Friday, December 15, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Why Scammers Are Hard to Put Away

The recent sentencing of literary scammer Martha Ivery to 65 months in the Federal pen has generated a huge amount of response--including some interesting questions. What's the big deal? some people want to know. Criminals get sent away all the time--what's so special about Martha? Other people are puzzled by why more literary scammers aren't in jail. How can they continue to operate with apparent impunity?

The second question is the answer to the first--what happened with Martha Ivery is a big deal because it's so rare for a literary scammer to be caught, much less indicted and sentenced. Since Writer Beware's founding in 1998, just a handful of scammers have been successfully prosecuted. Here's the roster:

1998: Edit Ink
1999: Woodside Literary Agency
1999: Deering Literary Agency/Sovereign Publications
2001: Northwest Publishing
2004: Helping Hand Literary Services/Janet Kay & Associates
2005: Melanie Mills
2006: Martha Ivery

A few more--such as Cris Robins of the Robins Agency--have been successfully sued by individual authors, and a handful--such as Desert Rose Literary Agency--are currently under investigation.

So why is it so rare for literary scammers to be brought to justice? Why do they seem to fly so far beneath the radar of law enforcement? Here are some possible reasons.

- Literary scamming is a niche crime. Writers are a minority of the population, engaged in a specialized activity that most people don't pursue. There simply isn't enough of a threat to the general public to justify most law enforcement officials' interest. Also, because writers aren't necessarily very old, or very young, or members of other groups that are regarded as especially vulnerable, it's easy to say "caveat emptor." They should have known better.

- Per scam, the number of victims is small; per victim, the amounts of money are small. According to one lawyer we know, white collar crime doesn't get nearly the attention it should in the USA. When white collar crime is prosecuted, it tends to involve large numbers of victims and/or enormous amounts of money. Most literary scammers rook their clients for at most a few thousand dollars, and sometimes for as little as a couple of hundred. Their victim rosters typically number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Over time, of course, this adds up--for instance, Martha Ivery's total take from her nearly 300 victims is estimated at over $700,000. Victim by victim and dollar by dollar, however, the take isn't impressive. It can be hard to convince busy law enforcement officials to get worked up about a dishonest agent who is averaging a few hundred bucks per client--especially where the agent appears to be providing some sort of service in return.

- Publishing is an arcane field whose rules are unfamiliar to outsiders. It can be very hard for people with no experience of publishing to recognize why certain things are potentially fraudulent. If you don't realize that literary agents work on commission only, it probably doesn't seem like a big deal for an agent to charge an upfront fee. If you aren't aware of the level of expertise an agent needs in order to be successful, you may not see why it's so deceptive for unqualified people to represent themselves as being competent to sell manuscripts (this is complicated by the fact that there's no licensing or formal training for literary agents, so there are no objective standards to point to). If you don't know the nature of the author-agent relationship, it may not seem especially unethical for agents to hawk their own editing services. If you don't know what an agent or publisher should be doing, it may be difficult to understand why what a scammer is doing is worthless. To make matters worse, none of these things are easy to explain concisely, and law enforcement officials may not want to endure a long lecture (and they're not always crazy about being told what they ought to consider a crime). Many of our efforts to lobby for interest in literary scams have been defeated by the information barrier.

- Scammery and incompetence look a lot alike. What's the difference between the fake agent who sets out to deliberately defraud clients of $500 apiece, and the amateur agent who believes that it's acceptable to keep his unsuccessful business afloat by charging fees? (For clients, zero--either way, they'll wind up with a smaller bank account and no sale.) In most cases, it's very difficult to tell--let alone prove it. When you take the other factors into account, you can see why law enforcement officials often would rather not bother.

In nearly every case where legal action was taken against a scammer, it has been the result of group action by the victims--as with the many writers who contacted the New York State Attorney General about Edit Ink--or the dogged persistence of a single individual--such as the unsung hero of the Martha Ivery investigation, FBI researcher Paul Silver, who simply would not let the case fall through the cracks of the system; or Det. Brian Elkins of San Angelo, Texas, who refused to allow scam artists Janet and George Titsworth to operate on his turf. This is why we ALWAYS encourage defrauded writers to complain to the authorities (the Overview page of Writer Beware includes a list of organizations where complaints can be filed), and why we persist in our efforts to alert law enforcement officials to the literary scams that are operating right under their noses.

This, by the way, is another reason why Martha Ivery's sentencing is a big deal. Since she was indicted on the actual literary fraud (as opposed to peripheral stuff like credit card fraud and bankruptcy fraud--she was indicted on those too, but the literary scam accounted for the bulk of the 17 counts to which she pleaded guilty), her case provides a precedent for law enforcement officials who may be wondering if it's possible to successfully prosecute a literary scammer. Not only that--the indictment and other court documents are an excellent crash course in literary scammery.

If she can help us change things, Martha may wind up doing some good after all.

7 comments:

Lauren said...

Thank you for this insightful and interesting post. I plan to link to it when I write my New Year's column. It's just what anyone who wants to write needs to know. Best wishes to you and Ann.

Catja (green_knight) said...

And just to complicate manners there is a bonafide UK agent who continues to offer a book doctoring service. He's a former editor with impeccable credits and several watertight sales to reputable houses, and as far as I can tell, he keeps both sides of his business strictly seperate (I queried him and would do so again with a more suitable project) - but I can see less genuine agents pointing in his direction and using that as justification.

A. C. Crispin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
A. C. Crispin said...

I think this is one of the best posts ever to grace the Writer Beware blog. A big "thank you!" to Victoria for writing such a thought-provoking and well-articulated piece.

Way to go, Vic!

-Ann C. Crispin

bjh said...

Excellent statement. They may be hard to put away, but you two, Dave, Jenna, Miss Snark and many others are spreading the word and preventing Lord knows how many from falling victim. We owe you our gratitude.

Great job with Ivey, and wishing you lots of luck with Bouncing Bobby. One wonders how many small timers and just-thinking-about-it sleezers you've stopped. Thank you.

Merry Christmas!

Kim Stagliano said...

I'm on a large writers list and a new member just emailed asking about edits requested by New York Literary Agency. She didn't know about their reputation. Many people very nicely and as gently as possible, informed her of the NYLA reputation.

Your work is important and is helping writers every day.'

Thank you.

Kim

JMH said...

Also beware Mr. Osmond Green, an agent who manifests as a floating head, and thunders, “Bring me $500 and Ann Coulter's broomstick and you will be published.” After three tries, you're able to hit Ms. Coulter with a bucket of water from fifteen stories up. After six months in Sing Sing, you return to Mr. Green's office, and he tells you to "come back tomorrow" or "face his wrath." So you pull the curtain... so that's where John Ashcroft went.