Gallery Insights
Information, insights, inspiration. Exclusively from Artsy.

Sale or Scam: Verifying Online Inquiries

Online art sales have boomed in recent years, and they’re projected to continue to grow by 24% year-over-year. This is great news for most galleries, who are increasingly taking advantage of the convenience and global reach of online art sales. However, as the number of collectors buying online increases, there are also more scammers posing as collectors. Art scams are nothing new—galleries have long been receiving phone calls and visits from scammers, often pretending to be international collectors—but dealing with them online can be especially difficult. 

So how can you best protect yourself? If you don’t know what to look for, it can be hard to tell the difference between a message from an excited new collector and a message from a scammer. Below, we’ve gathered several examples of fraudulent messages passed along to us by our gallery partners—they’ll help you learn what to look for, and we’ve also included tips, takeaways, and response templates.

Editor's note: all names, emails, and links have been changed to protect privacy

  • Projected value of the online art market; Hiscox Report, 2016

    Projected value of the online art market; Hiscox Report, 2016

The Scam: Ship & Slide

Hello Artist.

I am so excited that I came across your work on Internet search,I am interested in purchasing some creative artworks from you let me know their various prices.and how much discounts are you going to give? I will be happy to have these selected artworks hanged in our new home. As well, I want you to take out the shipping cost.I have been in touch with a shipping firm that will be shipping other house decorative, We are traveling from our home to our new apartment as soon as possible,Please let me know on how to proceed, Have a wonderful day.

Best regards,
Mr. Thomas

The Takeaway: Many payment scams revolve around shipping, and any unusual shipping requests should raise red flags. This may include international shipping, requests for extra fast shipping, a specific (often mysterious) shipper, etc.

In one of the most common versions of the scam, the “buyer” sends more than the agreed-upon amount of money, usually by check. They may ask you to pay the difference to a fake third-party shipper (or they’ll simply claim it was a mistake and ask you to refund the extra), and you’ll be out any money you send when the check inevitably bounces.

Pro Tips:

It can take several weeks for a check to clear. You can ask your bank about how they handle bounced checks, but if you’re feeling unsure at all, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t accept it in the first place.

Create a set of shipping policies for your gallery and stick to them. Some basics:

  • Specify your preferred shipper
  • Require documentation if a collector wants to specify a shipper
  • Wait to ship until payment has been confirmed in your account

    When responding to a potentially fraudulent message, politely—but firmly—outline your shipping practices. Here’s a brief template you can modify to fit your needs:


Hi [Name],

Thanks for inquiring! I’m happy to discuss pricing with you, but please note that we prefer to ship with [shipper or shippers] and we include shipping and all associated fees in the cost. If you would like to work with a third-party shipper, we require [phone call, certification, etc.] from them.

Looking forward to working with you!
[Your name]

The Scam: Switcheroo

Hello my name is James Orin Please if this item still for sale kindly email my dad he is very interested fake.email@gmail.com

The Takeaway: This is a particularly tricky case. The initial message doesn’t indicate exactly what the scam will be, and this type of message isn’t all that unusual. However, there are some very clear indicators that something is off about this potential transaction.

First, the use of “this item” in place of an artwork’s title (or even simply “this artwork”) suggests that it’s probably a template that is copy and pasted—there are no details here that are specific to this communication.

Second, one common trait of many scams is a switch to a different email address or to claim to be acting in someone else’s interest. “It’s a surprise for my husband,” “my wife has been viewing your works,” and similar scenarios show up frequently in scam emails. Any message containing such language should be treated with caution.

Pro Tips: 

If you’re unsure about the veracity of an email address, GMail add-ons like Rapportive and Clearbit can help you to check if someone is really who they say they are.

Short, clipped messages are not always indicators of a scam. They may just be from a busy collector writing on a smartphone; errors in grammar and spelling are generally better indicators of potential fraud.

The Scam: No Time to Lose

Yes i can take it for $3200 and i am based in Los Angeles but i can have my shipper pick it up in your gallery first thing on Monday morning b/c i will be catching a flight of the country tomorrow but i want to make sure everything regarding this beautiful work is settled.

Can i have my credit card details emailed to you so could have your money charged from it.

Thanks
Brian Michaels

The Takeaway: This scammer is hoping to get the work from you before their payment has had a chance to be declined—or they might even try to contest the charge with their credit card company after the fact. Again, mentions of a specific shipper should be cause for concern. And if you’re being pressured to move fast, don’t compromise on your standards for shipping and payment.

Pro Tips: 

Mentions of international travel can indicate a scam—it will probably be used as an excuse for unusual payment practices, particular shippers, or other shady activities.

The suggestion of emailing credit card information should make you think twice. There’s no reason to send sensitive information via such an insecure and abusable means as email.

The Scam: Bait & Switch

Hi Susan,

How are you doing today, sorry i was out of town thus i couldn't get back to you earlier. Below is a pdf link of other paintings that i selected from your gallery works on artsy

http://www.pdf-order.tk/

Kindly give me a detailed information/ quotation on this paintings as soon as possible.

Thanks,
Josh

The Takeaway: Links to unknown sites should be handled with great caution. In this case, the URL would have sent you to a site that recommends you change your DNS (Domain Name Service), which probably would have resulted in a hacked site.

Pro Tip:

Very few transactions should require any kind of linking—stop and think about why you’re being sent to an external site.  

The Scam: Detail Disorientation

Thanks for getting back to me. I must tell you I intend to give my husband a surprise with the immediate purchase of the piece. Also If you'd like to know, I'm relocating to the Dublin, Ireland soon and our wedding anniversary is fast approaching by February. So I'm trying to gather some good stuff to make this event a surprise one. I'm interested in the Untitled (2016) by Rachel Painter I'm pretty sure he will love it. Kindly confirm the price so I can send the check to you today.

As regarding shipping, you don't have to worry about that in order not to leave any clue to my husband for the surprise. As soon as you receive and cash the check, my shipping agent (who is also moving my personal effect) will contact you to arrange pick-up.

I would have come to purchase the piece myself but, at the moment, am on training voyage to the North Atlantic Ocean (I'm an ocean engineer) with new hires who are fresh from graduate school and won't be back for another couple of weeks. I'll look forward to hearing from you.

PS: In the meantime, kindly get back to me with your full name (you want the check payable to) cell phone no. and contact address (preferably for UPS not P.O box) where a check can be mailed to, so I can get the check prepared and have it mailed out to you right away.

The Takeaway: Scammers will always seek to complicate the transaction. This message—actually a widely used template—combines several elements from other scams: international travel, specific shipping requests, and untrustworthy payment methods.

Pro Tips: 

Googling a few different lines of text from a suspicious inquiry is a good way to check if it’s based on a template.

As with shipping, create a set of payment policies. Our recommendations:

  • Don’t take checks, or require a two- to three-week holding period for all checks to give your bank time to clear them
  • Only accept electronic payment through trusted websites (e.g. PayPal, Stripe, Square), and even then, stay on your guard—some scammers will send payment and then dispute the transaction, claiming they received a damaged item or that it never arrived
  • Refuse to ship works until payment has been confirmed in your account

                                                  ______

Scams seek to capitalize on human nature. We want to trust people, and when someone presents us with an exciting opportunity, it’s hard not to jump at it for fear of missing out. The most important key to avoiding scams is taking a step back, doing your due diligence, and trusting your instincts. 

As more galleries sell art online and the market continues to grow, digital services are also learning to serve their customers better. At Artsy, we’ve developed a reliable network of collectors that helps our partners sell online with confidence, as well as flagging services that catch emails like these so that galleries can focus on conversations that will lead to sales. 

When you do find yourself on the receiving end of a suspicious email, stay cautious and follow your predefined policies—as the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

Subscribe to the Gallery Insights newsletter
The latest market research, art buying trends & forecasts, and tools to help you excel.