Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware® is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

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.

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

16 comments :

anghara said...

That conference thing - I got it, with different names, different companies. I initially replied and they insisted (without even knowing what it was) that my monitor and webcam and headset setup was somehow inadequate and needed to be replaced, for which they would send me a sum of money and then I was to go and use that to send a money order to this hardware company in order to get the equipment - actually not to the company but to the agent dealing with the conference people, personally. I found the hardware company which did exist, and I actually contacted them to find out about this person and this weird deal and they said they had nobody by that name working for them and they specifically did NOT accept money orders as payment. At which point I sent one more email to the scammers to tell them that alas I would not after all be participating in their "conference" Never heard back from them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reporting on this serious topic. My books were targeted by these criminals, and it seems to me that those starting down the path to self-publishing (even for previously published authors like me), experience vulnerability in our need to acquire strong ratings. At this point, I'm weaning myself off of begging for reviews. Instead, I'm encouraging readers to take a look at my writing samples, blurbs, book titles, covers and history as a professional writer.

If current works don't entice a reader, then I hope they'll check back, since I write in several genres. I look forward to returning to bookstores in person and presenting live readings and book-signing events. Although these activities don't offer the same potential for sales numbers, they do allow me to meet my readers. Of course, I'm still selling current books online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble -- like almost all writers must do these days.

Readers, it's up to you to move past the indoctrination that forces everyone to stare at those stars. And writers, it's up to us to push for a better, more equitable marketing system. Thanks again, Victoria, for your post.

The One True Ben said...

So, my question is, how do these people expect to get paid without exposing their info? They must have some semi-secure way to do it.

Anonymous said...

When I tried to view this blog, Google went to a red warning screen, warning me that this was a dangerous phishing scam site. I had to click past the warning to continue to this 'dangerous' site to read the blog. Not sure how you fix that, but wanted to let you know.

Victoria Strauss said...

Not that it would be shocking for someone to target Writer Beware, but the "dangerous site" warning appears to be a general Google problem--I checked several other Blogspot blogs and all show the same message. As of this instant, things appear to be all right again.

The One True Ben,

I haven't heard from anyone who paid, and I wonder if the aim--at least of the all-caps PAY UP OR ELSE crowd--is not actually to get money, but just to fuck with people. Cyberbullies doing it for the lulz.

Victoria Strauss said...

anghara,

That's really interesting. A little like that Craigslist scam where the scammer sends a check for more than the cost of the item and asks the seller to send them a "refund". Of course the check bounces.

You don't still have those emails, do you? If by chance you do, I'd love to see them. beware@sfwa.org

Unknown said...

I've had a few spam comments on my star reviews (no text) on Goodreads. Someone comments, sometimes with "I hate this book" but continues and includes a link to a product on Amazon. I flag and/or delete them.

S. J. Pajonas (spajonas) said...

Wanted to let you know that I came here to read this post (I read your blog often to be on top of this stuff) and Google (on Chrome) produced a huge red warning sign that this site is a phishing website and will steal my data. I have a feeling you may have been targeted and reported. I told Google they were wrong, but you may need to do something about it.

Victoria Strauss said...

S.J. Pajonas,

Thanks for the heads-up. A number of people contacted me about this last night. I checked other Blogspot blogs and they showed the same warning--it seems to be a Google problem (not an attack specifically on Writer Beware, which is what I suspected initially) and it also seems to be on-again off-again. HOpefully they'll fix the problem soon.

Linda Mooney said...

I also had the red screen Google warning on my blogs. If your blog doesn't have the HTTPS at the beginning, which means it's a secured site, that might be the problem.

Go to your dashboard. Scroll down to SETTINGS. Click it. Scroll down until you find HTTPS redirect. Make sure the little button is slid to the right to change it to HTTPS. If you have more than one blog, be sure to do this for all of them.

After a few hours, I no longer got the red screen.

Angela said...

Thanks for the heads-up. It's hard enough getting our books out there without people trying to scam us. I don't ask for reviews anymore, haven't for a long time. When I next send out my newsletter, I'll be letting my readers know this is happening and advising them to check out any books they're interested in by going to Amazon and hvaing the free sample or 'look inside' feature and check it out themselves. Smashowrds also has a sample they can check out, and possibly other sites do, too, I don't know. Personally, I believe Goodreads should send out a message to all its members letting them know what is happening, so readers and authors are both aware. I just might post about this on my blog at Goodreads!
If this mob target me, they can kiss my fat little tushie!!!

Ruth T-C said...

The conference-payment scam is equally likely to be another (sigh) version of the overpayment/counterfeit check scam (https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/05/11/on-the-basics-scams-are-always-with-us/, https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/08/21/on-the-basics-yet-another-scam-warning/, https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/12/07/the-apraxia-overpayment-scam-continues/), where that $800 or $1,500 check will arrive as a larger amount, the sender will ask for the "difference" back, and the recipient will be out the entire amount - including any bank fees - with the possibility of being accused of fraud for passing a counterfeit instrument.

Oh, if only we could be paid for well for an hour or two at a writers' conference!

Ruth T-C said...

Argh - "paid SO well for ..." Apologies for the error.

Ruth T-C

Digital Dame said...

I'm just shaking my head at their statement about "refusing to pay people for their work" as if shaking down authors to keep from getting bad reviews is some kind of legitimate line of work! LOL

Anonymous said...

Goodreads has turned a blind eye to 1-star bombing of LGBTQ books, including books not yet published or written. Many, many authors have begged them to do something about it - for YEARS.

A single profile has been responsible for thousands of 1-star reviews on mostly lesbian themed books. It's still a live profile even thought it's been reported hundreds of times - for YEARS.

So I'm not surprised at their lack of initiative when authors are damaged by criminals on their site; what do they care about individual authors? To them the content is endless and those who provide it are fungible. The money rolls into the Amazon monopoly and they have zero motivation to change a thing.

Anonymous said...

I got the Nora Droste/Smartasset scam, too. I was suspicious from the very beginning, and then tried researching them. I checked out the Smartasset site and couldn’t find a phone number. I didn’t like that. I called Poets & Writers; they didn’t know anything about it. I called my local Chamber of Commerce; they couldn’t find out any more than I did. I even asked one of my relatives who is in finance to check them out. She couldn’t find any more than I did, but thought they were legitimate. Because I had doubts about this conference since I couldn’t find specific details nor could any of my contacts, I asked the scammers for more information. Here’s the response:

“Thank you for your reply. I found your contact information from a web directory of illustrious writers and you appear to be a perfect match for our conference. Let me provide you with more information. We are a financial technology company who is promoting a virtual conference over GoToWebinar which is like Zoom. It will be called A Writer’s Experience as many of our employees love writing. This conference will feature renowned writers from around the country telling of their experience as a writer and/or poet to other prospective writers. We are looking for qualified writers to give a talk and answer some of the audience’s questions. Kindly select two days that you will be available for.”

This time I responded, and said my time was basically open, and didn’t name two days. I never heard back. Because of problems with my email storage, I was afraid their followup email got lost, I then sent them my phone number. Wish I found your site before then. I still haven’t heard back from them. I then tried to see if I could find any conference being advertised with Smartasset on line, and found you instead. This group not only almost took me in, but also took in all the other organizations and people I had contacted in trying to check them out. I’m happy I found your posting, but more attention needs to be brought to this kind of scam targeted at writers. I’m sure I would have eventually caught on to their scheme when they asked for personal details. Writers don’t expect scammers coming after us. It’s important that we are made more aware of these kinds of crooks targeting us. I appreciate you bringing attention to this problem.


 
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