Cautionary Tale: Targeting Artists

I was recently the victim of a fraud/scam specifically targeting artists.  It began at the end of January when I was contacted via my website from a potential “buyer” interested in two specific pieces of art.  Unknowingly, I was the target of a very elaborate fraud and having my first encounter with the very well-crafted persona, “Sofia Parker,” of a con artist.  We exchanged a series of emails, and “Sofia” selected a medium-priced work of mine to “purchase.” I’ve sold work online before, cautiously, and I thought I’d been doing pretty well handling the professional growth of my art practice including the business aspects of my art.

A week or so passed, after I responded with more details about the piece including cost and shipping options.  “Sofia” replied with an apology and claimed she’d just returned from her sister’s wedding. Her emails were designed to deepen the fictional story while building trust. Additional explanations she shared would later mask important components of the scam; she claimed to be was moving into a new condo while her husband remained in their previous home.  They could arrange to have the work delivered.  Her husband would have his assistant take care of the details and send payment.

In hindsight, her writing showed syntax errors and contradictions in narrative.  But the persona actually covered and excused some of these irregularities; the character I was responding to behaved in ways that made “sense.”  Here was a kooky art buyer, maybe an international woman, decorating the second home while her husband paid for her art purchases.  Multiple emails exchanged with the odd “Sofia” seemed very real. Of course, she was working my own belief against me:  I wanted to believe my work was being purchased because of the work I had done to increase my visibility as an artist.  I realize now that if she’d selected a more expensive work I would have required phone conversations and done additional fact-checking.  

There was another delay, followed by a very polite check-in to see whether the check had arrived, and more apologies for the confusion “the move was causing.” Almost a month of exchanges reached the turning point in the scam with well-prepared ground.  The check arrived from a “business” with a rather significant overpayment..  I wrote immediately and asked how to proceed. My instinct was to rip up the check and ask for another sent with the appropriate price.  “Sofia” blamed the error on her husband, suggested I deposit the check, deduct the cost of the shipping to the condo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and refund the overpayment.

It was a crazy week at work, and in the intense midst of “too many things” I thought, “At least I can get this work shipped and make an important sale.”  I deposited the check, and the next day called my bank to verify that the check had cleared. I took the piece to fed ex and shipped it to the address she’d provided.  “Sofia” then asked me to refund the overpayment to her husband’s assistant and provided an address in Minneapolis.  “Sofia” recommended several Western Union options in my area.  In hindsight, clear fraud techniques were being utilized in these key steps: 1. Overpayment to get the target to “refund” what is actually personal finances 2. Payment from one person and address different from the person the communication.

I believed I was being careful, I’d called the bank, and the money was in my account.  Despite the hassles, and my unease, I transferred the money via Western Union.  I called and left a voice mail message on “Sofia’s” number, realizing we’d never actually spoken on the phone, and she responded with the following email: “Thanks for taking care of everything. I’ll make sure I send photos of the art piece as soon as I have it installed on my wall.”

The next day, my bank withdrew the deposit.  The check had a valid routing number but was not a real account.  I called, confused, and the nice person from the bank clarified that checks clear as a courtesy, on the assumption that it is a valid check, but the actual money can take several more days to be verified. I knew immediately what had happened, and fortunately, the money transfer had not been picked up in Minneapolis. Western Union was incredibly helpful, and my money was returned to me.  I don’t know went wrong in their operation, but a clear twenty-four window was missed, fortunately for me. Next, I tried to track down my art, which Fed Ex delivered two days ahead of schedule. The Saratoga Springs police were able to connect me with the apartment manager of the building.  In addition to my art, a painting from an artist in Arizona had also recently arrived, and another by an artist from Boston, too. The police officer explained that over the last two years, this empty apartment address was given to multiple artists all being scammed with the same story.  Details like “sister’s wedding” and the overpayment from the “husband” were details used in each fraud.  Though the gmail addresses and names differ with each target, the narrative is a variation of the story I was told.

I learned an incredibly important lesson, and I am relieved that it wasn’t more costly.  I share my experience here in hopes that other artists won’t fall victim to criminals using similar techniques.  And there is some very specific criminal targeting artists across the country with quite a successful, professional operation.  I don’t understand the cruelty of such behavior, and I don’t want to dwell on the culprits involved.  I want to end this narrative with gratitude – for the bank and Western Union employees, the Saratoga Springs police officer, and the kind building manager who protected my work.  All these individuals shared concern for my well-being and helped me to prioritize each of the action steps after I realized I was the victim of a crime.  Though there were plenty of places I made mistakes, these helpful individuals never made any judgmental comments, but they did teach me what I needed to learn to be more prepared and protected.