Artist vs. Scammer

by Carolyn Edlund

Here’s what happened when one artist almost got ripped off by a scammer – and what you need to know to protect yourself, too.


Artist vs Scammer


I received a phone call from an artist friend who had been approached by a man wanting to purchase a painting. Bill (not his real name) had a gut feeling something wasn’t quite right, and wanted to get a second opinion.

It turned out this was a typical scammer, trying to rip off the artist. Have you received an email like this?

Hello, my name is Sean Million from Georgia, I was looking for some artwork online and i found your contact while searching. I will like to purchase some of your work for my wife as a surprise gift for our 20th anniversary. Please kindly send pics and prices of some of your art which are ready for immediate sale within price range of $500- $5000. I hope to hear a lot more about any available piece in your inventory ready for immediate sale.

When Bill responded that he had reproductions for sale, the customer indicated he wanted an original, and chose a painting that retailed for $15,000. He wanted to pay by cashier’s check, and indicated he had a “shipping agent” who would pick up the artwork. Bill received the cashier’s check. But, surprise! It was written for significantly more than the cost of the artwork and shipping combined. When notified, the customer indicated that he would like a refund check from Bill for the difference. Additionally, the art had to be shipped right away to arrive in time to be an anniversary gift.

The cashier’s check that Bill received is phony, but his bank won’t have that information for a week or more. Meanwhile, he could have shipped the artwork (which he will have lost) and written his own check to the “buyer” for the refund, which will have been cashed. The customer will have disappeared, and cannot be reached; they move on to the next victim. This scam has been running for years.

I suggested Bill send an email to the “customer” indicating that his attorney informed him this was a typical scam technique, and that their correspondence was over. Not surprisingly, he never heard back.

Often, these scam perpetrators are outside the U.S., and they are elusive. If there is phone contact, it is through temporary numbers from Google that are changed frequently and can’t be traced. Banks are aware of these scams, but cannot be held liable for fraudulent cashier’s checks. It’s up to the artist to be aware, and take measures to safeguard themselves.

These red flags can help you spot a scam and protect yourself and your art:

  • The customer contacts you, and are eager to buy. They aren’t on your mailing or prospect list, and you don’t already know them.
  • Money is no object. They are happy to make a large purchase without asking questions or showing hesitancy.
  • They use little discrepancy in choosing a piece of art to buy, and will agree to “purchase” any number of items.
  • They are not willing to use a credit card for the purchase, but insist on sending you a cashier’s check.
  • Often their English is poor, or there are significant spelling and grammar errors in their correspondence. They may even get confused about your name (because they are running many scams simultaneously.)
  • There is a need for urgency – an upcoming birthday or anniversary, which necessitates that the art be shipped quickly.
  • The customer often indicates that they are moving (often outside the U.S.) and they will have the package picked up. They are never local buyers.
  • Usually correspondence about the transaction takes place through email only.
  • They often don’t answer the artist’s questions and can be vague on details.

Basically, if an art sale seems too good to be true, it probably is. Artists have banded together to avoid scams like this by sharing information in discussion groups, and you can even find a list of scammer’s aliases and known email addresses right here.

How should you deal with a scammer when you are contacted? Although it may be tempting to mess with them (Scamalot does this frequently, with hilarious results) it’s best to simply delete their emails, or report them as spam. You probably don’t even want the sender to know they’ve reached an active email address.

Have you been approached by a scammer? What happened?


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  1. I have been approached several times via email. Different stories, wife saw my work, anniversary, moving to a new home, etc. I was suspicious, and have either not replied, or refer them to the web site that makes prints of my work. Surprise! they didn’t buy any prints.

  2. yes, I’ve encountered such a scammer – I was curious when
    I got the e-mail (as I’d heard of such things) and let them
    think I was going to be a cooperative “partner” (it does
    make more work for them, and provide a possible trail to
    nab the SOBs). Happily for me, when I rec’d their check it was
    on an out-of-state bank I happen to know, so I recognized the
    check as bad – and that gave me specific info to provide the FBI –
    go to the FBI website and forward them anything you have if
    scammers approach you. It’s not as rewarding as selling art,
    but it does provide some satisfaction! Also it might protect an
    artist less savvy in the wiles of such nastiness . . .

    from months agoThe FBI encourages victims of Internet scams, frauds, and intrusions to report their experiences to its Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3.[Download]

    • Hey thanks for sharing this and getting the word out, Kate! Fewer bad guys out there in the world is a very good thing.

    • Going to the FBI is a great idea. I have been a professional artist for many years and have received many of these spam emails. Usually, the grammar is not good and the story is close to the one posted. This last week I got the one with the man wanting the anniversary present for his wife, etc and played along a bit. He wanted to send me a check, but I insisted that he he use the Pay Pal button on my site and that ended the emails.

      Several years ago a friend of mine fell for this and it ended up costing her more money than she had. After depositing the bad cashier’s check and sending the scammer money, she charged things on her debit card… She ended up having to pay the bank for the bad check and all her debit card charges.

      My daughter who has been an art dealer for a big San Francisco gallery for 18 years, suggested to me that the request might be legitimate. I explained how obvious the scam was to me. If this crook or group sends out thousands of similar emails, one or two artists may fall for it.

      • I think you nailed it, Ezschwan. It’s a numbers game for scammers. They send out hundreds of emails, hoping to rob one victim. Even with those odds, it would prove very profitable for them.

  3. I’ve had them too. Never fell for one because they just look fishy. Now I’ve learned to recognize the pattern so delete and move on.

    • I agree Laureen that they are easy to spot once you are familiar with this MO. But I’ve also heard from an artist that some are using phony credit cards too, so they may be using different tactics too.

  4. I was approached also. In my case the “customer” sent me postal money orders for significantly more than I asked. When I checked them out carefully I noticed the money orders had no watermark which was a dead giveaway that something wasn’t right. I have an artist friend who had the same thing happen to him with the cashier’s check. Luckily he didn’t fall for it.

    • Good catch, Denise! Even if you hadn’t noticed the lack of a watermark, would you check with your bank to make sure the transaction had completely cleared before shipping?

  5. Tortured syntax is always a dead give away. They usually put a specific piece in the subject line. “My wife has shown a keen interest in your work” is a nice little flourish that seems to be a recent addition. I followed up with one of this once and the guy told me he was an ocean engineer. Ocean engineer?

    • Hal, I think the scammers play off the fact that many artists are desperate to sell, and they want to believe that the sale is real. And despite those “dead giveaways” some people fall for it. Otherwise, those scammers wouldn’t be doing this.

    • I got this same one a couple of weeks ago! Ocean Engineer? Really! I posted his whole scheme on a blog post.

  6. I had a scammer send me a check for the exact amount of the painting so I called the bank on the check where it was written from it was an account at that bank and it was signed by the person who owns that account however it was a fraudulent check I’m so glad that I called the bank and I was told to report the details to my local police station so I did

  7. Theresa Otteson says

    I’ve had several emails from people who make it clear they will pay with a credit card and will give me the number, expiration date, and security number. When I insist that the transaction must go through PayPal, they disappear. I’m pretty sure it was a stolen credit card. I played along for awhile once to see how the person was going to try to convince me to do it otherwise. They ignored specific questions, such as why their name and address didn’t match. I was finally told the building was owned by a company. They flattered me, tried to get me to use a different shipping company. They even told me they expected me to be honest in my dealings (I laughed out loud when I read that).

  8. I must get 3-4 of these emails per year for a strange company who wants a large quantity of our gourmet foods. The first time, I actually contacted the supplier (for the candy item they wanted) to insure there was enough in stock. When I got back to the potential buyer, they wanted nearly double the quantity and would take the balance in any product this candy company offered. We told them we couldn’t do it (nearly 6 years ago) as it sounded like a scam.

    Unfortunately, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is a scam!!

    • Sandy, I think the giveaway is that the “buyer” is willing to take any amount, or pretty much any product, as long as they can hook the seller. Glad you told them to take a hike.

  9. I’ve received several scams like this, but I recognize them right away.

    A gallery that represents me got one and the owner got all excited until I told her it was probably a scam. They sent a cashier’s check but the bank was able to verify right away that it was no good. You just ask the bank to check with the issuing authority – another bank or whatever.

    There is also a PayPal scam. They put the money in your account, then claim they never received the goods and PayPal refunds their money out of your bank account. They don’t make much, but you lose your painting.

    Anyone that calls your paintings “items” is definitely a scammer.


    • Another artist mentioned that she avoided scammers by using Paypal, but it looks like this is yet another method of attempting a ripoff. If the payor does try to contest the payment, and you have tracking information to prove delivery, you could most likely get that reversed by Paypal.

  10. I also received such purchase requests by mail. They wanted to buy a lot and I should deliver very quickly. The works should be a wedding present. Thank God, they have made mistakes in the titles of the works and I became suspicious. Of course they wanted to pay with bank check. I told them that my gallery owner sells me works, not me, and his online shop doesn’t accept bank checks. They did not care about it and enlarged the order. When I have not responded, they sent 2 more mails, then they gave up.

  11. I wrote a blog about my experience. I tend to investigate before jumping into situations that sound too good to be true. Here is my article:

  12. I’ve also discovered some of these scammers are signing up to be on my newsletter list first…thinking that my defenses are down when they eventually send me the scam email.

  13. This really isn’t a new scam. It has been around for years. I’ve had it tried on me when selling higher priced furniture on craigslist in exactly the same way. That’s where I learned about it. Yes, I would love to sell my artwork. No, I don’t want someone to take advantage of my eagerness to have a sale and be their next victim. I may fall for some other scam, but not this one. I hope you don’t either.

    • You are definitely right, Jeanie – this scam isn’t new. But honestly, not everyone knows about it (the artist in the article who called me, for example.) I’ve found that as people comment about the article, and as I receive emails however, that people are talking about other types of scams happening too. Scammers move on to what works, and I’m sure there will be a “next big scam” come around that unfortunately finds a lot of victims.

  14. I literally have a collection of 15 really good looking fake Cashier’s checks. Each time I engage a scammer, I use a fake name but my real address. Some of the names I have used are:

    Yura Sukka
    Imno Suckah
    Ima Kidder
    Aye Gotya
    Yuso Seely
    Tink Agen
    Laffin Miassoff

    My favorite experience is when the scammer texted me to see if I sent the item. I said, “If English were your first language, you would have recognized that the name I used means ‘Laughing my ass off.'” He replied, “Good one.”

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