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Email Scams Targeting Business Owners

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, March 08, 2016

What's that your momma always said? “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But ma! The flip side — "don't look a gift horse in the mouth", right? No. That's not even what that means. Listen to your mother and beware this common email scam.

If you are given an opportunity or a gift, don’t examine it too closely, just accept it for what it is and be grateful. While that may be true for the $50 check you received from Grandma last week, please don’t apply this unquestioning faith to every thing that comes your way, particularly online.

Over the years, I’ve been a target in a few email scams, and I know I’m not alone. After having just deleted yet another one from my inbox, I’m reminded of how much email scams have evolved, from widely targeting senior citizens to now, increasingly, business owners.

For better or worse, I’m a tiny bit skeptical by nature (though I’d like to call that ‘discernment’ — sounds much nicer that way), so my spidey-senses were tingling already the first time this particular email hit my inbox. Thankfully, the only thing it cost me was maybe 45 minutes of my time. In the interest of preventing another business owner or freelancer from wasting 45 minutes of their time (or worse!), let me share my initial experience with a common email scam.

I received an email inquiring about a quote for a website…

Hello my name is Johnson Dunne am a professional farmer, i want to know if you can create a website for my new agricultural company and also do you accept credit card as means of payment? Thanks.

Sounds innocent enough, right? But there were yellow flags right from the jump:

  1. The sender’s display name (johnson dunne, all lowercase) and email address (johnsondunne444@gmail.com) were unprofessional. Now of course, not everybody with a Gmail address is a scammer. But if you have a legitimate business, you tend to send business requests from a business email address. Since Mr. Dunne was asking for a website, it’s reasonable to think he doesn’t yet have a domain name to set up a business email address, so that’s understandable. But spammers and scammers notoriously set up accounts with free email services where they can quickly and easily create disposable email addresses (usually with a string of numbers at the end to create a high volume of unique email addresses).
  2. The person inquired right away if I accepted credit card as a means of payment.
  3. In that brief correspondence, I counted eight grammatical errors or typos. That’s a pretty impressive feat for such a short email. It’s not that I read emails with the sole intention of counting typos, but when one is so inarticulate, it’s hard to miss them, and like it or not, it casts a shadow of unprofessionalism. In this case, it could indicate someone whose native language is not English.
  4. There was no email signature at the end or other means of contact in the email itself.

But, on the chance that this was a legitimate inquiry, I certainly didn’t want to unfairly judge somebody for not taking the time to run spell check. In my reply, I responded that yes, we accept credit cards; I asked for him to share the details of his project in an attached planning document so that I could provide an estimate; and I asked if an existing client had referred him.

His response:

Thanks for the reply, I have small scale business which i want to turn  into large scale business now it located in IL and the company aim is  based on importing and exporting of Agriculture products such as Kola  Nut, Gacillia Nut and Cocoa so i need a best of the best layout design  for it.

It’s just enough information to seem legitimate. He anticipated common questions (likely to save time on useless on back-and-forth emails) and he was prompt enough in responding within a couple of hours.

Buuut, did anybody else pick up on some orange flags? In addition to the consistently poor grammar and lack of sentence structure:

  1. He offered his budget upfront. (This never happens. It’s difficult enough to elicit a prospective client's budget after asking. With Mr. Dunne, I hadn’t even approached the topic yet).
  2. His budget is extremely generous for the informational site he is requesting. Taking a look at his example site, there is no way it’s worth $9000.
  3. The mention of his “private project consultant” is curious. On its own, this may not raise a flag, but coupled with everything else, I had to wonder who this consultant was and where exactly he fit in.
  4. My requests went ignored. He did not respond to my question of who referred him, or complete the planning document I sent him.

The saga continues…

And so, still trying to gauge his credibility, I continued. I composed a quick email with a ballpark cost, timeline, and overall terms for moving forward. I asked a second time for him to complete the planning document, including his contact information. Send.

The response:

i will need a Little favor from you and the reason i need this favor from you is because the consultant does not have the facility to charge credit cards and i also am presently in the hospital for surgery so i will be glad if you can help me out with this favor.

Err, what? Just to appease my curiosity at this point, I ask, “Johnson, what favor are you asking?” to which I receive:

i would give you my card info to charge for $4200 so $2000 would be a deposit payment for my website design and the remaining $2000 you would help me send it to the project consultant that has the text content and the logo for my website and also $200 tip for your stress.
  1. Ding, ding, ding! And there we have it. The Giant Red Flag. No, sir, I cannot help you with that. I prefer not to have the FBI knocking at my door after I'm implicated in a money laundering scheme.

Thus ended our email correspondence.

So, here’s the thing. This type of scheme is not new. My guess is you’ve even been hit with some variation in the past. But scammers are human (supposedly) and so they intelligently adjust their M.O. as more people are made aware of their tactics. You may not be a web designer, but I have no doubt that scammers are targeting people in whatever industry you are in, and are constantly evolving to make themselves seem more legitimate and appealing to you. I’ve gotten other similar emails since Mr. Johnson Dunne, and of course, now I simply delete them.

So, what do you do about these email scams targeting business owners?

  1. Ignore it. If you recognize it immediately as a scam; don’t engage. Mark it as spam and move on with life.
  2. Report it. You can file a report with the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI if you feel so inclined.
  3. Publicize it. Just like I’m doing now, share your experience with others. The best way to stop scammers is for the targets to raise their own awareness. Yes, scammers will evolve, but our discernment needs to evolve right along with it, and hopefully, remain ahead of their curve.
Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 12 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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