Hopes, Dreams, and Those Who Prey Upon Them
The internet is infested with scam artists. We’ve all heard of the chain email from a Nigerian prince who needs help. He’ll give you part of his fortune if you just send him your banking information. We all laugh at that one, because it’s so obvious, but it does still trick people.
These days, there are a lot of scam artists who are much more subtle. They’re the ones you need to watch out for. These people put time and effort into looking like a legitimate business, publication, or organization. Perhaps the worst part is the services they supposedly offer are designed to prey upon people’s hopes and dreams.
We Can Help (You Spend Your Money)
Maybe you want to publish a book. There are people who claim they can help you with that. (Helpful hint: You don’t need a “free publication guide”; check publishers’ websites for submission details, or hit up Amazon or Smashwords for self-pubbing.) Unfortunately, anything somewhat related to the arts (as the arts can make people rich and famous, and we’re all delusional about having talent) tends to be crawling with scam artists, who are really only eager to separate you from your hard-earned dime.
How Do You Know a Scam?
Here are some classic warning signs of a scam:
- Demanding money up-front or charging outrageous fees. While you’ll sometimes be asked to cover costs for certain things (writers may be asked to cover costs for images or an index, for example), as a rule of thumb you should not be paying fees up-front. If you’re asked to pay for marketing, editing, or other services that constitute what a publisher does, you should head for the hills.
- Unreasonable promises. For writers, this includes “you will make money!” or “we will get your book published by Penguin!” No agent guarantees sales for clients, although they do their best.
- Asking for free “samples.” This one should be obvious, but the scammers want to steal your work and put it up on a site or use it (free of charge) in advertising. They make money, you don’t.
- You found the ad on Kijiji, Craigslist, or somewhere similar. While you might find some legit work this way, agencies and publishers generally do not put out calls this way. You’ll never see an ad for Westwood agents there … and if you do, run the other way.
- No contact information, or limited contact information. This is a hallmark of publishing scams; you’ll only be able to contact through email. Sometimes, you might get a phone number, but you don’t get a street address. If you can’t contact someone any way but email or fax, it’s likely a scam.
- Obvious spelling mistakes! This is the biggest tip-off for me. A professional, legit company is going to hire a copywriter and probably have someone proofread their copy before it goes live on their website. Scammers tend not to care about their copy. Editing costs money. Proofreading takes time. And most people don’t even see the errors. As a result, scammers leave their copy full of mistakes. Even if the company is legit, if they can’t be bothered to have professional copy on their website, they’re probably not worth working with.
- A reluctance to name clients or staff. A friend of mine bumped into this with a literary agent scam. I poked around on the website, and the company informed me that they could not name their clients or give titles of books, out of confidentiality. They also listed no staff info – I got a generic “all of our editors have lots of experience in the industry.” I went to another site. They were more than happy to give me the names of all of their agents, and some, if not all, of the clients those agents worked with!
- You immediately need to buy a product or service, such as signing up for marketing services or hiring an editor of their choosing. This reeks of scam. You shouldn’t have to shell for an editor unless you’re self-pubbing or doing editing before you send to an agent. (Some legit agents will ask you to do this, but you’re usually free to select your own editor; they’ll give you recommendations).
What Should I Look for?
Basically, look for a lack of information, circular information, poorly written or designed websites, and lack of contact info. Those, coupled with fees, are sure signs of scams. And remember that places like Kijiji and Craigslist are crawling with scammers and fake ads.
What Can I Do to Protect Myself?
Your best friend is a Google search. Type in the name of the organization you’re looking at and see what Google digs up. Is the only website that comes up theirs? You can also try “agency name scam.” You’ll probably come up with chat discussions, other websites warning you about particular scams, and so on. A website that has few other places linking to it is suspect.
Scams also happen in the real world. An agent might “discover” you. We often hear about people being randomly approached by agents. But the vast majority of the time, this is just another scam! Scammers know we’re vulnerable, and they prey upon that.
Roll Up Your Sleeves
So, how do you “get discovered?” The answer is you don’t. You work hard, you polish your writing, and you submit to contests, agents, and publishers. You might even do some self-pub. Meanwhile, have fun, take care of yourself, and maybe take some steps toward getting your name out there. The internet is, after all, a wonderful resource for getting information, sharing information, and connecting with other people.
You just need to watch your back.