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May 14, 2021

Two Scams to Watch Out For: Writers' Conference Phishing Scheme, Goodreads Extortion Scam


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

"We are Seeking Qualified Writers and Poets for our Conference"

Back in January, I heard from a writer who'd received a conference participation solicitation that looked to be a scam.

Although the company named in the solicitation, Crown Castle, was real, it had nothing to do with publishing, and the poor phrasing and lack of detail--such as the conference's name--was equally suspicious. The writer contacted the company to ask, and, unsurprisingly, was told that they had no employee named James Gilbert and were not planning any conferences, let alone one for "qualified writers and poets."

Deciding to lead the scammer on for a bit, the writer pretended interest. They got this reply:

Presumably this is some sort of phishing scheme, and if the writer had provided their name and address they would have been asked for bank account information or some other financial disclosure.

I received no other reports of the fake Crown Castle solicitation, and couldn't find any references to it online. Although it was clearly a fraud, I didn't quite know what to make of it. Was it a one-off? A recurring ripoff scheme, like this long-running speaker scam?

A couple of days ago, I got the answer, via a Twitter post from a writer who received this:


The scammers have switched up some stuff--the solicitor's name, the subject line, the company name (like Crown Castle, Smart Asset is also a real company), and the remuneration--but otherwise this solicitation is nearly word-for-word identical to the one I saw in January. 

So it's obviously an ongoing phishing scam that changes its details from time to time to evade discovery, and borrows genuine company names so that anyone who does a websearch will turn up a real website (and hopefully won't be too concerned that the companies have nothing whatever to do with writing or publishing). 

The email addresses look authentic also--at least, to a quick glance. Look closer, and you'll notice discrepancies. "Nora Droste's" address has an extra "t" (smarttasset.com rather than the company's real email address, smartasset.com), and "James Gilbert's" has an extra word (crowncastlelogistics.com, as opposed to the authentic email format, crowncastle.com).

This scam is a bit more difficult than some to immediately recognize, because while reputable agents and publishers are highly unlikely to solicit new writers with too-good-to-be-true offers, authors do legitimately receive requests from conference organizers. Be on your guard, do your research--and if you're unsure, contact Writer Beware.

UPDATE 6/23/21: According to additional reports I've received and also this comment below, if you indicate you're interested in participating, you receive a contract requiring you to send a $450 money order for the "high quality" camera and other equipment. Supposedly this will be reimbursed by check after you pay it. In reality, of course, once you send the $450 you'll never hear from the scammers again. 

UPATE 7/24/21: Here's the latest iteration of the scam, which as you'll see, is even more deceptive:


Here is the bogus contract writers receive if they bite. 

There really is a Kristen Pecci who works in HR at Macmillan (though her title isn't Manager), so a quick websearch could lend credibility to this email (if you don't think too hard about why an HR professional would be recruiting for a writers' conference). However, dig deeper and you'll spot what is often a clue to a scam approach: the email protocol is not what Macmillan uses. Nor would a real email address mis-name the company (it's Macmillan Publishers, not Macmillan Publishing).

UPDATE 8/6/21:  Here's the email writers receive from "Kristen" if they sign the contract. Note the "hurry up" pressure: 


Here's Brian Bas:

4558 Broadway is a US Post Office. So--assuming Brian Bas is a real person--it looks like this scam is being run by a twenty-something dude with a PO box in New York City. 

Regardless, I'm pretty sure this qualifies as mail fraud. If you've been contacted by this scam--and especially if you've received a bogus check and/or have been asked to send a money order to Brian Bas--I urge you to report it to the US Postal Inspection Service

The Goodreads Extortion Scam

Recently I received an email from a writer who described an extortion scheme that had targeted them on Goodreads. The scammers threatened to post a blizzard of one-star reviews and ratings if the writer didn't hand over money to "buy our paid review offers". Here's the first email the writer received. (Apologies to anyone who's sensitive to bad language; this apparently is typical of the scammers' communications.)


When the writer refused to play, they got this:


The scammers then made good on their threat and bombed the writer's books with 1-star reviews. Fortunately, the writer was able to get Goodreads--which is not always overly responsive to author complaints--to remove the reviews, along with the profile that had posted them. 

It's been a long time since I gave much thought to Goodreads. I largely quit interacting there after Amazon acquired it, at which point the already toxic atmosphere increased while the responsiveness of the people running the site underwent an equivalent decline. I too have been 1-star bombed--more than once, actually, including just recently, as I discovered when I visited Goodreads for the first time in forever to research this post and found that a profile called Photography had left1-star ratings on all my books (including a non-existent book that I've tried repeatedly to get Goodreads to remove, and a book to which I contributed a single chapter):


All of Photography's ratings are 1-stars (a classic sign of a fake profile), and all 12 of them are for me. In other words, this is a profile set up for the sole purpose of trashing my books. That's a not-uncommon tactic on Goodreads, where review-bombing is a known hazard. I never got any demands for money, though (mostly, I figure attacks like this are a result of my work with Writer Beware), and I'd never heard of an extortion scheme like the one the writer described. Was their encounter with cyber extortionists unusual? Or was this something that happened more often?

Apparently, the latter--though it does seem to be a fairly new phenomenon. This blog entry posted in January lays it all out--not just the "pay up or we'll trash your books" threat, but a more sneaky scheme where the 1-star reviews appear first and then after a few days the writer is contacted by someone who claims they will get rid of them...for a fee. There are several threads on Goodreads discussing this, with posts from writers who've been targeted:


Here are the kinds of reviews that get posted:


And here's the kind of response writers get from the scammers if they push back, or if they manage to get Goodreads to remove the reviews (apologies again for language):


In January, Goodreads claimed to be "working with our engineering teams to investigate possible solutions to prevent this from happening in the future." It's now May, and it's still going on. 

I imagine this is a difficult problem to police, and Goodreads does seem to be fairly responsive in replying to authors' complaints and removing reviews and scammer profiles. Clearly, though, this is an ongoing problem, and if you're active on Goodreads, you should be aware of it.

UPDATE: SFWA has issued a statement on Goodreads harassment, and is working with Goodreads to address it. If you're a SFWA member, you can report harassment or extortion using this form

UPDATE 8/12/21: Time magazine has a lengthy article on review-bombing and extortion at Goodreads.
 
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