Phishing Schemes Target Writers

by
Kevin Larimer
12.15.21

It is not altogether uncommon for Aimee Suzara to receive an invitation to speak at a writers conference. The successful Filipino American poet and playwright has performed as a spoken word artist across the country, including at Mount Holyoke College, Stanford University, and the University of Miami. So when she received an e-mail in July from someone purporting to be an employee of a major book publisher, asking her to take part in a virtual conference to “encourage people looking to become new writers,” there was little reason for her to suspect it was anything more than a new opportunity. “I do get invitations to perform or present from people I don’t know,” Suzara says, “so it wasn’t completely out of left field.” 

Still, there were “yellow flags,” she says. For one thing, the individual did not address her by name; instead the sender addressed Suzara with an impersonal “Hello.” Furthermore the eight-sentence message did not include a link to a website for the event, which was supposedly scheduled to take place six weeks later, and an internet search for the conference yielded no results.

The e-mail she received was, in fact, a scam—one of the many schemes circulating on the internet that are designed to trick recipients into sending money or sharing private information, schemes that in the last year, it seems, have increasingly targeted writers. This past summer dozens of writers reported receiving e-mails claiming to be from major publishers, including “Macmillan Publishing” [sic] and “Soho Press Publishers” [sic], inviting them to be a part of a virtual conference, for which they would be paid for their participation; $1,500 was the frequently promised fee. Some writers reported that they were sent a contract that appeared legitimate, with the logo of the company at the top, along with a request to send a $450 money order for video equipment—funds they were told would be reimbursed. If the writers send the money, of course, they never hear from the scammer again.

In August 2021, Poets & Writers, Inc., the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine, was contacted by roughly a dozen writers, including Suzara, who reported receiving such e-mails. Some of the fraudulent messages referenced the writer’s listing in the Poets & Writers Directory—a free resource at pw.org that contains author profiles, some of which include e-mail addresses (though a publicly available e-mail address is not a required element of a directory listing). Jessica Kashiwabara, digital director at Poets & Writers, sent an e-mail warning of the scam to writers listed in the directory.

Suzara, whose e-mail address is listed on her own website, grew suspicious with each new message about the conference invitation and wisely contacted the real Macmillan Publishers via an e-mail address listed on the company’s extensive contact page. She was informed that while the name of the employee attached to the e-mails she had received was real, the messages had not come from Macmillan. So Suzara blocked the e-mail address and considered herself lucky.

Not all writers have been so fortunate. Paul S. Flores, a Latino poet, playwright, performance artist, and youth arts educator who lives in San Francisco, says he received a similar e-mail, this one from a person claiming to be from “Smart Assett” [sic], the misspelled name of a real financial technology firm. Like Suzara, Flores noticed there was no website for the event, but when he pointed this out, he says the scammer replied: “We’ll get the website up in a couple of days…. Hurry up and turn in your contract if you want to, or we’re going to give the gig to somebody else.”

Flores was still uncertain, but not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, he eventually signed the contract. Then he received another e-mail. “We’re going to send you a check,” Flores recalls the scammer writing. “You must deposit [it] immediately.” Flores did in fact receive a check for $475, so he deposited it. Then, following the instructions, he sent back a $400 cashier’s check. A few days later, the check he had deposited bounced. “That’s when I learned I had been scammed,” he says.

Flores filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an independent agency of the United States government whose principal mission is the enforcement of civil antitrust law and consumer protection (complaints can be filed at reportfraud.ftc.gov), and he even contacted his own bank as well as the bank listed on the check that bounced—all to no avail. He was unable to get his money back. Flores cautions that the FTC records complaints but does not refund money lost to scams. 

This scam isn’t the only one that has targeted writers in the past year. There have been widespread reports of schemes involving the social cataloguing site Goodreads, a subsidiary of Amazon, in which cyberstalkers use the platform to extort authors with threats of “review bombing” their work, posting multiple one-star reviews until the author sends them money. There have also been reports of a phishing scheme in which someone posing as an editor or an agent attempts to gain access to an unpublished manuscript, though the endgame of the ploy remains unclear. (As Elizabeth A. Harris and Nicole Perlroth of the New York Times noted in late 2020, “The manuscripts do not appear to wind up on the black market…and no ransoms have been demanded. When copies of the manuscripts get out, they just seem to vanish.”)

About the more recent phishing scheme, representatives from both Macmillan and Soho Press say they were proactive when they heard about the fraudulent event. Paul Oliver, vice president and director of publicity at Soho Press, says the press did an internal audit to ensure there was no data breach of its own e-mail lists—Soho found no evidence of such—and contacted web hosting services to request that fraudulent sites be taken down. A Macmillan representative says there was no evidence of any kind of data breach at the company and that none of the e-mail addresses of targeted writers were found on its own internal mailing lists. 

Since phishing scams are prevalent, constantly changing and evolving, it is important for writers to remain vigilant. Scrutinize any e-mail containing an invitation, request, or offer for misspellings or vague language. (Simon & Schuster warned its authors that a fraudulent e-mail may contain the misspelling “Shuster” or “Schutser” instead of “Schuster.”) Refrain from responding or acting on an e-mail immediately; research and identify who is contacting you and on behalf of which organization. Rather than clicking on a link embedded in an e-mail, search on your own for a website that confirms the information. However, as the experiences of Suzara and Flores underscore, even independent research can turn up identical names of employees and companies. 

After her close call with the scam, Suzara bemoans the cruelty of targeting writers, so many of whom are eager to accept an invitation to participate in an event—and to be paid for their work. “This shouldn’t be so wild to get invited to speak for like a thousand dollars if you’ve been doing the work and publishing,” she says. “If someone else fell for it, I’d say don’t worry, you should be invited to do something like this, and they’re taking advantage of that.”

“We are susceptible,” says Flores. “Living in this economy as an artist, if you’re not doing a popular art form, it’s just so easy to be suckered into [trying to] get paid what you think you’re worth but don’t get.” 

 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc. He is the coauthor, along with Mary Gannon, of The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer: Everything You Need to Know About Craft, Inspiration, Agents, Editors, Publishing, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Writing Career (Avid Reader Press, 2020).