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  • Writer's pictureElana

the curious case of the crooked customer

I was recently targeted as a victim for a scam from a fraudulent customer regarding my artwork.

Those who have followed my mosaic career closely for the past year know that it hasn’t been an easy path – I’ve had lots of disappointments with shows that were a waste of time, applications that were denied, and bids for public art projects that were lost. But I have also learned a ton and had a few successes along the way as well, for example, learning that hosting and instructing mosaic workshops is something that I enjoy, and starting to do a few custom, commissioned pieces. This blog post is about a particularly turbulent experience…

Recently, I was contacted through my website by a potential customer about buying some of my work. As I continued to interact with her (I’m going to keep saying “her” because the assumed identity of this scammer was a lady, who actually signed her emails “Mrs. Joshua”), my intuition went from “wow this is great!” to “is this too good to be true?” to too many red flags going off.

Here’s a summary of how our exchange went:

  • Customer contacted me asking for prices on some specific pieces that are shown on my website

  • Upon my reply outlining everything that’s still available for sale and the associated prices, she wanted to buy 6 pieces (!) but explained that she lives on a remote island and would like me to use a specific shipping company who will cover her customs fees and deliver right to her door, unlike FedEx or UPS

  • I gathered up all of the inventory, most pieces from a friend’s shop where they were on display and available for sale, and started researching shipping costs and options

  • When I provided her with shipping quotes, she still wanted to go with her preferred third party shipping company, whose price was multiples higher than not only the other shipping estimates, but the total value of the shipment itself (another flag)

  • Side note: the shipping company she selected said they would pick the pieces up from my location and deliver them to her in 1-2 days (for a very steep price) and that I would have to wire transfer the funds to cover the cost of shipping to them (yet another flag)

Up until this point, I believed that she might be an eccentric, rich art collector who didn’t care about spending ridiculous amounts of money on shipping for her own convenience. But something didn’t sit right… and I thought as long as I made sure she paid me and the money was safe in my bank account before I incurred any costs or shipped any inventory, I should be safe. I didn’t want to miss out on this potential significant sale that would pretty much have meant selling all of my remaining inventory just months before our little baby arrives.

Here are some of the pieces she was going to buy:

  • She wanted to give me her credit card info and have me process the payment, which for reasons I can’t even explain, I simply wasn’t willing to do. I sent her an invoice through PayPal, to protect both of us.

  • Her last correspondence to me, saying that the payment through PayPal wasn’t going through and I should use the PayPal Virtual Terminal once she gives me her credit card details (and could I please respond to her with my instructions ASAP) was the final flag for me.

It all felt wrong. I tried to research this customer online hoping that maybe I would read about some eccentric, rich lady that would ease my concerns, and found nothing. With my skepticism and disappointment rising, I realized that what I had to lose was greater than what I had to gain and decided I was willing to lose this potential sale in order to protect myself.

When I inquired with PayPal and did some research, their seller protection does not cover Virtual Terminal transactions. And then I found articles and FAQ on PayPal’s and Square’s websites saying never to use a 3rd party shipping company at the request of the customer, never to wire money to complete a sale, and all sorts of other warnings that confirmed all of my discomforts with the situation.

With tears in my eyes, I told Navin everything I had uncovered and he comforted me and helped me navigate through the appropriate next steps.

When I told my parents about the whole ordeal, my dad did some sleuthing online and found other examples of scams just like this one, and he even found this customer’s name listed among one of the sites specifically dedicated to art scams.

Side note: who ARE these people who are preying on artists that have to struggle for a living in the first place?!

Had I continued in this exchange, it probably would have gone something like this:

  • Customer gives credit card info for me to process, I process payment

  • Once payment is received, I wire funds to the “shipping company” (who may or may not actually come and get the goods)

  • Customer complains to PayPal or credit card company that she didn’t receive the goods and seeks a refund

  • I’m out the full amount of the transaction (refund to customer), plus the shipping value to the “shipping company”, plus have lost my inventory

I will be sharing this story to help keep others safe from scammers like this, and I will be reporting this fraud to the RCMP.

I felt so embarrassed and stupid, I can’t even explain my humiliation and disappointment. I am so lucky to have friends who, without judgment, heard my story and told me that I wasn’t stupid for following up on a potential lead for a sale, and that they would have done the same thing. I am so grateful to have a husband who, instead of pointing out to me what I did wrong or what cues I missed along the way, told me how proud he was of my “spidey senses” and insisted we go continue with our plans to go out for dinner and celebrate our good fortune for having caught this before it was too late. Thank goodness for a father who played private detective to find the missing pieces of the puzzle so that it finally all made sense, and for a mother who reminded me not to beat myself up, that I’m in the clear and didn’t lose anything.

My (non-alcoholic) fancy drink at dinner last night, with a pretty flower inside

Following the incredible disappointment of that whole ordeal (and a very full tummy from a delicious dinner), this morning I woke up and realized that today is the day for the annual Society of American Mosaic Artists conference registration. For context, this conference is where I first felt that incredible sense of belonging in the mosaic community and desire that led to my journey of trying to become a professional mosaic artist. This year’s conference looks particularly amazing, with presentations and workshops hosted by people I love and a chance to bond with friends that I truly miss. But I can’t go. I will be at home with our less than 2 week old newborn at that time. I already love this baby so much and can’t wait to meet him in just a few more months, but the weight of this first parental sacrifice weighed heavy on my heart today. I know that there will be future conferences, and I know that I’ll be so full of joy and love that I probably won’t even remember it’s happening, but today I’m allowed to be sad.

I’m not sure I have a moral to my story this time… I’m still processing all of this. I am teaching two mini-workshops this coming week, picking up a completed commissioned mosaic from the framer, creating one more small custom piece before the holidays, and then I am thinking of taking a break for a little while. I have some major changes coming up that have already begun to soak up a lot of energy and shift my priorities. My confidence is shattered. And I need mosaics to be the thing that feeds my soul and lifts me up when I’m down. So maybe taking some time away from the commercial side of trying to build a business and focusing on simply making mosaics just for me is exactly what I need right now. We’ll see…

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