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Identifying an Email Scam Before It's Too Late

By Maria Matthews

Chances are you’ve received scam email, such as one saying you are the lucky winner of a huge cash prize, and all you need do to collect is email back with your address, place of work, and for tax purposes, your Social Security number. You’re on to those, but what about one from a frantic bride begging you to cover her destination wedding in just a few months’ time because the one she had booked suddenly disappeared? Watch out! Not all scam emails are clearly phishing schemes. There are plenty of advanced scams that cast a smaller net, aiming for you.

Whether it’s a wedding, a commercial shoot in an exotic locale, or the cover shot for a high-profile magazine that requires immediate travel, watch for a few things that can alert you that your dream job might hook you into a financial nightmare.

Warning signs

• The client asks to pay you prior to seeing your contract, or even discussing your fees
• The client asks you to be responsible for paying other vendors
• The client says they reside in another country, frequently travel internationally, or require you to travel on fairly short notice
• The client’s “major event” just suddenly came up
• The event is to be held at a venue that does not exist
• The client wishes to deposit payment directly into your bank account
• A check or money order arrives that’s substantially higher than the negotiated fee—the client “accidentally” overpaid and requests a cash refund or wire transfer
• The client asks you to provide your services or products without a contract in place and without paying beforehand
• The client’s email address is the only way to reach him, and they cannot provide a valid physical address or telephone number for whatever reason

If you encounter any of the above, do not reply at all if it’s the initial email, and immediately stop communicating if it happens in subsequent emails. If you fear you’ll be risking your reputation for customer service, tell the prospect you took another booking for the date, due to the prospect’s uncertainty. These scams are often ploys to collect valid email addresses in order to send you additional spam in the future.

Your next step should be to immediately notify the email provider (such as Yahoo!, AOL, Google) of the offending sender and message. Email service providers all have an “abuse” contact online on their customer service contact page or in their Terms of Use or Terms of Service agreement. The provider might then freeze or delete the fraudulent account.

You can also notify federal agencies that collect and investigate such spam. Inform the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov, or you can fill out the online form at ftccomplaintassistant.gov. The Internet Crime Complaint Center, run jointly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National White Collar Crime Center, and Bureau of Justice Assistance, catalogues online fraud and partners with law enforcement agencies at varying levels to investigate reports; go to IC3.gov.

If it’s a business that emails you, also report the incidence to your own and their state’s Office of the Attorney General. The division that investigates cyber-crime or online fraud typically falls within the attorney general’s jurisdiction. If the firm engaged in the scam seems to be a reputable, well-known or large company, contact the company as well. It could be their identity has been hijacked.

If you’ve already invested a significant amount of time in landing the “prospective” client, and he’s made a payment, do not attempt to deposit a check without verifying its legitimacy, and verify that the funds are in fact available. Take the check to your bank or call the bank of origin and ask for verification of the account. In most cases, the check has been previously deposited or is drawn on a closed account.

In some instances, the “client” might send a money order. Do not cash or deposit it without verifying it with the fraud department of the issuing institution; e.g., Western Union or the U.S. Postal Service.

In addition to phishing schemes, email is also used in cash forwarding scams. For the latest trends in e-scams, visit postalinspectors.uspis.gov and fakechecks.org.

Bottom line, never jump into an assignment without meeting or speaking with your client by phone, and never accept payment of incorrect amounts or in manners outside your norm.

Maria Matthews is manager of the PPA Copyright and Government Affairs Department.