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Beware of the Website Design Scam

No matter how savvy you think you are, you still need to be on the lookout for scammers.  Think it could never happen to you, that you would never fall for it, then you need to think again.

Scammers are becoming relentless, and we fell right for it!

We received a request for a website proposal just before Thanksgiving.  The first reason I thought it was real was that it came through my personal text messages.  We use an 800 number for all our marketing purposes and our own website.  Only clients have my personal number, or so I thought!

The second piece of the puzzle was the company was from California, we have a client in California and though he said he did not pass our info to this person, we still believed they had somehow heard of us out in the great state of California.

The third piece that makes it seem so believable is how time consuming and in-depth their efforts are in terms of stringing you along. Your gut starts to sink a bit, but it is such a realistic request that you don’t want to put a potential job in jeopardy.

Here’s How it Works

The scam is known as the Third-Party Payout Scam, the Payment Reversal Scam, the Advanced Fee Scam, or the Overpayment Scam.

The Fraud Prevention department at Stripe, a credit card payment processor explained the scam:

“I can see that you work in web design. Designers such as yourself are common targets for a type of scam known as a Third-Party Payout. Essentially, the scammer makes a payment (generally in the thousands) for a project and pays more than they need so you can then transfer money direct to a third party (e.g. a consultant, graphic designer, etc). I imagine your correspondence with your ‘client’ has been along these lines. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, the fix is that the card used is stolen and the third party is the scammer. So, when the legitimate cardholder disputes the payment the business is left holding the bag on the money retrieved from their account and what they transferred to the scammer.”

It Seems So Real

The amazing things about these scams are:

  1. How involved they are, it is correspondence over several days and many text messages, emails and phone calls back and forth until they hit you with the scam.

  2. How long these scams have been around.  Doing basic search (when you realize you are being scammed) shows these scams have been going on for years.

  3. The scam is basically the same every time, though there are some minor variations the approach and communication is generally the same each time.

Here’s What Happened to Us

The initial contact was made by text message, requesting a proposal for web design services.  Again, the message was sent to my personal number.  A number that is not listed on our website or Social Media accounts.  The message came from an actual phone number.

“Hello, my name is Ben Chris and I will like to know if you do digital marketing?”

Granted there was a grammar error but considering it is a text message and we all have slips it did not raise any red flags.

Upon establishing contact, the “business owner” explained what he was looking for in detail.

“I have a small scale business which I want to turn into large scale business and it is located in Irvine, CA and the company is based on importing and exporting of agriculture products such as Kola Nut, Gacillia Nut and Cocoa so I need a better website and digital marketing management of my business.  Am sure you can handle this for me.”

I requested an email with further detail, and further detail I got:

“I have small scale business which i want to turn into large scale business now it located in CA and the company  is based on importing and  exporting of Agriculture products such as Kola Nut, Gacillia Nut and Cocoa so i need a best of the best layout design for it. Can you handle  that for me  so i need you to check out this site but i need something more  perfect than this if it’s possible . the site would only be informational, so i need you to give me an estimate  based on the site i gave you to check out  the estimate should include hosting and i want the same page as the site i gave you to check out and i have a private project consultant, he has the text content and the logos for the site. Note: 1. I want the same number of pages with the example site i gave you to check excluding videos and blogs. 2. I want only English language 3. I don’t have a domain yet but i want the domain name as 4. you will be updating the site for me. 5. i will be providing the images, logos and content for the site. 6. i want the site up and running As soon as possible.”

The Proposal

We put together a proposal and sent it off the next day.  I received a text message 2 days later that said he was still waiting for the proposal.  I sent it again via email.

Received another email the following day stating he still had not received the proposal.  I emailed it again and created a PDF file on our website for access and sent the link via text message.  (A couple flags were thrown here, I started to wonder about this, it seemed a bit off, but I pushed forward.)

Approximately an hour later I received a text message that he wanted to hire us. Then wanted to know what merchant we used for credit card processing.  It was somewhat exciting to be hired, it always is!  This proposal was huge and was worth several thousand dollars, which is always very exciting for the business.

I explained that we could discuss this information for his site, but it was Saturday evening and I asked if we could schedule a call first thing Monday morning to discuss some information and get started.

He said he wanted to know what we used to process cards and I told him the services we use for payment.  He said fine and scheduled the call.

The Call

Our call was scheduled for 10:30 am Monday morning.  I put together a contract and at 10:00 I got a text that said good morning and that he was ready when I was.

I finished up what I was working on and gave him a call.  We spoke briefly and then when I asked him to elaborate about the business and what he was looking for the phone began to cut out, very loud clicks on the line.  Then the line went dead.

He called me back and started again, the phone again cut out and then the line went dead.

Red flags were flying a bit more at this point, I was about 85% sure this was all nonsense.

This went on several more times.  Finally, I texted and said I would send him an email and link to process payment, and we could get started.

The Scam

This is where I finally realized, much to my dismay that this was all a scam.  Here came “the rub.”

Received a text message from Chris stating that “I need a favor from you.”

There it was, I asked him what the favor was, and he elaborated.  We were requesting a $5,000.00 deposit be made along with an additional $350 for hosting fees.

“The favor I need from you is that I want you to send an invoice of $13,550, so $5,350 would be the deposit payment for service and you would help me send $8,000 to the project consultant  that has the text content and the logo for my website so once he has the $8,000 he would send the text content and logo needed for my website to you so the project can start immediately and you keep the remaining $200 as tip for the stress.  Pls I hope you understand the favor I need from you.”

At this point, I was not very professional or pleasant in my response.  I had just wasted 7 days with this guy.  Thinking initially that we had a new gig for the business, which is always exciting.

Fool Me Once

I do feel like I am a lot savvier with these types of issues.  I am always yelling at my mother for scam emails that she believes.

If you run across this type of scam the best thing to do is to ignore it and move on with your day.  Hopefully you will figure it out much faster than I did, but once you do cut your losses and move on.

If you want to report the scam or have, unfortunately, lost money you can follow the links below to report it:

Don’t fall for it like we did!  Shake it off and move on, there are some great businesses out there who really do need website and don’t need you to pay a ransom to release the content for them!  (On that note, if you need a website or digital marketing let me know!)

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