Notes from Australia

Anatomy of an online scam

Have you ever been scammed in a business venture? I’ve become a victim of one. What happened to me is typical, I suspect, of online scams.

1. The Scammers Seem Legitimate

Online scams typically involve products or services that help you save money, time, effort, or raise your business profile in some way. You may be connected to the scammers through LinkedIn, via your industry organization, or as an existing customer.

The Perth, Australia-based woman who scammed me has been a repeat customer of my business since 2009.

In August 2013, I responded to her anonymous callout on SourceBottle.com.au, a free Australian online service that connects journalists with sources, for specialists to contribute a chapter to a book she was compiling.

When she responded, I was delighted to be working with her. She said she would charge me $1,199 to include my chapter and that she would supply 100 books to sell to my customers, to which I agreed.

2. They Live Far Away

It’s hard to do anything about scammers when they’re based in another state or overseas. State laws differ, time zones apply, and you can’t easily visit their physical address.

She’s in Perth and I’m in Melbourne. The distance is about the same as Miami is from Los Angeles. I did not have to travel to Perth. All I had to do was pay and submit my chapter online.

3. They Use Impressive Claims to Support their Scams

In her proposal, she included a website link to her 23 current “experts,” showcasing such famous worldwide names as Dr. John Gray (of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus fame), Dr. Gabrielle Morrissey, and Dr. Ava Cadell, among others.

Since small online retailers benefit enormously from being involved in a project with high-profile figures, it didn’t take me long to agree to take part. Some of that stardust could rub off on me, I thought.

4. They Give You a Short Deadline

A sense of urgency and a fear of missing out are common in most online marketing to encourage purchase. Scammers also use this to stop you from having the time to do your proper homework.

I had less than 14 days to pay the fee, write, edit, and submit my chapter. I had no time to waste for this “golden opportunity.”

5. They Use Unusual Payment Vehicles

Scammers may use payment types (or timeframes) that prevent chargebacks.

She sent me a PayPal invoice to be paid to her personal (free) email address. I noticed I couldn’t pay via credit card (which would allow chargebacks) and she didn’t have a company PayPal account (as most businesses do).

PayPal allows chargebacks up to 45 days after purchase. Since the book wasn’t due to be published until January (I paid the money in August), this went well over PayPal’s deadline.

6. They Send Little Information after Receiving Payment

After scammers get your money, you typically don’t much hear from them again. My phone calls went to her voice mail. She didn’t respond to my emails — to all three of her addresses that she’s been using since 2009 — for three months.

In December she finally emailed, “Random house[sic] have approved all our chapters so congratulations for putting forward such awesome work! … in Jan[sic] the book will be finalized, edited and proofread for your final reviews.”

When I responded that my husband had been worried the book deal was a scam, she didn’t respond.

Last month I sent her an invoice requesting a full refund from the aborted book deal and heard nothing. A legitimate company would have responded very quickly about this.

7. They Can be Undone by Simple Homework

In late January, I called Random House, which confirmed the book wasn’t being printed by any of their publishing houses. If I had asked her to provide publishing details at the start and then checked this myself, I might have avoided this problem.

I also should have contacted the listed co-authors to confirm they were taking part in the book. I have finally done so this week. Of the 23 listed, 11 people (including Dr. John Gray) have confirmed they are not and further, they’re shocked at being misrepresented.

8. Scammers Abuse your Trust Constantly

In her email last week (her first for 2014), she said how she wants to meet me and go through everything that’s been happening.

I said I wasn’t interested, I wanted my money back and that Random House was not publishing the book at all, so the book was a fraud.

She responded it was Xlibris, an imprint of Random House. Thanks to the wonders of instant online search, Wikipedia revealed Random House sold its share in Xlibris in 2009 and it was now a self-publisher, which means you can print anything as long as you pay for it.

She didn’t respond to that.

9. Chalk It Up to Experience

Scammers usually charge low-enough amounts that the police, departments of commerce, business organizations, and debt collectors aren’t interested. And, moreover, you would lose more money taking them to court.

I’ve experienced small comfort in creating awareness about this on social media. But the scales have fallen from my eyes.

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