Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Targeted Spam

December 2010

By Mike Gould

One of the nicer things about the Internet is that it is truly global in scope, which means that if you have a business website, you may get inquiries from other lands. Being a commercial photographer, I get gigs from the web all the time, but I had an interesting experience when I received the following email from Joe Akins in London at the end of August:

Greetings!
My name is Joe and my wife's name is Pamela, we live and work as wine sellers(wholesale/retail) in England and China and will be relocating to the State of Michigan, USA on the 22th of October,2010.

I came across your contact information on the internet after my online search for a photographer and I will like to know if you will be available to offer 4hours of photographic services for the celebration of our 5th wedding anniversary on our arrival to the States. Myself,my wife,my lovely daughter-Debbie and about 12 family members and friends will be present. Style of photography required could be a combination of both candid and traditional.

I replied that I would be delighted to shoot his lovely family. He responded as follows:

October 26th 2010 will be fine if this works for you, and if not then we can work out some other day.On arrival we will be located at (address) Salem MI 48175.This is our house where the place where the event will take place.Please get back to me with the price quote and the deposit required to bind the reservation

I responded that I didn't need a deposit, and heard no more from him. Then the end of October rolled around and I still hadn't heard back from him to confirm the shoot. I figured he was still tied up with moving and I headed for Salem at the appointed time.

In Salem (which is a village 20 miles northeast of here) I pulled up to a modest house with nobody home. There was a one-eyed cat in the front yard (who looked at me askance) and a barking dog inside, but no Joe and no lovely daughter. I waited a bit and headed home with the dawning realization that I had been had.

This has got to be some sort of scam, I thought, cruising through a driving rainstorm on M14. But to what end? It hasn't cost me anything but an hour of my time and some mileage; what the hey?

Pros at Cons
By the time I got home, my wife Salli had figured it out. A quick Google search on "Joe Akins Scam" revealed that this is a common con job targeted at photographers, models, makeup artists, and other professionals.

The way it works (according to shatterkiss on the Fred Miranda photographers forum):

... Next step is generally where they say they'll send either a check, wire transfer or Western Union of a dollar amount that exceeds your fee for the job, then ask you to pass the balance on to some third party for their fees. Your outbound payment leaves before your bank realizes that the deposit is fraudulent, so now you're on the hook for the money you sent out to the scammer.

I avoided the above when I declined to ask for a deposit; the scammer moved on to the next dummy and stopped responding to my emails and phone calls (to an answering service with a British accent, no less).

Bullseye On My Back
Now what makes this unique in my experience, is the wealth of detail that went into this. "Joe" knew I was a photographer, where I do business, and picked an address that 1) exists and 2) is within easy driving distance of me. I've never been to Salem before but the story seemed plausible until I started thinking about it with my BS meter tuned up.

Wine sellers in England and China? China isn't exactly famous for their wineries. Relocating to Salem? Not exactly a hotbed of viniculture. The bad English and punctuation I wrote off as some odd British-isms are the exact sort of thing you get from offers to help a Nigerian former president's wife smuggle millions out of the country.

I also got a second follow-up email giving the address as one in Chelsea. Evidently there is some automation to this, but not well implemented. Chelsea is about the same distance from Ann Arbor as Salem, so somebody/something is pulling up addresses around 20 miles from me. I responded to the second email asking which address was correct, but by then they had written me off and stopped responding.

I did check the address they gave me, and got a map to it via GoogleMaps. I am very glad no one was home when I came knocking on my fool's errand. The cat has probably forgotten me and no neighbors came by to see why I was parked in the driveway.

Caveat Ignoramous
Most spams and scams come from highly-automated systems that are spewed out randomly, and have the same sort of phishing aroma: Nigerian princes, curious English, fabulous sums of money, little blue pills, etc. This was just authentic-sounding enough to escape my usual radar, and had enough detail in it to make it seem plausible. Note the mention of "photography required could be a combination of both candid and traditional".

Pretty slick. The one detail they screwed up is always using the same message and "Joe Akins" name; this makes it pretty easy to Google the answer and if I had been a little more diligent about researching my new "client", I would have saved myself some time and energy. But then I wouldn't have a tale to tell...

Mike Gould was a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of the FacTotem constellation, builds lasers into lunchboxen, performs with the Illuminatus Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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