Santa Barbara is home to numerous painters and sculptors.
Today’s column is about scumbag scam artists who prey upon genuine artists, specifically, as a means of parting them from their hard-earned cash. (As if life isn’t tough enough for artists striving to carve a decent living out of their creativity, especially after being locked down for too many months, their galleries closed.)
A scam making its way around town (and the country) begins like this: An artist whose name and email address has been trolled by a con artist from their internet website receives a laudatory email from a phony name and phony email address, offering to buy a piece of art as a “surprise gift” for a loved one.
Here is a recent scamming letter from the so-called “David Campbell” sent from firstname.lastname@example.org targeting Thomas Van Stein, a renowned Santa Barbara artist:
“Subject: Wedding Anniversary Gift.
“Greetings … I am David from Allentown, Pennsylvania. I have been on the lookout for some artworks lately in regards to 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.
“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 sales. “My budget for this is within the price range of $1,000 to $3,200. I look forward 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.”
The Investigator takes over from this point, posing as the artist’s agent.
The scammer bites:
“Thanks for the response. Having carefully looked through the pictures of your works, I have chosen the piece attached ($2,000). 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.
“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. As soon as you receive the check, 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 look forward to receiving your full name and physical address that the check should be issued to.”
The Investigator complies, knowing full well this moronic scammer is writing his emails from a scammer playbook — and doing a wretched job of it.
Scammer: “Thanks for the details provided. I am currently offshore and won’t be back in 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 and some extra funds 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. Then you both could arrange a pickup time for the purchased piece.”
A few days later the scammer follows up with:
“The check has been issued and will be delivered to you soon via USPS with this tracking number (9405511200885100764501).”
A few days after that a check indeed arrives, drawn on a Bank of America account (Santa Ana branch) in the amount of $4,190.
The address on the check: Lancaster 192 Ltd, DBA Montecito Apartments, 835 West Avenue L, Lancaster CA 93535.
The return address is unrelated and no doubt fake: Shirley Holmes, 6524 11th Ave NW, Seattle WA 98117.
Remember, “David Campbell” said he was from Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The Investigator: “Your check has arrived. However, it is too much. All I need is $2,160.”
Scammer: “Yes, as I explained to you in our emails that the check comes with excess funds to be remitted to my shipper. After you have deposited the check, my shipper will contact you for pick up arrangements. The excess funds on the check is $2,030.00. I will provide you with my shippers details to remit the excess funds … I hope you will be able to make a deposit today?”
The Investigator: “Your check is drawn on a limited company in Lancaster CA and the return address is Seattle WA. Where should I send the painting?”
Scammer: “You do not have to worry about shipping, after you have confirmed the funds in your account, my shipper will contact you for pick up arrangements of the piece … Kindly let me know when the check has been deposited. I hope the piece is ready to go?”
The Investigator: “Deposit made. Painting ready to ship.” (Not x two!)
Scammer: “Great, thanks! Kindly send me an image of the deposit receipt for my record. Thanks.”
The Investigator: “Damn — I already shredded it (can’t be too careful these days …).”
Scammer: “Ok, no problem. The funds should be fully remitted to my shipper via zelle.”
The scammer is by now rubbing his hands in glee, believing two grand-and-change is either en route or will be soon — with no way to trace him thereafter.
Until, that is, he receives a final e-mail from The Investigator:
“Hello ‘David’: You are a scumbag con artist trying to scam hard-working artists. I am an investigative columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press who has been playing you. Have you anything to say for yourself other than you are a despicable fool?”
The Investigator telephoned Lancaster 192 Ltd. and spoke with this company’s manager, Melissa, who had, earlier in the day, received a call about another such phony check. She was, quite obviously, not part of the scam. The scammer was using a counterfeit checkbook.
Bottom line: This scam was an attempt to cajole the artist into sending funds by Zelle to cover the “excess” amount of the fraudulent check, in this case $2,030. (The artwork never mattered.)
Lesson (not just to artists but to everyone): If you get stung, no point crying to the cops after the fact, there is little they can (or will) do. Always conduct due diligence on strangers offering to purchase your product.
Never, ever send funds to anyone you have not first completely vetted.
And never fall for an ”excess funds” scam.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.