When an Artist is a Scam Artist
Today I received a tag on Facebook letting me know that a page was using one of my photos. This is hardly new so I took a deep breath, thought, “Here we go again,” and opened the Facebook copyright violation report page. I have it bookmarked as well as a handful of others. Most of my reports seem to go to Facebook, Tumblr, and Etsy. You’d be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t) at the number of people who illegally use my photos.
My initial thoughts were that this page was using my images to sell products produced from my patterns. However, I received word from a handful of people who all say they purchased from this page and never received their items. The reality seems to be that this page was using stolen photos from artists to sell products that don’t exist.
I’m writing this article not to drag this particular page through the mud, but rather, to encourage people to critically examine who they are purchasing from to better protect themselves. The page has since been taken down, but the effects of their activities will continue to harm myself, the other plush artists involved, and the people who have yet to see a product or a refund.
Here are some common red flags to watch out for as well as how artists can help avoid unintentionally looking like a scammer. These tips are nothing new or unique, but this page popping up encouraged me to take the time to share with my followers who are all likely targets for this sort of scam.
The work on the page appears to be in a different style, using different mediums, photographed in different ways and on different backgrounds.
An artist may genuinely work in different styles and different mediums, especially a newer artist who is still experimenting, but there should be some sense of cohesion. Look for any obvious inconsistencies. I like to look at the desk, background, or other work surfaces. Most people don’t own more than 1 or 2 desks and, if they do, they generally match so if you see 10 different desks, that’s should be a red flag.
Check out this photo as an example. Here you can see images on white, light blue, dark grey, and light grey backgrounds as well as one photographed on a desk. Lighting varies from photo to photo as well. The ones on white backgrounds have a higher contrast while those on grey backgrounds have softer lighting. The one on a desk has much more dramatic mood lighting. You can also see 4 different fonts being used on the bottom images.
ACTUAL artists are: Choly Knight (hoodies, night fury), Soapy Bacon (eevee), Teacuplion (drifloon, raichu, umbreon), PlanetPlush (pancham), Dollphinwing (wolf link, ampharos, cat, sylveon, popplio), and GearCrafts (mimikkyu).
For artists: Even if you are all over when it comes to your work, keep in mind that you are your own brand so it's a good idea to try and build some consistancy. Here is a great article on building your brand: https://designschool.canva.com/blog/brand-identity/. Some ways you can provide consistency in your posts is to photograph everything in the same location with the same lighting, use a watermark or signature which does not change, and to use the same fonts and color schemes in your graphic design.
The photos have suspicious edits.
Check out some of these photos as examples. In the bird you can clearly see a spot by the right birds head where white was used to erase on the light grey background area. In the others, random Facebook stickers have been placed over watermarks which have nothing to do with the product and obstruct the view.
Places to look for suspicious edits include the corners of the images where artists are likely to place a signature, watermark, or website information. Also check the crop of the image as it is a common tactic to simply crop out the original artists information. If the images are cut off in a way that seems unnatural or prevents the full product from being seen, that should raise some questions.
For artists: Whether or not to watermark is a hot debate in the art community. If you choose to do so, try to add your watermark in a way that can’t easily be removed or covered up. You should strive to take photos that clearly show all parts of your product for sale from multiple sides and angles as customers like to know what they are purchasing. If there is something you don’t like about your photos after the fact, edit it as professionally as you can or re-take the photo. Use stickers, clip art, filters, etc, only when it is appropriate and does not distract from or cover up the view of your product.
The prices are unusually low.
For some, this can be a huge incentive to purchase. Before you click that button, take a moment to think about whether the price may be too good to be true. Look at the average costs for a handmade version of the same item as well as the cost of the supplies. For example, they were offering my bat image for around $13. For reference, I sell these bats for $25 for a manufactured version and $45 for a handmade product.
A yard of minky fabric is around $12, a yard of custom printed galaxy fabric is going to start at $17.50 for the cheapest cotton fabric available. Then you have stuffing, thread, safety eyes, and polypellets inside for weight. You can create multiple bats from these supplies, or purchase in lower quantities, but the materials are still on the expensive side for a plush. The time it takes to create a bat varies. I can create one in an hour or less, but I also have 5 years of experience working full time which allows me to create them quickly and efficiently. After this, the artist must pay taxes (You can expect ~30% in the US for self employment and income tax), rent, utilities, payment processor fees, and consider the time it took them to photograph, list, and promote the item for sale. The artist would need to compensate themselves fairly for this time spent.
As a result, $13 is clearly not a reasonable price to expect to receive this product for. Consider that this may indeed be “too good to be true” pricing.
Wolf link once again by Dollphinwing.
For artists: Even if you are just starting out, make sure you are pricing your work fairly. Don’t be tempted to sell things just to break even, compensate yourself fairly. Remember you are hopefully setting yourself up for long term success so you need to price in a way that will allow you to grow and expand. In some cases, raising prices can actually increase sales as higher prices can make buyers feel they are receiving a higher quality product. Here’s an article I like on pricing: https://www.artsyshark.com/2011/05/06/pricing-your-artwork/, though there are many options out there. Give it a search and see if you can’t find a method that resonates with you!
They ask you to pay with a payment method that offers no protection or to pay from a different website.
NEVER transfer money to someone on Paypal with the “Friend and Family” payment options when it’s an exchange of goods as you will not be able to open a case. NEVER send a check, money order, or cash in the mail. ABSOLUTELY NEVER GIVE YOUR CREDIT CARD INFORMATION to any company you don’t trust 100% there should be no need for an artist to receive your credit card numbers to “manually process” a transaction. Always use a credit card when possible if you are purchasing online, which have far better protection for you as a buyer than using a debit card. This should go for all online purchases, always be careful to protect yourself as much as possible.
If you are buying on Ebay, Etsy, etc, don’t agree to leave the site to pay elsewhere. You will lose any buyer protection that website may have offered and they won’t be able to help if you have an issue.
(Here's some good advice if you do get caught in a friends and family money transfer trap)
For artists: Use a reputable payment processor and send an invoice wherever possible rather than requesting the buyer send the money to you. In addition to be safer for the buyer it looks more professional on your end. You should never accept personal checks as there are many check related scams out there that target sellers. If you are selling through an online marketplace, don’t ask buyers to pay on another site to avoid the fees, simple incorporate these fees into your prices.
There are constant delays.
Their grandma died. Their car broke down. Now they’re out of money and need to raise a bit more to cover shipping. Next week their house will have flooded and they need to move. Guilt is a powerful emotion and part of what makes this sort of scam so successful. If the scammer can keep you strung along long enough to let your buyer protections expire, they can disappear along with your money and you’ll have no options.
With Paypal you have 60 days to open a case. Deadlines for charge backs on your credit card will vary, but generally range from 60-120 days. You should ask your credit card company about their charge back policies if you plan on purchasing online often. It’s always good to know these things in advance.
Here is a person who sadly is no longer eligible for any protection, it happens easier than you might think. From a cached version of this sellers page:
If a seller tells you the item will take longer than 60 days to create, ask if they will work with you to create a payment plan so you aren’t out the full amount if things go south. I’m a fan of an upfront deposit, a partial payment upon photos showing 50% of the progress, and a final payment at completion. You can also look into using a payment method that allows a longer time for charge backs.
Again, if time is running short and you are worried, don’t feel guilty about initiating a charge back. It’s okay to protect yourself. Once you buyer protections expire there is no getting them back.
For artists: Delays happen. Life happens. It’s often difficult to balance work and home life when your work happens at home. Do your best to communicate any delays with your customers. Remain professional and remember that at the end of the day your relationship with them is primarily a business one. If you know you can’t get the item to them in a reasonable time, offer them a refund. Basically, treat them how you would want to be treated if Amazon, Wal-Mart, or any other major retailer failed to deliver your purchase to you.
They have no website and their profile is lacking information all but the most basic information.
It’s much easier and cheaper to create a social media page than it is to create a website and pay for hosting and a domain name. That’s why these scam pages primarily pop up on social media. There’s also little to no repercussions when your social media page is shut down, you can simply open up another one with a new email address. Scammers don’t particularly want to spend time on fleshing out a page they plan on deleting in a few months, either. Another red flag is if they only have one social media site and if the grammar and spelling is very poor.
On my facebook there are categories filled out for my contact information, date of founding, mission, story, milestones, links to other social media pages, about, biography, and products. There are even more categories I did not fill out because I felt they weren't relevant.
In comparison the plush page reported to me had only 1 small paragraph which I've blurred out to avoid giving them attention they don't deserve.
For artists: I recommend owning your own custom domain and hosting your own website, but this is not practical for someone who is just getting started. To avoid looking suspicious, fill out as much information as you can about you and your business. In addition to look more trustworthy, it can also encourage buyers by helping them feel a personal connection to your brand. Harvard Business Review states that, “On a lifetime value basis, emotionally connected customers are more than twice as valuable as highly satisfied customers. These emotionally connected customers buy more of your products and services, visit you more often, exhibit less price sensitivity, pay more attention to your communications, follow your advice, and recommend you more” (https://hbr.org/2016/08/an-emotional-connection-matters-more-than-customer-satisfaction). In addition, creating multiple social media pages can help you reach a wider audience. I generally recommend picking at least 3, though it’s always a good idea to create an account so your business name isn’t taken in case you want to use that site in the future. Finally, always do your best to use proper spelling and grammar and be professional in your communications.
The descriptions of the products are short and do not actually tell anything about the product. There are no other photos.
Take this image for example. They’ve simply captioned it, “Eevee.” No other information. No other views of the product. Again, this is quick and easy to post and no major time lost if the page is taken down tomorrow. Perfect for a scammer. If a seller doesn’t give you even basic information consider that a major issue.
The original artist of this eevee is once again the talented Soapy Bacon.
For artists: Writing detailed descriptions and offering photos of multiple angles helps to sell your product. Not all buyers feel comfortable asking you for more details and will pass up on an item if it’s not immediately clear what they are buying. Good information to include is what the product is, the size, materials used, price, if there is any shipping cost, and any other important restrictions like you don’t ship internationally or you don’t offer refunds. It may take a bit longer, but it will pay off in the long run with increased sales.
No tracking number.
If you’re told an item has been sent, yet you are not given a tracking number, be wary. This is another common way to string people along past the deadline for buyer protection. The person will claim the item was sent and you wait patiently, but it never arrives. They may even try to tell you it was your responsibility to ask and pay extra for a tracking number in advance.. It generally takes 1-2 weeks for a package to arrive domestically and 3-5 weeks internationally. Though shipping methods may vary, if you’re starting to feel like too much time has passed it may be time to open a case. Especially if you are getting close to the end of your buyer protection.
For artists: Provide tracking numbers. Yes, it can be an extra cost in some areas and with some shipping methods, but if the buyer opens a case against you for any reason and you cannot prove that the item was delivered, you will lose all of the money. So include this extra cost in your item price and protect yourself from scammers while also providing peace of mind or buyers. In addition, it’s a good practice to always provide insurance on anything you can’t afford to lose. A buyer can do a charge back for damaged goods and get their money back, but you can only pursue a claim with the post office if you purchased insurance.
If there are no reviews at all, it may be a sign for concern. Of course not all pages have reviews visible and new artists may not have reviews yet. You can try searching the business name on social media to see if anyone has posted about them. You can also look for older cached versions of the page which may have negative reviews visible that have since been deleted. I don’t consider a lack of reviews a deal breaker, but when combined with other red flags it can certainly add suspicion.
For artists: It can be discouraging to just be starting out and have buyer after buyer disappear with no reviews. Consider a handwritten note with each order thanking customers and asking them to help you out by leaving a review. Other than that, just be patient. Good products and good service will eventually yield good reviews!
When in doubt, film the unboxing.
If I am receiving a package from a questionable source, the package looks damaged, feels heavier/lighter than expected, or I had any doubts along the way, I film myself opening the package. I zoom in on the shipping label in the beginning to show things like the date and sender as well as taking a minute to look at the outside of the package so it’s obvious it is unopened. It’s very common for these sorts of scammers to send you an empty box or a box of junk just to have a tracking number so they can “prove” they delivered the item and win a case against you.
Another common occurrence is to receive something vastly different from the original picture. With the page I've been posting about, the received items would have looked different from the shown images since they did not create any of those plushies. Check the quality of your plush including feeling it to make sure it isn't stuffed with anything questionable. I've personally received a plush with cardboard stuffed inside it, yuck. I was able to cut it open on camera during the unboxing to prove it was there and wasn't tampered with ahead of time.
If nothing goes wrong, you will have a silly video you can delete and no one will know. If you are justified in your suspicions you will have valuable evidence in your favor.
For artist: When in doubt, film the boxing! It’s an equally common scam for a buyer to claim the item was damaged, not as described, or missing part of the order. Even though you swear you included everything that was ordered exactly as requested and packaged it carefully. Always take extra steps to protect yourself during any transaction where you are suspicious or you can’t afford to lose everything.
I think this particular scam is so successful because it mimics how an artist may start out when they begin selling online. It also operates on a small scale and with limited repercussions. If they are caught they may lose their social media page, but they can create a new one in minutes. It is unlikely anyone would pursue legal action given the small amount each individual person is losing and it would be incredibly difficult to track down the scammers true identity. It takes advantage of the kindness and trust of buyers who want to support artists, especially new artists, and scares away potential customers from legitimate artists. Because it happens on such a small scale, the store is usually gone before buyer beware or scam alert posts begin to circulate.
In the end, there is no 100% fool proof way to avoid being scammed online. Some are very sophisticated and some artists look unintentionally suspicious. Even the page that was reported to me, despite their illegal use of copyright photos, may have been legitimately sending out plushie and just had a run of bad luck (though I doubt it given all the evidence). So, again, my goal when writing this is to encourage you to think critically before purchasing and come to your own conclusions.
Always trust your instincts. If your gut is telling you something isn’t right, listen. Never spend more than you can afford to lose and always take advantage of any protection you may have as a buyer. The internet is full of scams, but a little bit of paranoia may help save you from falling for one.
If anyone was affected by this particular scam artist, wants specific advice on a situation, or has any other questions, feel free to toss me an email.