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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).

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

30 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.


Pamela K. kinney said...

I joined Goodreads long ago, before Amazon acquired it and it was fine back then. Sadly, like anything these days on the Internet, you get reviewers like that who are dishonest. I have seen a lot of these places, what we get for having the regular reader post reviews. I am learning to ignore them, as you can maybe get some company to get them off, but it is not easy. Glad no one threatened me like this poor author.

Mae West NYC said...

Hi, Victoria. Thanks for this "alert." This "Nora Droste" contacted me this week about participating in a "writer's conference" and being paid $1,500. Her email said Smart Asset (a real company in NYC).
But this is from her email, with an extra T: < Nora Droste (nora.droste@smarttasset.com) >
"Nora Droste" got very snippy when I did not sign & return the contract ASAP, threatening that my "preferred dates" might be given to another writer, and I did not seem sufficiently interested, blah-blah-blah.

Shame on whoever is behind this phishing expedition in order to fleece writers and poets of a bogus $450 for "equipment" that must be "purchased" in order to participate.

I hope this will be re-posted on social media before this scam ensnares numerous victims. Thank you for confirming this "dead fish smell" in my inbox was real.

Anonymous said...

I, too, got an e-mail from Nora Droste...I figured this was a scam because even high-profile authors are never offered $1,500 for just talking about their writing careers. Your blog is invaluable...and I'm going to share this posting with several writers who've brought out self-published books...just to alert them to the number of people out there who get their thrills by taking money from writers who have little enough to spare as it is!

So, getting the e-mail from Nora Droste has led me to your blog...so I owe a "thank you" to Nora Droste--but not for any reason she might expect!!

D.W. Lichtenberg said...

I also received a scammer email from Nora Droste at Smart Asset. The contract says:

This contract represents an agreement between us SmartAsset and you, the
presenter in relation to our upcoming conference. Both parties agree to the following
terms:
Presenting
The presenter will serve as an independent contractor and will be contracted to
present at our Writing and Poetry Conference event. The presenter will start on time
at 12 PM Pacific Time and will not be required to work beyond the previously
specified end time of 1 PM Pacific Time for 2 days. You will share your experience
as a writer and complete a question-and-answer session afterwards for our
attendees which include employees and members of the general public by invitation
only.
Compensation
We will pay a fee of $1,500 for the entire presentation by business check no later
than 5 business days after our conference proceeds. In addition, you will be
required to pay the equipment company, Micro Center for necessary conference
equipment including a monitor, web camera, headset and a copy of our
conferencing software GoToWebinar. with the check we are providing you in the
amount of $490. You will pay $450 to them and the remainder will be to pay for any
related expenses.
This payment is required in the form of a postal money order only due to the fact
that Micro Center requires the entity using the equipment to directly pay them.
In witness whereof, the parties have agreed to the terms above and executed this
contract on the month, day and year written below:

Mary Vigliante Szydlowski said...

The conference scam is still going strong. I got this today supposedly from MacMillan. Beware...

Kristen Pecci (kristen.pecci@macmillanpublishing.com)
To:you (Bcc) Details
Hello:

My name is Kristen Pecci and I work for Macmillan Publishers. We are hiring writers and poets with adequate work-related experience for our conference. The objective is to have you share your experiences as a writer and/or poet with everyone attending the conference including some of our employees and members of the general public by invitation only. This is to encourage people looking to become new writers. We request for you to work 1 hour on any two days between September 10th and September 30th, 2021. This will be between 12 PM and 1 PM Pacific Standard Time. We are willing to pay you $1,500 for these two days. If you are interested, please tell us the dates that you will be available for.

Sincerely

--
Kristen Pecci
Manager, Human Resources
kristen.pecci@macmillanpublishing.com
Macmillan Publishers

Victoria Strauss said...

Mary, thanks so much for sharing this. I'll update my post to reflect this new information.

Kristen Pecci is a real person and really works for Macmillan (the giveaway is the email address, which does not match Macmillan email protocol). Would you please forward me the entire email, so I can let Ms. Pecci know she's being impersonated? I will redact any details that would point to you, such as your email address. Thanks! My email is beware@sfwa.org

poetmarilyn@gmail.com said...

Last week I was almost caught up in the Nora Droste Smart Asset scam. The first time she asked for money for equipment rental, I sent it. She sent a check that I was able to cash. But then she asked for more money. Ah, no! When I drew the line, she tried manipulation: "The conference is coming up, and we're counting on you!" That sort of thing.

I'm grateful that you're outing the scammers. Thank you!

Marilyn Kallet

Natasha Saje said...

The "Kirsten Pecci" conference scam is making the rounds now. The "tell" is that "Macmillanpublishing.com" doesn't care what the presumed presenters are presenting and that money is asked for upfront for camera, etc.

M said...

I have been reviewed bombed on Goodreads several times. The latest was done by some lunatic on Facebook who took umbrage to me criticising GR for this very reason. I was also private messaged by this person with abuse.

Anonymous said...

Can we get the FBI in on this? I have a call in but am hoping there's a more direct route through a friend of mine, a former agent.

RS

Anonymous said...

The real Macmillan has a compliance team. I found it on this site: https://us.macmillan.com/about/contact/ by scrolling down to the "potential scam warning" section which lists this email address: compliance@macmillan.com

I emailed them regarding the webinar offer, and got their response:

"Thank for reaching out regarding the email you received about the Creative Writing and Poetry Conference. We are writing to let you know that it was a scam and not a legitimate communication from our Human Resources team.

Sincerely,

Macmillan Ethics & Compliance

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 7/27 7:05pm,

Please do approach your friend--that would be great. Where law enforcement has targeted writing scams in the past, it's usually as the result of a personal connection or a single law enforcement officer who gets interested in the case. If you have success, could you please loop me in? I'll be glad to talk with anyone. beware@sfwa.org

Anonymous 7/27 11:50pm,

Thanks for contacting Macmillan. I also alerted them via social media, and received no response. Like other major publishers alerted about impersonation scams, they know about it but aren't prepared to do anything (such as place warnings on their websites) other than respond to emails.

Georgia Larry said...

It seems to me that this is criminal behavior. As such it can be reported to the appropriate federal agency. That might be the FCC or the FBI. They can definitely track the originator of the posts.

C Shea said...

Thank you! You just prevented me from wasting time on the Macmillan scam. Wasn’t going to send any money without first receiving a check but I could have been caught up in this scam. I had searched on names and thought it was legit. However, the grammar of a subsequent email sent to me was so bad I started having doubts. I found your blog with this information and now I’m totally relieved and grateful.

 
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