enough of everything that comes through my email that I haven’t personally been caught by one of these schemes, but in researching the latest questionable email to find its way into my inbox, I was saddened by the stories of those who have. Despite my good record, I am not so naive to think that I will never, nor could ever be suckered in by one of these.
I am reminded of a story told by a college writing teacher (whose name I will omit so my blog-writing style doesn’t reflect badly on him), in which he found himself just tired enough and just out-of-sorts enough one day to have been caught by a street scam artist in New York City. The short story is that he pre-paid a friendly looking gentleman who hailed him a cab ride at the Port Authority terminal, but when the cab ride was complete, found out that the ‘friendly’ gentleman was not affiliated with yellow cab, and had suckered him badly. He still owed the fare, and was miles and an hour away from the perpetrator.
Anyone can get caught, so be wary, and be fore-warned.
Here are seven quick tips to avoid being bitten by the scam vipers.
1. Keep a sharp eye on requests from anyone outside your usual client base.
This can be difficult for a busy printer, who may do work with people from all walks of life, or from many parts of the country. That being said, you know that most of your work comes from certain types of people, from certain web avenues, in certain quantities. If you are a quick printer who typically prints 500 or 1000 flyers for local customers, you should keep an eye on the order for 80,000 full color flyers that comes out of the blue.
2. Be on the lookout for suspicious requests coming from free or temporary email addresses.
Free email services like GMail, Yahoo, and AOL are useful in many ways, not the least of which is to hide one’s true identity behind a here-today, gone-tomorrow email address. It is getting easier and easier to set up temporary domains or websites, but many cons don’t even bother with this step. They are looking for easy prey, too lazy to check even that far. Most legit buyers, especially of large orders will be working for a company with its own domain or email service. That’s not to say you should avoid someone because of their gmail address, but it is a red flag.
3. Not what they profess to be.
Be on the lookout for poor grammar, conflicting details and stories that just don’t add up. If an email claims to be from a buyer in America but uses poor English, broken grammar or conflicting information about where the buyer is based, it is probably a scam. Print buyers will know specs and printing processes, so pay attention to their answers. Are those full color flyers double sided? Will they supply the art? Do they want digital or offset printing? Asking simple checking questions like these can expose the con.
4. Check the web!
Similar to tip #3, you can look for inconsistencies by following up on the names that they drop. If the job is for an orphanage in Ghana, chances are there is a large enough international effort behind it that someone will have a web page, either for the orphanage or for some American charity supporting it. Check out the company the writer says he/she works for. If it is “Berring Printing & Sons”, they should have a website, a directory listing, or at least previous internet activity that you can find. If there is a website, call the operator and ask to be connected to the person who wrote you.
5. Never rush into arranging payment, wait until the check clears, and don’t use a shipper you don’t know.
The typical scam targeting printers is basically a form of money laundering for stolen credit cards or phony checks and money orders. The emailer will go out of his/her way to try and pay you early for the job. (Why not, it’s not their money!) They will try and get you to pay their (phony) shipping company in advance, using your funds, out of the money they “paid” you. Their “shipping” company will take your money, your bank will bounce the phony check or freeze the stolen credit card payment, and if you were unfortunate enough to have completed the job in the meantime, you will be out materials, time, money, and pride.
6. Don’t trust overtly religious requests
It kills me to say this because I have a strong faith, and am pained to even think that someone would use this against me. Of course, this is exactly why they do this. If the job (1) is a flyer that simply reads “God loves you!”, (2) is for a monastery or christian orphanage, especially in Africa, (3) is requested through an email that uses not-quite-right religious phrases like “Dearest one of God,” or “God Bless You (as a close to the letter),” or wishes you well for holidays that aren’t currently applicable (”Happy New Year,” “Happy Holidays” or similar during the summer), it probably is a scam. This last hints that maybe the scam letter was copied and pasted at con-man central.
7. Don’t ignore economics.
The age-old adage applies: if it sounds too good to be true, it is. If your typical order is for three or four 2′ x 3′ posters, and the request is for 200 4′ x 10′ banners, why are they contacting you? What would anyone use 200 big banners for (especially an orphanage)? Why would someone in Ghana want printing in North America? Chances are Ghanan printers are far cheaper. I once got a request from an (supposed) Indian buyer for 120,000 flyers. China and India are two of the cheapest places to get anything made, especially printed flyers.
When you follow these tips, you’ll see that most scams can be picked apart pretty quickly. The key here is not to let your guard down. Don’t let hopes that a big fish just landed in your lap blind you to the truth right in front of you. If anyone asks you to do something out of your comfort zone, don’t. There is a reason it’s out of your comfort zone.
Do you have a con tale you would like to share? Have you gotten emails for quotes from Brian Berring, Ken Williams, or Richard Williams too? Comment below and let me know!