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  • Writer's pictureAnna Collard

Art takes courage - and skepticism

Updated: May 9, 2022

Selling art online means you may be targeted by art-scammers

A Cape Gooseberry watercolor painting by Kelly Pieterse

During the years of creating content for Popcorn Training, I’ve been lucky to meet and appreciate the talent of many great freelance creatives. Kelly and Chris for example were instrumental in our first animated series in 2011 and only left the team recently. (And I really miss them)

In addition to their day jobs, many creatives indulge their deeper artistic impulses with side gigs that they share on Instagram and other social media. And any striving artist knows how hard it is to make a full-time living from their work. Unfortunately, that now also includes not getting scammed out of their money. It turns out that many artists become targets of a unique type of fraud, so if you know any artists, please warn them.

Tom Pendergast kindly shared the story of his wife, an artist herself being targeted by what is called an “art-email scammer”. Go here to read the full story.

Barn at Ebey's Slough - by Sara Pendergast

These scams are quite common and the modus operandi is somewhat predictable. The reason why artists may be particularly targeted and more susceptible to fraud is because of the nature of their work. Let’s look at that for a second:

  • Firstly, a lot of artists are solo-entrepreneurs working for themselves. Most will have a website or a public Instagram profile inviting prospective buyers to look at and purchase their art, but they may not have a full-blown e-commerce site with different payment channels available.

  • Secondly, buying art is something more personal (and a bit more costly) than, let’s say, purchasing a T-shirt online, so it is quite normal and in fact expected to have a conversation with the prospect prior to the sale. Particularly when it is about a commissioned piece because details such as the subject, pricing, timelines, and so forth will have to be agreed upon.

How does this scam work?

Scammers typically deploy social engineering techniques like this:

  1. The artist receives an email from a prospective buyer. So far so good. This is usually quite exciting. This is exactly the type of emotion the scammer wants to trigger here. The excitement over a potentially significant sale may cloud critical thinking.

  2. A common narrative is to say their wife has been looking at the work and likes it. Or that they are moving somewhere outside the country and want to decorate their home.

  3. Because of the move to a foreign country, they need a shipment company. This is where it becomes awkward.

  4. Like most scammers, they will throw in a bit of urgency and try to pressure the artist to act quickly. Applying a low-grade form of fear like urgency or the fear of possibly losing out on the deal is a typical social engineering tactic deployed in many types of scams.

  5. The next step is probably the biggest red flag: They offer to pay the price of the piece plus the extra shipping costs, requesting the artist to pay the shipper directly. This is what happened to artist Lori Corbett (you can read her funny responses on her blog).

“He said he would send extra money ($3000.00) in this case for shipping to South Africa, and that I should cash the check, and give the shipper the $3000.00 overage.”

In the US the scammers offer to pay by forged cheques. This form of payment is no longer supported by South African banks from 2020. To make this scam work here, they offer to pay by credit card (typically stolen ones) or dupe victims into accepting fraudulent proof of an EFT payment.

The scammer's ultimate goal is to get the artist to pay the “shipment fee” while never actually receiving the funds from the fictitious buyer.

Awareness is your best defense but there are some steps artists can take to prevent this type of fraud:

  1. Set up payment channels and accept payments via these official channels only. In South Africa, we have a couple of payment gateway options, such as PayFast, i-Pay, PayGate, which allow easy integration with all major credit cards as well as mobile payments such as Snapscan and Zapper. If you expect international payments, PayPal, as well as Paystack, are good options.

  2. Research your buyers. Do they actually exist? Most people leave some form of Internet footprint. Does the email sender or the content perhaps appear on existing scam lists? Look at Kathleen McMahon’s list of art scammers

  3. The main thing to watch out for is if you are offered more than the asking price or if you need to pay someone else in order to get paid.

The artist Henri Matisse said: “Creativity takes courage”. When selling your art online, it also takes vigilance, preparation, and a healthy dose of skepticism.

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