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Anatomy of an Internet Scam

Like me, you probably get inundated with unsolicited emails from people selling or promoting their ideas or products over the internet.  I frequently receive requests for speaking engagements and workshops from organizations and businesses.  Recently, I received an email from the Alloa Baptist Church in Scotland that was sponsoring a three day conference and wanted me to speak on one of the three days.  The speaking fee that they agreed to was $19,500 plus round trip air fare for myself and a traveling companion.  Of course my companion would be my wife, Marianne.  Needless to say, both Marianne and I were very excited about the opportunity to be paid to speak in Scotland.

The first thing I did was Google the Alloa Baptist Church.  I found that it not only existed, but it had five congregations throughout the UK.  The name of the head reverend on the web site, Reverend Jimmy King, matched the name of the reverend that sent me the email.  However, his email address was different.   In one of my email replies I CC’ed the email address on the web site.  My hope was that if this was a scam that someone at the church would reply and tell me that they weren’t intending to hire me.

The only email reply that I received was from the reverend at the original email address telling me that a second person would contact me regarding a contract and travel arrangements.  The next email I received was from a church staff member who was the coordinator for speakers for the conference.  She agreed to my terms of a 50% deposit (my first rule when dealing over the internet is to always get money before committing to or sending anything) and sent me a contract to sign and return.  The coordinator’s email said that for their comfort level before they would send me any money they would need the contract signed and I would have to make arrangements for a work visa.  She explained that since I had a US passport I could enter the UK and have the visa issued on my arrival.  However, processing the application takes several weeks.

Because their conference was less than two months away she recommended that I have someone expedite the process.  She then referred me to someone that they have worked with in the past who could expedite the paperwork.  The cost of the visa was only $619.  I emailed and received a reply from her referral.  He explained the process in detail and recommended that I get the paperwork started as quickly as possible.

One of the major red flags that I’ve learned to be on the watch for with internet scams is a request for me to send money before receiving any.  In a separate encounter I was recently contacted by a bookseller in Australia who wanted to order 100 copies of my book.  They said that they were referred to my web site by a person in Australia.  After a series of email exchanges I felt that their story was plausible because I knew we had shipped to Australia in the past.

The red flag came up when the bookseller wanted to use an international freight forwarder.  They asked me to front the money for the shipping.  This raised my suspicions and I Googled the address of the book seller.  Through Google Earth I saw that the address belonged to a car dealership.  In addition, I tried to Google the freight forwarding company and no such company existed.  At that point I emailed the supposed book store and told them that I could not fulfill an order for 100 books.  I sent them the contact information of my publisher.  I’ve never heard from them again.

My initial reaction regarding the work visa was that $619 was a small amount to invest (or lose) with a possible $20,000 gain.  However, it was enough of a red flag to get me to Google the church name again.   This time I discovered that there were scammers who were targeting professional speakers using the Alloa Baptist Church’s name as well as others throughout the UK and New Zealand.  There was a posting on a speakers’ bureau that I was registered on specifically warning their member speakers about requests from the Alloa Baptist Church.  I did not respond to the email about applying for the work visa.

A few days later I received an email from the coordinator asking me what the status was of my UK work visa application.  It’s now been over two weeks and I have not responded to her email, nor have I heard from her again.

What can you do to avoid being scammed over the internet?  I hesitate to say the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true it probably is,” because I am an optimist and would like to see at some point that pot of gold at the end or the rainbow.  However, from my experience the reality is that if you are asked to put up ANY money to sell your product or service then you are communicating with someone who is out to steal your money and not buy your product.

Here are some tips to help you:

  • Don’t let yourself get rushed into making a decision based on someone else’s timeline or circumstances.  One of the scammers’ biggest tools is forcing you to react to a situation rather than think it through.
  • Be especially skeptical of emails with multiple misspellings and bad grammar.  It’s easy to make excuses for mistakes in an email, but that can be an indicator that the sender is from a foreign country and is not who they say they are.
  • Keep your ego in check.  We all want to think that our product or service is the best, but beware of gratuitous comments that may just be intended to butter you up.

The internet is a wonderful thing and most of us could not live our lives these days without it.  But as with any tool, be sure that you are in control of it and it’s not in control of you.

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