Thursday, April 7, 2022

Red Flags: How I (Almost) Got Scammed

Recently something happened which briefly resulted in a huge blow to my confidence as an artist. 

A couple months ago a stranger contacted me on Instagram, saying they came across my artwork and loved it. Would I be willing to do a commission for them? Budget was several hundred dollars. 

I rarely take commissions and never advertise anything of the sort, but obviously that offer piqued my interest! Of course, it seemed too good to be true. I talked with my dad and my husband and thought it over for a few hours, and decided it wouldn't hurt to at least find out what they were looking for. 

A pen and pencil portrait of their son? Easy peasy! I haven't done a lot of portraiture lately but I enjoy the challenge. We quickly reach an agreement on size and price. They told me they needed it in two weeks, so I set to work and in a few days I had a completed portrait.

Then it was time to discuss payment. I told them my preferred payment methods, popular services I'm familiar with and trust to be secure. Paypal, Venmo, Cash App.

The buyer replied stating they have a "standard business account which can't be linked to any third party apps," and asked to send me a scanned check.

"That's odd," I thought, and called my bank. As I suspected, the bank said no, the only way to deposit a check is to have the original check in my hands, either for deposit at the bank or mobile deposit. A scanned check would be unacceptable. This made perfect sense to me.  

I let the buyer know that if they wanted to pay by check they'd have to mail it to me, and I'd send the artwork once the check cleared. I felt a bit weird about accepting a check from a total stranger, but... $400 for my artwork... 

A few hours later they messaged me saying there was a mistake and their checking service issued a check for $3,000, not $300. They cancelled it but it would take quite a while to resolve and issue a new check. Lots of mumbo jumbo about business days and cancellation and reissuance. "I'm working on another solution," they said. 

That instantly fills me with doubt. All along I'd been cautious, trying not to get my hopes up too much, knowing it might not be legit or the deal might simply fall through. An error like that really sounded sketchy to me. 

I replied with a simple oops, and to be courteous and helpful I reminded them my preferred payment methods. At this point, I was only holding onto a tattered shred of hope that this was on the up-and-up. 

The person replied with the red flag of all red flags, which I've copied word-for-word:

"If I can trust you enough to deposit it and have your $400 out then we'll figure out how you can get the rest back to me. I'm sure I can trust you right?"

Missing punctuation aside, this is bad

I vaguely remembered hearing about this type of scam, an overpayment scam, and a quick Google search confirmed my fears. There are several variations of this, sometimes involving stolen credit cards, but the check is a classic. How it works is that I would deposit the check and once it cleared I'd ship the artwork and arrange a refund (often wire transfer or refunding to a card). A few weeks later, my bank would discover the check was bad after all. I would be out $3,000 with no way to get it back, plus the loss of my artwork and shipping costs. 

I told the buyer I wasn't comfortable issuing a refund and I would only accept the exact payment. 

At this point I knew it was over but I really, really didn't want to believe it. 

They said they'd figure something out and get back with me. An hour later they asked again about doing the check & refund thing, with more mumbo-jumbo about business days and reissuance fees and such.  I refused again, told them the deal was off, and finally blocked the account and reported it to Instagram. 

Like I said, I'd felt off about this since the beginning. Not quite seeing red flags, but maybe pink or orange flags. But the overpayment was as big and red as a matador's cape, and I'm not falling for that bull!

Going into this, I thought there wasn't much to lose. A few sheets of Bristol paper that I already owned, some brush-pen portrait practice and time that would otherwise have been spent in front of the TV, for possibly a great payout! I was wrong. 

I didn't fall for the scam, but I still lost a lot.

This was my third major art commission, and also the third one to fall through. I really hoped this was legit and that a stranger appreciated my work enough to pay substantial money for original, custom, art. It also hurts because money was pretty tight and that would have been a nice bonus to help cover some unexpected bills. 

Over the course of the day, I felt myself crumpling like tissue paper. 

To this person, I was not an artist. I was nothing more than a target. 

A soft, squishy, trusting target. This person saw a few art posts in my feed, deduced I would jump at a high-paying commission, and that was that. But in the days following this scam attempt, I had to wade through so many thoughts of inadequacy, guilt, embarrassment, and defeat. I still don't even want to look at that portrait again. Was it even that person's kid, or just a random picture pulled from Google Images? I'll never know. I felt stupid and embarrassed for going along with it for so long. I felt guilty for getting mine and my husband's hopes up that we might have some extra cash. I felt like a failed artist. I felt like my work would never be appreciated by anyone who doesn't know me personally.

I know none of these things are true. I know a lot of people actually do fall victim to scams much worse than this, and that falling for a scam does not make someone stupid. There are very nasty, very clever scams out there and I'm just lucky this one was so darn easy to sniff out.

This person appealed to my good nature ("I can trust you, right?") and my family values ("it's for my son's birthday"). The fact I'm not as naïve as they thought is just a credit to my parents for teaching me the internet is not a safe space. You cannot trust people on the internet, and to the same point, they really should not trust you. In fact, if an internet stranger says they can trust you like that, beware.  

I share all this as a caution, because I know a lot of people are selling things online, running small businesses, or doing side gigs. If an offer seems too good to be true, watch out: 
  • Be extremely cautious with your personal information
  • Stick with the payment methods you know and trust
  • Never, never accept an overpayment
  • Talk about it with someone you personally know and trust. A second pair of eyes and ears can help you spot problems!
There are lots of scams out there. This particular kind of overpayment scam has been around for a long time, and people have lost big money. So if you see a few pink or orange flags, pay attention! There might be a giant red flag coming next. 

At this point, it's been a couple months and I am feeling better now.

The sting of this scam has faded. Not to sound conceited, but I know myself and trust my own skill and value too much to let one slimeball destroy my confidence! Still, I don't plan to consider any commissions for a long time. I didn't like doing them before, I've never advertised or sought them out, but after this... suffice to say no one's gonna get a commission from me except maybe my mom! 

But only if she asks me really, really nicely. 

In person. 

And pays with cold hard cash and a plate of hot fresh cookies!


No comments:

Post a Comment