Photographers, Be Sure to Watch Out for Online Scams

Photographers marketing their images online should be alert to e-mail scams that seem to be growing in frequency. This is particularly true for those selling fine art prints.

The scam usually works like this:

The photographer receives an e-mail from someone who has seen their images online and wants to purchase some of their art. The buyer is usually located in a foreign country, frequently Australia or South Africa, but it can be anywhere. The intended use of where and how the art will be hung is often described in detail.

The buyer offers to pay by credit card, traveler’s check or cashier’s check and asks that the artist ship the work upon receiving payment. The buyer also agrees to pay for shipping and typically recommends a freight forwarder they normally use.

Where It Gets Interesting

It all sounds legit so far, doesn’t it? Here’s where things get interesting:

When the photographer receives payment, it is for much more than the agreed amount — often hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The photographer deposits the money in his bank account.

The buyer then discovers the mistake and asks the photographer to refund the amount of overpayment. Since the money is in the bank, the photographer agrees to write a check to the buyer refunding the overpayment.

Some weeks later, the bank informs the photographer that the buyer’s credit card was stolen or that the traveler’s check or cashier’s check was counterfeit. The bank cancels the transaction, and the photographer is out the amount of the refund he sent the buyer.

In addition, if he has shipped any photographs, he has no money to show for that transaction.

Usually, the overpayment includes the amount the photographer must pay the freight forwarder when the work is picked up. It is unclear whether the work is dumped right after the freight forwarder gets his hands on it, or whether it is actually shipped somewhere or sold to a third party.

A Matter of Time

Because it’s only a matter of time before the bank sniffs out the criminal activity, the buyer usually applies pressure to get the refund quickly. One scammer told a photographer he had a family health emergency and needed the money “immediately.”

One strategy that seems to work when you suspect a scam is to say you only accept payment through PayPal or Payoneer. These organizations have antifraud specialists and antifraud risk models for fraud-detection. They also have address verification for credit cards and require card security codes as ways of minimizing fraud. When scammers understand that’s the only way you will accept payment, that’s usually the last you hear from them.

According to photographer John Math:

Another way for artists to protect themselves in a transaction like this is to insist that the transaction be handled by an escrow agent. The final transaction, shipping etc. is not completed until all of the funds have been verified and cleared. Any legitimate buyer or collector of art will not have a problem dealing in either manner. Anyone who objects to this way of doing business is someone who you do not want to do business with!

Seven Warning Signs

Math suggests a number of other things to look for to determine if you are dealing with a scammer:

  • The scammer usually lives outside the United States.
  • The scammer will have a story as to why he wants to buy the art.
  • The e-mail solicitation is usually poorly written, with words misspelled or poor grammar.
  • The scammer will have “their shipper” contact the artist.
  • The scammer says that a friend or relative will pick up the art directly from the artist. This is designed to speed the transaction.
  • The scammer needs the art “quickly” for some special occasion.
  • The scammer cannot remember all of the details of the piece of art. One scammer said he wanted to buy the photographer’s “paintings,” not realizing that he was dealing with photography. Scammers contact hundreds of artists with the same scam, and they tend to get the art mixed up.
  • Particularly when your photography business is struggling in a difficult economy, it’s easy to let your guard down when someone offers to buy your work. Stay vigilant.

5 Responses to “Photographers, Be Sure to Watch Out for Online Scams”

  1. Hi,

    Good article ! Thanks a lot.
    I can add to this : that this kind of scam is not used specially for photography, but all kind of goods sold on internet.

    Keep attention and stay vigilant.

    Arthur Lafreze

  2. Arthur is right, these scams are used for just about everything- commissioned art, fine art photographs, motorcycle parts, restaurants, catering services, and musical instruments. This week, it seems to be steel guitars.

    I was contacted by one of these scammers a coupe of years ago and got all the way through the payment stage before realizing that it was not a legit sale. Big headache dealing with the bank to refund all the credit card fees. Fortunately, I wasn't out anything except my time.

    In response, I wrote a long, detailed post on my blog about the scam, which has apparently saved quite a number of other small business people from getting ripped off.

    Watch out and remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  3. As artists we all want to sell our work, it gives us a sense of accomplishment over the thrill of the cash. But as business people we sometimes fall short. This is one area we all need to be more aware. GREAT article and very timely.

  4. First rule of thumb, never do business unless you can do it face to face deal with cash only! Good read thanks

  5. Good article. Good to know also about what they do after they send the payment. When I had a candle business I was contacted repeatedly with a similar scam, only they wanted to purchase large quantities of candles, they obviously did not look at my website to what I carried, they had all the traits listed in your post. Thankfully I never pursued a sale, too much of a red flag went off.

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