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February 7, 2020

The Impersonation Game

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog. It's a familiar meme...which can be turned around. On the internet, nobody knows you're not a dog.

I can claim, for instance, to be a well-known literary, agent, and as long as I put a little effort into the subterfuge, and only make the claim to people who are likely to want to hear from someone like who I'm pretending to be, at least a few of my targets will take me at face value.

One of the most common tactics used by scammers is solicitation, by phone and email. To make themselves seem more reputable and attractive, scammers often masquerade as dogs...that is, they try to impersonate real, reputable companies and individuals.

Sometimes the impersonation is just a vague (and therefore unverifiable) claim of industry expertise.

Sometimes it's a claim to be working with reputable companies (the scammer in this case is the little logo on the left):

Sometimes it's a claim to actually be a reputable company. Note the strategic use of the Hachette Book Group logo (the scammer is the supposed partner):

And sometimes the deception is more elaborate. Last week, Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency posted this warning:

Don was kind enough to share the solicitations with me. Here's the first. The English is passable, but note the typo. Also note "Jennifer Jackson's" email address, which on a websearch doesn't match anything connected to the real Jennifer Jackson.

Here's the second solicitation, received after the author responded. The grammatical and other errors are much more obvious here, and if that's not enough to prompt caution, the next to last paragraph, with its demand for money, should be:

Techbooks Media, whose domain name was only registered a few weeks ago on January 15, sells a range of junk marketing at insanely inflated prices (for instance, placement in PW Select, which actually costs $149, for $699; or a Kirkus Indie review, which actually costs $575, for $1,699). Putting this together with the blatant deception, the ESL mistakes on the website and in the emails, and inside info from one of my confidential sources, Techbooks Media is certainly another of the Philippines-based marketing scams listed in the sidebar. Accordingly, I've added it.

Some tips for seeing through scams like this:

1. Proceed from a point of skepticism. An unsolicited contact from a real, reputable agent or publisher isn't automatically suspect, but it's rare. Out-of-the-blue contacts are far more likely to be illegitimate. Caution is definitely in order.

2. Mistrust--and verify. Google all the individuals and/or companies that are mentioned (are there complaints? Have they shown up on this blog?) If someone claims to have worked for a major publisher or agency, or a company claims to have placed books with reputable publishers or to have sold film or other subsidiary rights, see if you can verify the claim. If you can't, or if there are no checkable details (such as names or book titles) attached to the claim, be wary.

3. Use your common sense. Anyone can make an occasional typo, but professionals communicate professionally (no reputable agent would send out grammar-challenged emails like the ones from "Jennifer Jackson"). Check the email address and any links--do they match the person or company claiming to be contacting you? (There's nothing to connect Ms. Jackson with anything called Techbooks Media.) If there's a demand for upfront money, be sure it's a service or company that customarily charges such fees (reputable agents and publishers don't).

4. Contact Writer Beware. Always a good default if you aren't sure about an individual or company. We may have heard something, or received complaints, and if we have, we'll let you know.

UPDATE: According to additional documentation I've received, Techbooks Media is also doing business as Chapters Media & Advertising. Payments are made to Chapters, and Chapters' name is on the service agreement that Techbooks victims sign.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jennifer Jackson (the real one) responds.
UPDATE 5/27/20: The scammer is still at it. This is basically the same solicitation they sent out in January.


PT Dilloway said...

It's like those scammers who call people claiming to be from the IRS to get personal information.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this. I once attended a presentation from a police chief stating that the grammar errors and such on such scams are deliberate - it's a way of testing to see how gullible you are. Those who are desperate and want to believe will ignore the errors.

Rachel Ann Nunes said...

So sad that people treat other people this way. I'm glad authors reported it and that you are shining a light on the practice. With the Internet, it's difficult to stop these scams, or even to track the real identities of those perpetuating them.

Wordrefiner said...

Thanks for posting this vital information. I am sharing it widely.

jwalk1230 said...

I'm a mildly successful indie author of three novels and a (more successful) lawyer. The advice Ms Jackson gives at the end of this piece is priceless. Take a breath, think it over, ALWAYS SLEEP ON IT, ask questions. If they're legit and really want you, they'll give you that space. Even beyond outright scams like this, you should exercise the same writerly self-discipline with small and boutique publishers. ALWAYS do an initial teleconference with them before signing anything. An example. I had an enthusiastic offer from a small British publisher. {"Oh my GOD!!! They want MY BOOK!!!] I scheduled a teleconference with them a few days later, saying I want to get to go over a few questions. On the 45-min call, I asked a lot of questions about rights--foreign right, derivative rights, reversion rights, etc. My wife/publicist asked about coordinating marketing and if they put any budget toward individual book marketing. All very professional and straightforward, although they seemed to be getting a little testy by the end. Next morning I woke to an email saying they'd changed their minds and withdrew the offer. That was a GOOD result--if my asking legitimate, professional questions scared them away, then I'm very glad for it. Yes, always take some time, maybe consult a lawyer or ask Author's Guild to review the contract (if you're a member).

Anonymous said...

I'm a well-educated person but I am embarrassed to report that I am a victim of the
Jennifer Jackson scam. I've had great reviews for my novel but no success finding an agent willing to take me on as a client. When I received an email from "Jennifer Jackson" I was understandably thrilled. I became suspicious when a planned phone conversation did not occur and my email inquiries to arrange a follow-up call went unanswered. Now I can see the red flags that were masked by the joy of finally attracting the interest of a top-flight agent. I lost $600 for the "return-ability insurance" but I am thankful that I did not send the requested $800 for a professional review of my novel. It is absolutely shameful that people believe this is a good way to make a living. I truly hope karma is real and that these thieves someday suffer the consequences of their crimes.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 3/03,

I'm so sorry you were victimized by this unscrupulous scam. Please don't beat yourself up too much--you're far from alone. The reason people run scams like this is because they work.

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