I do a bit of contract work here and there, but not too often as I work a full-time job. Usually, I find my clients via word of mouth, like a friend knows someone who needs work done on a site or a new site created. Only once did I have someone reach out to me because they found my business card at a coffee shop (they had a design firm and asked for my rates in case they were overloaded with work). I want to talk about a scam someone tried to pull on me.
Because of this, I was already suspicious when I received a text message from a man who calls himself “John Williams”.
John: Hello how are you doing today? My name is John Williams i’m making an inquiry to know if you can handle website design for a small scale business and also if you do accept all major credit cards if yes kindly get back to me asap. Thanks….
The initial mention of the credit cards seemed weird, as well as not mentioning how he found me. I decided to go along with it and see what he had to say about the “project”. I replied quickly stating I did in fact take credit cards (I do use Square invoices for a regular client who pays with a credit card), and would like to schedule time to chat about the project. It took him a while to reply:
John: Good I have small scale business which i want to turn into large scale business now it located in Alaska and the company is based on importing and exporting of building equipment so i need a best of the best layout design for it. Can you handle that for me?
Okay, so this is starting to seem a bit weird. You don’t just turn a small business into a large one by building a website, but maybe English isn’t his native language and the translation is just coming over strange. I give him the benefit of a doubt and continue with our conversation.
I tell him that I can definitely handle building the site for him, and would like to schedule a time the next day (it’s already evening at this point) so that we can talk about the project and I can explain the process that we would go through. He completely dodges the phone call scheduling again.
John: so i need you to check out this site but i need something more perfect than this if its possible http://conamco.com/ … the site would only be informational, so i need you to give me an estimate based on the site i gave you to check out, the estimate should include hosting and i want the same page as the site i gave you to check out and i have a private project consultant that will provide the text content and the logos for the site.
Ahh, there it is. The second person. I don’t know why, but this is something scammers seem to do, always giving you off to a second person. I am guessing that this is a way to know which people are falling for it, and those people will contact the second person, who will then try to get you to pay them money or give them personal information about yourself.
The next day, I decided to re-initiate contact with “John”. I sent him an estimate that I thought would be low enough to keep him interested, just to see where this would go. I told him the estimate would be $800, but I would need a $200 deposit.
He immediately texted back and sent a list of requirements, which all seemed like legit web development requirements. The last bullet point was this:
John: My budget is $4000 to $8000
Considering I quoted way less than that (after all, it would be a very simple HTML website, nothing fancy), he tells me he has this large budget.
After this, I started googling: Web Design Scams. The first two or three hits have the same exact message he sent me the day before, mentioning the small scale business becoming large scale. At this point, I knew 100% it was a scam, and wanted to see what I could get him to do for me.
ME: I thought I would be speaking with your project consultant first? I will need the content and initial payment before I begin work.
John: Okay you can text the project consultant on this *** *** ****
John: Okay get back to me with the total cost
Me: Sounds good! May I ask how you found my web development company?
John: Have you talk with the consultant?
Me: In the last 30 seconds? No. I am curious how you found my business though.
John: Okay someone direct me to you. Mr mike
I do not know a Mike, or not one that I have worked with in many years. I decide to start messing with him.
Me: Oh that’s great to hear. How is Mike doing? I know he was pretty upset after losing his children to Ebola last year.
At this point he starts dodging and wanting me to get back to him with the cost (which we’ve already discussed. I told him I could do it for $4000-$8000, and to say hello to “Mike” for me. Again, he asks for the cost, so I repeat it. Then this:
Me: I need to have proof that your business is real. Can you do that for me?
John: Okay how ?
Me: Can you send me a picture of your business card? I just want to make sure you have the capital for this size of project.
John: Okay but I don’t have it with me right now.
I then tell him to send it to me when he has it, so that we can start the project. I didn’t want to delay getting his website built!
After a while of waiting, I decided to try to get him to send me something, anything. I never contacted his “consultant”. I figure the time I can keep him busy, the less time he has to try to scam other people.
Me: Your consultant has not responded. Are you really John Williams, I’m having doubts. Could you send me a picture of a letter head or something with your name on it and the company name? I just want to make sure I can trust you, John.
Me: Are you there?
At this point, he’s not responding. I’m afraid I may have lost him. I miss talking with John, he seemed like a good guy. I decide to contact the “consultant”, and see what he has to say. No word.
Six Hours Later
Hours later, John writes back. He clearly is in a different time zone (probably in Africa somewhere). I thought I had lost him, and missed our conversations. John asks if I have spoken with the “consultant”. I tell him that he has not responded yet, and then I immediately get a message from this so-called “consultant”.
Consultant: Yes have he explained every thing to you ?
Me: Yes he has. I am just waiting on proof of the business and we can get started on my end. I have two developers ready to go!
Consultant: So what are going to do about the web site ?
Still ignoring the proof of business inquiry. I’m hoping to get a silly hand-written business card from the scammers. I’ve also asked for a letter head, just to see what they come up with.
Me: I need the content and logo from you and we can build it. What is your name?
This is where it gets interesting. If you’ve stuck around this long, I’m sure you’re wondering what the scam actually is. John tells me he will send me the letter head, and the “Consultant” says that he has not yet been payed by John so he will not give out the content and logo. You can see where this is going. His name is Scott Evans, another generic English name.
John: Yes Thanks for your response, I am okay with the estimate everything sound good and i’m ready to make payment now with my credit card. I understand the content for this site would be needed so work can start asap but I will need a little favor from you
Me: Ok what is it? Can you send me that letterhead and I will help you with your favor
His favor, in short, is that he will give me a credit card to charge him $7200. I will then deduct $3200 as a deposit for the design, and another $200 as a tip (because John is a really nice guy). Then, I am to send the remaining $4000 to Scott Evans. It is probably a stolen credit card, or one in which they will reverse the charge immediately, taking $4000 of your own money.
I asked him to send me a picture of the credit card and the letter head, and I will take care of it on my end. I tell Scott that I am getting the $4000 that he is owed.
Scott: Ok he owed me $4000 balance for the logo and content…so he told you going to send it to me, then i’m going to send you the logo and content so you can start the work as soon as possible
Me: Yes that is correct. I’m just waiting for him to prove that he is who he says he is and I will transfer the funds.
Now John is telling me that he is on a business trip and doesn’t have a card or letter head with his info on it for me to see that he is real. But don’t worry, Scott has assured me that he is a great guy, and they have met before. I ask Scott for a picture of John, and John to provide something with his name on it. Obviously John and Scott are the same person, or at least sitting next to each other, so I want to see what they will come up with.
John’s Big Reveal
John gets back to me after some time with this photo:
I tell him it is a beautiful picture, but could he please send a quick selfie with him holding a piece of paper with his name on it? Just to make sure… He seems confused by this request. Just then, Scott sends me a photo of his buddy John:
Well look at that, it really is John! John insists that it really is him. I tell him that I believe him, but my business partner insists that we have a picture of him holding something with his name on it. After a quick reverse image search, I came across these photos: fake-scam.info.
He refuses to take the selfie. Instead, he pushes the fact that the site should be running by the end of the month. Sure, I can build a $4000 site in two days! But really, if I could do that, I would be quite rich.
He agrees to finally take a selfie but without writing his name after I threaten to leave our business arrangement. And to my surprise, the selfie arrives!
I hope that this post prevents someone else from falling into one of these stupid scams. Unfortunately, they do work, which is why they keep doing them. I told him immediately after this that I knew it was a scam and ceased further communications.