When it seems too good to be true, it usually is.
It is very sad that there are scammers and hackers out there in the world. If only they could take the energy they place in ripping people off and wasting people’s time, and actually provide something of value! Strangely, they HAVE valuable internet skills that could truly be used to help people, and yet legitimate entrepreneurs are constantly being reminded to “watch out” for… (fill in the blank).
The latest thing to “watch out” for is a scam targeting web designers and other small business owners.
Normally, I would not actually take the time to write an entire post about such matters. In fact, at first I didn’t. I didn’t even really give it much thought. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you what happened.
A few months ago I received an email asking me if I accept credit cards and available for work on website design/development project with a rushed timeline. They were nice enough in the email. They introduced themselves, and even let me know they were hearing impaired. This didn’t seem like a completely odd request and there were only a few odd things about the email itself.
On the surface, it seemed like a potential new client looking for more information. I remember telling my husband about the email that night at dinner and discussing it’s legitimacy – or potential lack of legitimacy. I replied that I did accept credit cards and asked them for more details. I purposely kept my reply very professional, clear and concise because:
- I did not recognize the email address as being familiar
- I did not know the person
- They did not tell me how they found me
- It had a bit of poor grammar and punctuation (which could have been explained by English being a second language, younger generation using texting techniques vs. good business letter writing or any number of other unknown factors).
- I had not yet been paid
- My time is valuable
When, if, and how they reply would dictate the direction my next move.
Well, they did reply. It was at this point, I started to hear a little inner voice telling me to proceed with extreme caution. Let me show you why with an example of the email with the details removed and the variables inserted in parenthesis.
“Here is the job details i have small scale business which i want to turn into large scale business now it located in (STATE) and the company is based on importing and exporting of (TYPE) products such as (PRODUCT A, PRODUCT B AND PRODUCT C) so i need a best of the best layout design for it. Can you handle that for me ?. so i need you to check out this site but i need something more perfect than this if its possible .http://www.(DOMAIN).com…. the site would only be informational, so i need you to give me an estimate based on the site i gave you to check out,the estimate should include hosting and i want the same page as the site i gave you to check out and i have a private project consultant, he has the text content and the logos for the site.”
The reply I received also had a short a list of “requirements” including a request for a domain name they wanted to use (which they stated they did not yet own) and a budget (which had a range of $4000 – $11,000).
Now a few more red flags sprang up for me. I really wanted them to be a legitimate new client – but I wanted a new, good client. So far, they had not really done anything to convince me, without a doubt, that this was a scam, but I was certainly not trusting where this was going. It was time for me to take a close hard look at my business boundaries and ensure that I applied them. Thankfully, I do have processes within my business set up to catch, and weed out, less than ideal clients.
I need to know when a client is serious about starting a real relationship and I need to know who is going to be a good client for me. Having a process in place to help make this determination without investing a lot of time and energy is key when I am in this pre-qualification phase.
One of the steps of my process is to bring the information I have to one of my team members. My team is my sounding board to justify my thought process or bring to light any of my oversights. I knew what I knew but maybe I was over, or under, reacting. As expected, they all had the same flags and concerns that I did.
Back to my story…
I reviewed the email containing the short list of requirements and began going through them one at a time. The entire time thinking to myself, “OK, what is the catch here? Where is the trap?”
As I went through the list, I visited the website they referred me to and did a quick search to see if the domain they requested was even available. The website was relatively simple and the domain was NOT available (another flag). I remember thinking how the client said the site HAD to be completed by a specific date. Having purchased domains that were not available in the past, I knew there was NO way that the client would be able to secure that domain name in the time frame specified. This alone was enough to disqualify this particular client. At the same time, I thought perhaps this client just did not understand the process (which happens a lot within the industry).
I made some quick notes to to clarify the clients understanding of each of their requirements and sent my reply with a number of questions that would require an answer in order for me to proceed. I knew if I asked a scammer questions requiring real answer, they would likely not respond appropriately.
Blatant Client Disqualification
Sure enough, their reply was not appropriate. I basically got the same email a second time listing his requirements and asking me for my estimate. Now I was angry. I was, more or less, convinced this was not a legitimate offer. Now, I wanted to catch this guy in his scam. So I decided to play along and replied again stating that it appeared he had not even read my reply as it required some additional information.
I got another reply, this time reducing the requirements, eliminating the domain name and any other requirements requiring specific answers or any type of a business relationship beyond the immediate project and allowing him to “qualify” as a potential client. They again asked for a quote.
This time my reply included a quote and an agreement with my time sensitive requirements. I sent a proposal with a quote in the upper third of their budget ($8900), I required full payment ahead of time which had to be received and cleared by a specific date, I required all content – especially because this so called content was with a person other than whom I was corresponding – be delivered by a specific date and I required the signed return of the proposal for contract with signatures by a specific date. It was another week before I got another reply.
Then it happened – They accepted my proposal.
Within their acceptance reply is where I found the information that definitively disqualified this potential client. I added in my thought process as I read through the reply.
First, there were no signatures with the proposal. Then, they agreed to send me $6500 immediately (ME: wait, where did that number come from?) but could I do a favor… they were going into the hospital for their hearing surgery and did not have time to send money to their content creator, and their content creator did not accept credit cards. They continued with… $3500 of the $6500 was for a 50% deposit for the website (ME: wait, what? There was no mention of me accepting a deposit of any sort in my proposal. ) All I had to do (ME: wait, did I have any time left to do anything for them other than fulfill what I laid out in my proposal??) was wait for payment to clear and then send the content creator a money order for $2000 and the remaining $1000 was for my trouble (ME: huh? Since when does $3500 plus $3500 does not equal $8900 and what happened to full payment to begin the project?).
It took everything in my power not to point out their errors but I restrained myself. I did NOT want to provide them the information they needed to get better at their scam! I sent one final email in reply. My reply simply said something along the lines of, “I do not believe that this business relationship would be in my best interest.” I did not hear back from them again.
Web Designers and Developers – Beware!
A few days later ,and in a network group chat I belong to, someone was asking about their suspicions regarding a new potential client. As they posted some of the things the client was asking for, I recognized the scenario and advised them I knew it was a scam. At the same time, another member of the group also reported that they too had been contacted. In comparing notes, we determined it was the same scam. Later the same day, it came up again. About a week later yet another group member was inquiring new client legitimacy. Then last week another member posted a warning they had received about a scam that was targeting web designers and developers. They were all the same scam – word for word!
Here are some of the parts of that email warning that have not already been mentioned in my story:
The scam: An inquiry asking if you accept credit cards before discussing any project details. This will be followed by a request for work on a rushed timeline. The prospective customer will easily agree to terms and a budget. They’ll offer to place a large deposit and then ask if they can transfer funds to you that are destined for a third party. Once you agree to the project, this new customer will want to pay you with a credit card very quickly. Once you transfer funds to the third party the original credit card payment will be charged back to you and all contact will be lost with the scammer.
The customer often suggests a large deposit on the project, but insists on a rushed timeline. They do this because they’ll be paying you with a stolen credit card, and want to complete the scam before the card is reported as stolen or the true owner of the credit card detects the unauthorized transaction.
They’ll always involve a third party (such as a graphic designer, copywriter or consultant) who’s meant to help with part of the project, but wants upfront payment before they can send something critical to you, such as a logo.
The prospective customer will claim they are ready to make payment with a credit card so that work can begin immediately. Then, they’ll mention the third party, saying something similar to:
“…I will need a small favor from you for this to begin. I will send you my credit card to charge for the sum of $5000 plus any fees. You will then deduct $2,500 as a deposit for the design of the website plus an extra $200 as a bonus for helping me. Then, you will send the remaining $2300 to the graphic designer that has the logo for my website. … You won’t send the funds until after the money clears into your account, …get back to me so we can proceed with the payment immediately.”
The prospective client will provide a reason why the third party can’t accept the payment directly. This could range from them not being set up to accept credit cards to them being tied up with a family emergency.
Once you process the credit card payment and receive the funds, the fraudsters will be asking you to quickly deliver the funds to the third party and get to work on the project. Unfortunately you will now likely be looking at a loss as the true holder of the credit card will dispute the charge and you will receive a chargeback.
- New customers contact you via text message and ask if you accept credit cards
- Emails from domains like outlook.com and fastmail.com
- Being asked to pay a third party by wire transfer or Western Union
- Poor grammar and spelling mistakes in communications
As you might summize from the email, my story is not unique but it is time for me to write about it and share more with others so they are equipped to protect themselves.
Please pass this information onto other web designers and developers that you know. Watch for the signs of a scam, enforce your business boundaries, and develop client pre-qualification process’ into your business plan to thwart these threats. It’s difficult to start a new business, make a living being a freelancer, and keep up with technological changes. We don’t need scammers wasting our time and stealing our, and others, money.