How to spot an art scam

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JUST over a month ago I received an email from someone enquiring about purchasing my artwork. The person? Well, he identified himself as Anthonio Jack from Oregon using the email address anthonioj123@gmail.com. In all the years since I’ve had my own, I’ve come across “real” persons with much stranger email addresses so I didn’t give his a second glance (besides, it was in my inbox and not spam folder).

Instead, I was more intrigued by the subject of his email, “ARTWORK NEEDED.” Although I noticed a few grammatical errors, for the most part, his English was comprehensible. There weren’t any glaring signs of the muddled language we’ve come to associate with online scammers. I’ve read worse emails from “real” people, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and continued reading.

His story seemed believable enough: he saw his wife browsing my website (which was up and running at the time) and decided to surprise her by purchasing a piece or two to celebrate their anniversary. At this point, there were no major red flags but I still hadn’t allowed myself to get excited by the idea of this stranger discovering my work online and wanting to add it to his “collection.” I was a bit skeptical but I played along. What followed was a series of exchanges over a month, with me mostly apologizing for my delayed responses since I had just started my most recent residency and was preoccupied with that. It wasn’t until I casually mentioned these exchanges while in conversation with another artist and he disclosed a similar experience that I decided to do some research into this Anthonio Jack character.

Reflecting on our correspondence now, perhaps I was more taken with the idea of someone being excited about owning my work than I was with the idea of receiving money for my work. Maybe it was a mild case of ego stroking as well. Whatever it was, Mr Jack made sure to include just the right amount of details about his “personal life” to humanize him and make the whole story believable. He was married, his wife loved art, they were moving etc. I was a bit surprised by his decision to share so much of his life with me, a perfect stranger, but I dismissed it as polite conversation.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have “fan-girled” a few times myself and in those moments perhaps disclosed more than I probably would on a regular day. Nervous energy could make a person do strange things. And so our correspondence continued. Days or sometimes even weeks would go by before I got a chance to respond to his emails but he would almost always respond within the same day. While this also made me go “Hmm,” I chalked it up to him being really excited to own my work. It was nice to meet someone who felt so passionately about collecting art. I would later learn that the urgency I detected was indicative of something else altogether.

Prior to my investigation, I had already sent a portfolio of selected works for him to consider, four to be exact. Admittedly, I thought it strange that after I sent a Dropbox link with the images and view only access, he insisted on receiving them as an attachment in the email instead. I’m always nervous to send anyone images of my work for fear of it being stolen or used commercially without my permission. But I do understand that it’s a large part of the risk you take once you make that decision to post your work online, even if your work is protected by copyright laws. Nothing is safe on the Internet.  So with that in mind, I opted to send him a PDF document. Our correspondence continued and he selected two of the four pieces I imagined his wife would appreciate. He even insisted on paying more for each piece saying, “I think it’s worth it anyway.”

I was flattered but at this point, those red flags were getting harder to ignore. A quick Google search the next day opened my eyes to a scam that has been going on for years. After considering my options, I decided to have some fun with Anthonio. I sent him a message requesting a Skype session saying how excited I was to meet my collector and explaining that we could use our meeting as an opportunity to discuss shipping, insurance etc. I was incredibly disappointed when our line of communication went cold. It’s been a month since I last received word from Anthonio but I’m hoping he returns from his “training voyage to the North Atlantic Ocean” soon so we can continue this conversation.

At this point, you must be wondering how the scam works. Well, from the research I was able to do I found out that it could work several ways. In some cases, they ask you to transfer the shipping cost to them up front before sending you the full amount of money. I didn’t get this far with Anthonio but this would’ve been another major red flag. The most popular route taken, however, is for the scammers to “overpay” the artist and request that the artist forwards the extra cash to their shipping company. Since they would’ve “overpaid” the artist with a check, if the artist were to send the extra cash then they would be sending it from their own bank account, granted they have enough money in their account to clear that amount.

International checks take about sixty days to clear and the scammer would be counting on you to make the transaction before the bank discovers that the check is, in fact, fake. I’ve read that in some cases, the bank would reverse the transaction leaving the artist to pay the negative balance. It should never get this far.

So how do you protect your work and prevent yourself from falling victim to scams like this? Well, you have to know what to look for.  Below is a list of things to look for in an art scam:

–  Suspicious looking subject line and/or email address
–  Grammatical errors
–  Complex back-stories about their family, job etc.
–  Huge price range (for example, saying they’re looking for artwork between US$1000 and US$20,000)
–  Willingness to pay more for the piece
–  An unusual sense of urgency
–  Volunteering to handle shipping or passing that responsibility on to their “shipping agent”

Every time these scammers are exposed they get even more creative with their schemes, so it’s important to be vigilant. Always reserve some amount of skepticism whenever someone enquires about your work online, particularly if it’s someone you’ve never met. If it seems too good to be true then it probably is.