You have received an email from someone who says that their wife saw your artwork online and fell in love with it instantly. They would like to purchase a piece at once, for her birthday – which is coming up very soon. That sounds great, right? Of course. But how do you tell if it’s real or an art scam?
The trouble with art scams that begin like this is that they are based on something you would like to believe. By the time you’ve exchanged a few emails, you feel as if you know the ‘person’ you’re communicating with – they will often include personal details about themselves or their families – and naturally you are inclined to respond positively to someone who is praising your work.
The advice that is often given is simply to remember that ‘if it looks too good to be true, it always is.’ But while that is a good rule of thumb, it’s not enough to protect you if you’re an artist – because, after all, there are times when something that seems too good to be true really does happen to an artist, and you may well have experienced this yourself. Perhaps a collector you have never had contact with before happened to attend the opening reception of an exhibition of your art, and instantly decided that he had found what he was looking for, and bought four pieces. Or you were giving a demonstration of live painting at an art auction and one of the people you got chatting to during the process turned into a collector of your work and an advocate for your creations. These things do happen – and you certainly don’t want to repulse a genuine expression of interest. So what can you do?
Art Scammers Want Your Money or Your Art or Both
Well, the first thing to bear in mind is that what art scammers are hoping to get from you is usually money – they’re hoping to induce you to hand over some of your own money to them on the basis of some plausible pretext.
Never Accept Over-Payments
A very common example is when the ‘customer’ overpays, and asks you to send the extra amount on to their shipping company, using the details they have sent you. You send the money on – from your own bank account – and only discover a week or two later that the cashier’s check you had received from the ‘customer’ is not genuine.
How can this happen? Won’t the bank protect you from this art scam? Probably not. Most banks have the policy of being willing to cash or deposit all checks provided that the customer has a balance in their account that is able to cover the check. If the check bounces, they just reverse the transaction – leaving the customer responsible for any negative balance. It can take up to three weeks to clear a cashier’s check, which the scammer is betting will be long enough for them to persuade you to send them the ‘shipping’ money they ‘overpaid’.
The second thing is to bear the context in mind. There is a big difference between a collector appearing at a gallery that represents you and expressing interest in your work and an email arriving out of the blue. For one thing, in that case you can rely on the gallery staff, who will probably have had more experience with art scam attempts than you have had, to make sure that everything is as it should be, and protect you as necessary. This is one of the advantages of working through an experienced gallery, agent or dealer: you can rely on their expertise.
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For another thing, there is a personal element here that is missing in most art scams of this type. It’s unlikely that a scammer will haunt art auctions looking for an artist to scam; scammers send out thousands and thousands of emails, hoping for a bite. They can’t afford to put that much time or energy into the process. It’s not unknown, of course, but if you come into contact with a scammer, it’s probably going to be online, and most likely by email.
Why do scammers target artists at all?
Well, why not? Artists are good targets – they are familiar with the need to ship their work, sometimes to collectors who might be anywhere in the world. They’re invested in their creations, so they’re susceptible to the charm of the idea that a stranger fell in love with their work on sight. And scammers may believe that artists are less likely to be aware of the dangers presented by the sorts of art scams they depend on. You want to make sure that you don’t fall into that category. Be aware of the possibility, be skeptical – be careful.
Here are a few important clues that can indicate that an email you’ve received is an art scam.
- The person emailing you will often be in a hurry. This is partly to fluster you and give you less time to think, but mainly because if they know the check they’re sending you is going to bounce, or the credit card is stolen, they need the transaction completed before the bank catches on and you find out..
- There will often be some complex story involving the individual or their family moving country right at the time they want to purchase the artwork, necessitating the sum you’re going to be sending to cover the shipping. Yes, this does happen sometimes to honest people in real life, but it’s not that common.
- Their English is poor, even though the person claims to live (for instance) somewhere in the U.S.
- They want to arrange the shipping themselves, rather than let you sort it out for them. Most genuine clients are only too grateful to have you take the burden of shipping from them, if shipping is necessary. And if they do want to take care of it themselves, real collectors will most likely use a major company they’ve had positive experiences with in the past – a company whose name you will know.
Of course none of these things are sure-fire ways to tell that you’re being approached by someone who is trying to steal your money or art. But if you see them in an email, you should start to be suspicious, and more wary of this communication. If the conversation develops in a way that matches the sort of pattern we’ve been talking about, then you can feel confident that there’s something wrong.
It used to be the case that scamming emails would often be vague, or get important details of your work wrong. The idea was to be able to send the same email to thousands of artists – so a photographer might be approached about a painting, or a sculptor baffled by references to their canvases. But the emails have become more sophisticated over time, and now it is common for the scammer to quickly fill in the ‘gaps’ in his email with accurate information about your website or your artworks. So don’t let these details fool you – it takes little time to check, and it doesn’t mean they’re genuine. If your instincts are screaming, pay attention to them, even if the email did get your medium and the title of your artworks right. Of course, if they’re wrong – be very suspicious indeed!
So what can you do to avoid art scams?
- Well, you can look out for the clues mentioned above, which will alert you to the possibility that something might be wrong, and be careful rather than gullible in your approach. Be conscious that scamming is a possibility, and aware that it might attack you. If you start to worry about a particular case, don’t let your prejudice in favor of people who claim to admire your work get in the way of your caution.
- You can also be firm about following your usual method of payment; explain politely that you’re not willing to take payment through cashier’s checks or postal money orders, which are more open to this sort of art scam. Often the nature of the art scam will center on the method of payment suggested by the scammer – if you stick to your normal method, something you know to be safe, they may be forced to give up.
- Never accept overpayments. This is not a common way of doing business, and you probably haven’t come across it before in genuine transactions. You’re selling, they’re buying – no money should be leaving your account. Make it your policy not to work this way.
- If you’re suspicious for any reason, try googling the email address of the contact you’re corresponding with. Because scammers send so many art scam emails, their address gets to be known as one associated with the art scam they’re running. It might well be that the person contacting you is already on a ‘blacklist’ which you can find online.
- Don’t ship your artwork unless you’re sure the payment has cleared. This seems so simple that you read it and wonder how anyone ever gets caught acting differently – but when you’re in the middle of a series of emails going back and forth, and you’ve built up a picture of your correspondent’s life in your head, and you’re pleased that they appreciate your art… It can be harder to remember. Make it a rule of how you do business, and if you’re ever asked to make an exception, think very seriously about whether it seems like a good risk to be taking (if you know the buyer personally, for instance, it might be a reasonable decision).
Following the advice in this article will help you to avoid art scams when selling your art. But what you really need to do is take the messages here to heart. Remember when you are selling your art on the internet, you need to know and trust your potential clients.
Have you received an email from a potential buyer that looks like an art scam? Share them with us in the comment box below.
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