Beware of scams targeting designers

Experienced designers are attentive to the new client who wants specific or inexpensive work: “Can you send me some ideas to consider so that I can decide to go ahead?” or “I don’t have a lot of budget right now, but I will definitely recommend you.” Only the inexperienced will fall for the trap, and they will soon learn to notice the warning signs of a potential scam.

But what about the new customer who has a real budget and immediately offers to send cash? It’s disarming, like the charming “deployed soldier” or “oil rig engineer” with a nice profile picture who “really wanted to be a friend” on Instagram or Pinterest. (My wife used to get one or two a month when she was active on these platforms: scammers fishing single women for money.)

A few years ago, a variation on the theme appeared, targeting designers. Often, it started with an innocuous “Are you the graphic designer?” » SMS or e-mail. This was followed by a more elaborate pitch involving starting a new business and needing a logo and a brochure, maybe a catalog or a website. I thought this one was dead because I hadn’t seen one in over a year, but a recent incident where a friend was nearly fooled alerted me that the scammers are still at work.

It started innocently enough:

On Fri, April 8, 2022, 8:57 PM, Carl Russell wrote:

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I need help with the catalog and logo design as follows:

  1. Company name: STAMFORD SPAR
  2. My website is under construction which will be registered soon.
  3. I don’t have a logo yet but I need you to make one
  4. The full text content and all images of the e-brochure will be submitted to you by the project consultant. You just have to manage the layout.
  5. The e-brochure should be 24 pages (including front and back cover. I have a lot of information already approved. Text and images have also been cropped)
  6. The size of the e-brochure should be 8.5 X 11.5
  7. I want you to add our core values, mission and vision (This information will be provided by the consultant)
  8. My budget is no more than $4,000
  9. I want it delivered in 5-6 weeks at the latest.

It seems somewhat legit. The usual advice to watch out for typos and weird grammatical errors doesn’t help here, as small business customers, especially if English is a second language, are quite prone to it. By themselves, they are not a warning sign. The “e-brochure should be 8.5×11.5” is weird, but okay. I have real clients who make similar mistakes. The clue came when my friend sent this in a follow-up email: “I forgot to include a disclaimer. I don’t know this guy and neither does N*** [a smart guy who works at a large university]. He just contacted N*** for a reference.

What would have followed, had my friend expressed interest, would have been a pitch to accept substantial immediate payment to start work right away. And he would soon find himself in a lot of trouble.

A few years ago I got one of these requests, that’s how I knew “STAMFORD SPAR” and “Carl Russell” didn’t exist and it was all a scam. Typos and grammar aren’t the clues; wild deviations from ordinary business practices would have followed. The email itself also follows a recognizable pattern:

  • An original approach from someone you’ve never heard of
  • a vague creative brief
  • a mysterious “consultant” or “manager” who will provide copies and images (and/or money), and
  • the huge red flag: “Let me send you a bunch of money right now” at a time in the cycle when no sane company – even a naive startup – would commit, let alone pass on, any of their fund rolling over to a complete stranger.

Any of these first three might not be a big deal on their own, but overall they are a clear warning.

There are common elements to the scam “case” that show there is only one individual or group involved. It is almost always a “new business”, often involving furniture or some other form of durable goods. The names “VEEHAUS” and “Stamford Spar” seem to appear quite frequently, or the company may not be named initially. If the designer asks for more details or sample product photos, the response is, “It’s all with the project consultant, who hasn’t finished yet.” Can you give me your quote” or similar.

On further follow-up, the “business owner” will be revealed to be in hospital recovering and unable to take phone calls or suffering from a disability. The “consultant” or “project manager” will not be able to make payments, but the owner can use online banking. If the creator accepts a transfer on his account, it will be for too much and there will be a request for restitution of the excess. You know where this takes us: as soon as this transfer is made, the “payment” disappears, leaving the designer with neither the payment nor the amount of “surplus returned”.

An excellent and detailed blog post by Jon Schroeder about the scam, written in late 2019, has over 380 comments from people describing various approaches to scammers, the names they used, and other useful details.

Since the scammers are still in business and still using their standard procedure, I thought it would be a good idea to spread the word so no one would be fooled.

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