Many young artists survive their early careers with commissions from friends and family. Zachary Ginsberg was no different, participating in local fairs and selling his portraits to relatives for a couple of hundred dollars.
Then his biggest score appeared out of nowhere. A stranger emailed through the painter’s website to inquire about a $3,400 purchase.
It seemed too good to be true — and it was.
What happened next followed a pattern seen in nearly a dozen attempts at defrauding artists of their paintings and money that were reviewed by The New York Times. In each case, young artists were offered an attractive price for artworks by “collectors” who sent them checks to cover the price of the work and the cost of shipping it. Each of them was then asked to forward the shipping fee by money order to a person who was arranging the delivery.
Ginsberg sent $2,060 to the aptly named Linda Shady, who was supposed to be a shipping agent based in Fond du Lac, Wis. She turned out to be a fictitious person who apparently used fake identification to cash the money order before Ginsberg was told by his bank that the $6,210 check he had received — more than he asked for — had not cleared.
“That was when I realized it was fraud,” Ginsberg said.
Cybercrime experts said fake check scams were growing. Though it did not study art scams per se, a study published in February by the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network tallied more than $124 million in damages from more than 40,000 cases involving fraudulent foreign money offers or fake checks.
Most of the cases start with an email from a fictitious person, a subset of the surge in phishing that has greatly increased the vulnerability of communications online. A study by the tech security company SlashNext projected that there were more than 255 million phishing attacks in 2022 through email, mobile and other online channels. That was 61 percent higher than the rate of phishing attacks the company tallied a year before.
Chelsea Binns, a cybercrime expert who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said the size of the problem was overwhelming the law enforcement response.
“The police want to solve crime, but they are limited in what they can do,” Binns said. “There is no recourse because the perpetrator is usually anonymous and could be located anywhere in the world.”
Ginsberg received his first message in August 2021 from someone going by the name Mark Stewart, who requested an immediate sale of the painting because his wedding anniversary was around the corner. The painting would be a surprise for his wife, who, Stewart said in one email, had spotted the artist’s work online and found it “impressive and intriguing.”
Stewart mentioned that he was moving to the Philippines and would need to use an expensive shipping company to complete the transaction. In text messages, the buyer said he would send Ginsberg a big check to cover both the price of the work and the shipping costs.
Why a check? He didn’t want his wife seeing the extra purchase on their credit card statement.
Ginsberg said in an interview that he was a little worried when the buyer wanted a financial transaction involving a money order. But he reassured himself by searching online and finding someone who matched Stewart’s description in Texas, where he had claimed to be from.
Then the check bounced. Ginsberg, a senior at Columbia University, tried to reach Stewart without success and then approached law enforcement authorities, including several police precincts near the campus for help.
“This was on my first day of classes and I was running from police station to police station,” the artist recalled. “The local precinct said there was nothing they could do.”
In December, the gallerist Jason Horejs blogged about the hundreds of scam emails that his dealership in Scottsdale, Ariz., has received over the years. Nearly 70 people responded to the essay, saying they had similar experiences of someone reaching out to buy paintings as wedding presents.
Jason Horejs, who owns a gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., said that when he suspected someone online was trying to scam him, the person responded with vague threats.Credit…Adam Riding for The New York Times
Through dozens of emails, the gallerist had conversed with a woman who said she was from Georgia. The woman attempted to convince Horejs, according to the emails, that a fraudulent check she sent to his gallery would cover the $4,000 artwork and an extra $5,000 needed for shipping. She even provided what appeared to be a valid Social Security number as proof of her identity.
But it was another case where a person had potentially stolen someone’s identity and was using her information to pass muster.
In Horejs’s case, he suspected that something was off and decided not to take part in the sale. The woman responded with vague threats: “Have banker do the needful and get back to me,” she said in one email, “because if I report to my boss about this, your account will be reversed and flagged as fraud. You will loose everything.” Enough gallerists and artists have fallen victim to these fake check scams that many art schools now instruct students to report suspicious activity and avoid sharing too much personal information on social media.
“Depending on the severity of the scam, campus security and the authorities are brought in to assist with the incident,” said David Soto, director of cybersecurity at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. “We assist the student with trying to recover any lost or encrypted data and try to provide them with the tools they need to avoid scams in the future.”
Jane South, Pratt’s chairwoman of fine arts, said the nature of scams targeting young artists had changed through the years. The fake check scams will sometimes start through direct messages on Instagram or Twitter. More recent attempts have involved requests to transform student artworks into NFTs for a price.
“They are preying on the vulnerability of young artists who want their work to be validated,” South explained. “That is something we address when we discuss professional practices: how to be empowered in your part of a conversation with prospective collectors.”
Ginsberg learned the hard way. Almost two years later, he remains frustrated by the ordeal. “I was very upset with myself because it felt like the beginning of something that I had wanted for a long time,” he said. “I thought it could be leverage for other sales. Maybe someone would see my work at his house.”
The artist has continued receiving dozens of fake requests for his paintings. The inquiries come from new email addresses with names like Phil Ferdinand, Karen Harris and Daniel Jackson.
As it happens, a Daniel Jackson also emailed this reporter, who writes about art but does not have a website filled with paintings and sculpture to buy. Jackson said he wanted cartoon illustrations for a presentation about the Covid-19 pandemic.
He offered $6,800 for the commission, which included a request for images of people socially distancing and wearing masks, as well as a cemetery of tombstones with a caption reading “Died of disbelief.”
When asked how payment would be handled, Jackson responded: “I can only propose a certified check.”
Do not hold your breath, Jackson.