The following story is an account of how my wife, Sara, responded to an email scam attempt. All of the material in these emails is taken directly from an exchange between our scammer and my wife. This entire exchange played out over several days as we drove across the American West this October. I was actively involved in processing these responses.
Imagine for a moment that you’re an artist.
Not a well-known artist, one whose paintings are shown in museums and top galleries. Not one whose paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars and who has tens of thousands of followers (if they bother with social media at all).
No, you’re a striving artist, just starting out, looking for an audience for your work beyond your friends and family. Getting 100 likes on one of your Instagram posts makes you pretty happy, but what you’re really looking for is the validation of people willing to pay for your work.
Now imagine you got this email:
Greetings... I am Jamie from Houston, Texas. I have been on the lookout for some artworks lately in regards to I and my wife's anniversary which is just around the corner. I came across some of your works which I found quite impressive and intriguing. I must admit you're doing quite an impressive job. You are undoubtedly good at what you do. With that being said, I would like to purchase some of your works as a surprise gift to my wife in honor of our upcoming wedding anniversary. It would be of help if you could send some pictures of your piece of works, with their respective prices and sizes, which are ready for immediate (or close to immediate) sales. My budget for this is within the price range of $1500 to $3000. I look forward to reading from you in a view to knowing more about your pieces of inventory. As a matter of importance, I would also like to know if you accept a check as a means of payment. Regards, Jamie W
Wow! What a rush. Somehow, someone has discovered your work! They like it and they want to pay you for it–and the payment range is reasonable, right in the ballpark you’ve been targeting.
You also see the warning signs: the odd grammar, the flattery, the sense of urgency (ready for immediate sale—why?), but hey, here’s a person who likes your work and has a budget he’s ready to spend.
There’s just that one kicker, that last sentence: he wants to write a check, an outdated form of payment that exposes the recipient to liability for funds that do not clear the bank. Had the art lover asked which form of electronic payment the artist would accept—Pay Pal, Venmo, direct bank transfer—we would have been left with only the odd stylistic quirks, easily overlooked. But that check request: odd.
If this inquiry is real, though, you can work through this. So you reply–appreciatively, graciously–but adding:
To accept a check, I would have to receive it and have payment cleared in my account in full before shipping the paintings to you. Sincerely, Flattered artist
The art lover replies, ignoring your comment about the check but continuing to assure you how much he wants the paintings:
Thanks for your response, I saw my wife checking your work on my laptop and I can tell you must be of Interest to her and that is why I decided to message. It could be any color, but medium size or large.. However, I would greatly appreciate it if you could possibly recommend a few completed pieces within my budget $1500- $3000 ready for immediate sale... Just need something within that price range for a surprise to my wife (can tell she likes your work). I would appreciate it if you can figure out a piece of work that would serve that purpose. Kindly email images and prices of any available ones on your inventory. Thanks Wilfred
Something still isn’t quite right here, is it? It’s great he likes your work, true, but his comment about color is just strange and he’s completely ignored the question of payment. And did you note the name switch: from Jamie to Wilfred? You decide to stick with Jamie when you reply at greater length, with pictures.
Hi Jamie, I am so happy your wife likes my work. I have a few different styles, so I think it’s best that you choose among my available pieces. Attached you will see pictures of some available paintings. The first four are each 16”x20” in size. I sell paintings of this size for $1995 with a black frame. Shipping is additional, and will likely be about $300 to Texas.
The last painting shows the type of frame I use. It is about 3.5 inches wide. The painting is 12x16. This is also for sale in the frame shown for $975, plus shipping. Which of these five would your wife love most? I’ll be interested to hear if any of these seem like the perfect anniversary gift for your wife. Sincerely, Happy artist
He’s happy to accept two of these, he replies, and finally addresses the payment question:
Thanks for the response. Having carefully looked through the pictures of your works, I have chosen ( Perego’s Lagoon $1995) and ( Rising Marine Layer $975) total $2970. I am presently working on my relocation to the Philippines soon, thus, am doing all i could to make this event quite a memorable one. In regards to payment, my reason for choosing a check as a means of payment is owing to the fact that my wife handles the family bank cards and paypal transactions. So I am choosing a check to keep this a complete surprise as intended. Consequently, I would authorize a check to you for the payment of the chosen piece of work as soon as I have your full name and contact address (preferably for FedEx delivery no P.O box). As soon as you receive the check and it clears your bank, I will have my personal shipping agent (who is also moving my other properties) contact you to arrange shipping/pick up of the piece from you. This is to avoid my wife receiving it if it was directly shipped to my address which would ruin the surprise for the wedding anniversary. I will be looking forward to receiving your cell phone number, full name and physical address the check should be issued to, in your email. regards, Jamie.
How’s your internal bullshit detector working at this point? Yes, it’s nice he’s chosen the works he wants (and by the way, you like those too) but why all this complication about payment, and why is he providing all this detail about a personal shipping agent?
Would you bail out now? Our would you try to play it forward just a little bit longer, hoping maybe–despite the obvious oddities–this is actually REAL. You decide to keep trying, but you put in place some hedges, providing him the address of a local postage service where you can both receive and send packages:
Hello Jamie, You picked two of my favorite pieces! I hope you and your wife love them as much as I do. The cost for shipping included packaging … makes the total $3066.32. … I’ll ask that you send your check to the address below, a UPS store near me. Assuming the money clears, I estimate the two boxes will be ready for pick up the week of October 25. The address is UPS Store [123 Main, Nearby Town, WA 98000] What is the name of the delivery service you will use, so that I may let the UPS store know to whom the packages can be released? It seems that you are going to make a beautiful surprise for your wife. I hope she’s thrilled. Thanks sincerely, Wary artist
Again, quickly, a reply:
Thanks for the details provided. I am currently offshore and won't be back for a couple of weeks, so in order to have this transaction expedited, I will be contacting a client of mine to have the check issued for your payment. The check will include the shipping agent fees to handle both the shipment of my artwork with you as well as the shipment of my other properties he is currently handling for me. This is to avoid delay and any inconveniences that may arise from his part. The excess cash on the check should be remitted to my shipping agent who would be in contact with you as soon as the check clears your bank. Then you both could arrange for a pick up time of the purchased piece. Thanks for your understanding. Best regards, Wilfred
Up to now, it hasn’t been clear how Wilfred’s little birthday surprise could be a scam (see the links at the end for all the possibilities!), especially if you wait for the check to clear. But this last bit sends up a red flag: he’s asking you to cash a larger check than the amount he owes, and then to take the excess in cash and provide it to this unnamed shipping agent … and that sounds a lot like money laundering. So you write back:
Hello Jamie, I appreciate your response, but I will not agree to cash a check that includes money not owed to me. You will need to pay your delivery service separately. My husband’s long career in law enforcement and cybersecurity suggests your arrangement could be a scam or money laundering effort. I will be happy to sell the paintings using a conventional payment and delivery method. Sincerely, Skeptical artist
And that is the last you ever hear of Jamie Wilfred (or is it Wilfred Jamie?).
Author’s note: That was the last we heard of our art scammer, but not the last we spoke of it. We went over the correspondence and determined–as you may have–that all the signs of a scam were there from the start: the flattery, the urgency, the convoluted distortion of a conventional financial exchange. But we also recognized that the nature of the artist’s quest for an audience–the fact that an artist wants to reach a broad public, using Instragram posts and a website–means that they will get inquiries from strangers and that some of those strangers may act, well, strange. Add to it the inherent human susceptibility to flattery–to being valued–and you create a situation where even a confirmed skeptic might overlook the warning signs. This is the human drama behind every scam and we were lucky to come away without losing a single dollar.
And you can read about other versions of this fairly common “art scam” at the following links:
You can also reach me here: