Cartoonist Scam Alert
Cartoonist Scam Alert! Couldn’t think of a better way to title this one, other than to get the attention of any fellow cartoonists and creatives out there. It’s absolutely true, I tossed twelve grand in the trash! Not because I couldn’t use the money, but want to document my experience, so as to save any other fellow professional freelancers from potentially being ripped off. My experience began around the first week of February after receiving an email from Shantel Weber, who indicated she found me on the internet and liked my cartoons, and was an event planner who had a sponsor that was putting together a seminar on covid vaccinations. Pretty timely right? Well it gets even more interesting. She indicated needing seven custom cartoons in color and wanted to utilize the images in hand-out materials which would be targeted at 15 to 20 year olds.
So far it all sounded logical, as I read further, she emphasized “if you’re interested I need final art in 30 days….” Seven illustrations in 30 days is not a stretch, I can do seven images in a day if the money is right. I was waiting to see if she’d ask me to quote her a fee to create the artwork based on her intended usage….she did not. Rather she wanted me to first respond. Which I had done, and I simply told her my preferred protocol to work with her, i.e. supplying a clear and finite description of each image she needed then I would show her rough sketches…..and the 30 day window of time was not a problem. I emailed her the usual procedural protocols I expect in working with a new client and describe how he or she could provide the ideas and in turn what is done on my end in order to carry on the process.
Rarely do I show enthusiasm in any kind of inquiry….I don’t feel that part of it is professional (especially after becoming used to working with many types of creatives after 40+ years of freelancing). She then responded to my answer that she will be sending the seven descriptions in a follow-up email. Fine I thought, I could look them over to see how feasible and doable it would all be and what would be entailed in the overall project. She followed up and indicated she had a disease called Apraxia (look it up, it’s extremely rare…..roughly 200,000 cases across the country are known) saying it was difficult for her to verbally speak over the phone.
OK, not a problem with that….many people have certain health problems and difficulties and assumed it was a reasonable explanation (yes, I looked up the disease online). Even professionals can have these serious diseases or maladies, although this is my first encounter with someone who had Apraxia. In that same email she said her sponsor had a budget of $850 per image and did give me a clearly defined outline of all 7 ideas, I got started on all of them and didn’t break myself creatively but just sketched in a couple one day, a couple the next and so on….I eventually scanned all images into Photoshop and saved them in a folder on my system, going back and eventually colorizing each one, one at a time. The colorization process required, was not intricate either.
I did “flat” colors and left some of the background very basic as she requested. Not a lot of detail and emphasis on shading etc. This took roughly 6 days and I showed her the cartoons as they were produced one by one to which she responded all of the cartoons were satisfactory and her sponsor liked them. Not a single change or alteration was requested. Additionally I withheld any enthusiasm thinking I could provide her with a new catalog I published, in the event she did require new work for future projects with any other sponsors / clients and contacts she had in the ‘event planning’ business. The event planning business is a very legitimate industry and I’ve done cartoons for professionals in that category before. Cartoons and light-hearted illustrations work well for companies needind posters, placards and single panel cartoons for print ads or as she indicated, needing them for print hand outs. It all sounded very logical up to this point. She said that her sponsor was going to provide a cashier’s check as payment if that was acceptable and needed an address to send it to, after I emailed her an invoice for the complete set of cartoons….a total of $5950.00
I wrote up an invoice, save it in my invoices folder and attached it in a follow up and waited to get the envelope in the mail. The beginning of the second week after finishing all 7 cartoons, I had a follow-up email from her saying the sponsor is requesting I do five more similar cartoons and to expect a ‘Two-Day’ Priority mail envelope in my mail with a cashier’s check for $12,000.00 – did my antenna’s go up? Just enough to wiat for the mail which came that same day she emailed me. The priority envelope arrived from a company called Occidental Chemical Corp. based in Topeka, Kansas. I assumed as an avent planner, she was freelancing for companies around the country and Occidental was sponsoring her seminar for their workers, since covid vaccinations and mandates were very big topics around this time. I ripped the edge off the envelope to open the pocket and look inside and yes, there in fact sat a cashier’s check for twelve large! No note or post-it sticky note with any hand-written “thank you” like many editors / consultants or other people I’ve illustrated for in the past, have done. Just a plain ‘Priority Mail’ envelope with a cashier’s check for the twelve grand.
I bet you’re still wondering if my antennas went up, right? Well, they did upon looking at the cashier’s check which was drawn on a bank in North Carolina called ‘Branch Banking & Trust Company’….mind you, no physical address for BB&T was on the check but the antennas were going ‘beep beep beep’ at the name of company on left of check….it was a cleaning company called Dilworth Cleaners in Charlotte, NC and they are in fact listed online. Now starting all these questions that come to mind, like why is a check from a company based in North Carolina, in an envelope sendt to me out of Topeka, Kansas? Not to mention the check is very legitimate in appearance. It had all of the usual security features within the check such as a heat-sensitive shield on the front what showed an emblem if you touched that section of the check.
Also on the back a very small box the recipient or banker could scratch to reveal a set of verification numbers and letters. Also incorporated into the check was the ability to actually see the word ‘VOID’ across the check if you made a photocopy of the ceck. This is a feature provided to consumers also, who can request it for their own personal safety in the evnt they lose their checkbook. It’s a way to deter criminals from making photocopies of your check and then cashing them at stores or financial institutions.
Not exactly a halographic feature incorporated into the paper on back of the check was the word “DocuGard” and an emblem of a shield was visible when tilting the paper at an angle in the light. Okay, with all of these aspects in mind, and with my antennas fully up and in beeping-mode, the next logical step was to take it to my local bank where my checking account is. Jodi G. is the bank’s ‘senior financial specialist’ and one of the main tellers who I go to, I assumed she would scrutinize this thing much further. I go in and she is at the counter, I hand her the check and her eyes get a little big and I’m telling her I think it’s fake, can you please verify it for me. She is into her computer and then says OK, come around the counter. No w it got even more interesting, since the routing numbers along the bottom were all listed online under the name of the bank in Charlotte, NC.
One of the other tellers sees what’s going on and she comes around and hugging me, giving me high fives etc. and I’m still kind of wary of the situation and doubtful about the situation at hand. OK, Jodi then calls the bank’s number, and is then put on hold….she waits 30minutes, another time, 50 minutes…..I told her I have a fiduciary in town I wanted to also show it to and if she hears anyhing to call me. During this time, it was assumed by the bank to be a legit cashier’s check (based on the name of bank on front and routing numbers matching the bank (you can find this information online now, which I wasn’t aware of).
Mind you, all of my apprehension is based on hearing stories where unsuspecting people have gotten checks and deposited them and literally paid off bills or debts, because of their current financial situation and then rewarded themselves with odd purchase of simple conveniences, like stereos or home entertainment systems, only to be contacted by their banks that the check that was deposited was fake and the financial institution had to withdraw the amount of that check in order to fix the error. The customer is out. I did not want that happening and who’s to say, once a deposit is made, would that give the scammer access to my account for additional electronic withdrawals? Not happening here.
After showing my fiduciary the check, he said it looked good and I could possibly deposit it but I should still go to the other bank I told him I was headed to. The FlagStar branch locally had replaced Wells Fargo where I have a second smaller account. A gal named Joyce was there, I went into her office and set the table on the whole story, took out the check and she had toal skepticism written all over her face. She hmm’d and hawd and then called the bank on speaker phone. The answering machine said that particular branch was permanently closed and to call a specific 800 customer service number…..to which she called and was instantly put on hold like Jodi was at the last bank.
She emphatically said do not cash it but rather tell them they could easily wire transfer this amount into a special routing number at the bank, and see if they respond (she said I bet they won’t). This was a different alternative I had completely forgotten about. Wiring money is yet another good way to do it, so went back home and emailed the “apraxia scammer” as I now call here and said I cannot verify the bank on the check and was told by one of my banks that her “sponsor” could easily wire transfer the twelve thousand into a special account number I could give her.
You guessed it, Shantel never responded. The jig was up! She suspected I had the potential scam figured out. I was still being serious when I contacted her (in a facetious sort of way) and in the back of my mind was thinking she wasn’t going to answer. For all I know, it could have been some guy! And as you guessed no reply from firstname.lastname@example.org but my last part of the investigation was yet to come. I did get a phone number for Dilworth Cleaners in North Carolina. A guy answered (yes, you guessed it, he had a foreign accent). I told him I received a cashier’s check from him and he said it was best that I call his wife who handles all of the financial affairs of the business.
I called the number he gave me which led me to an answering machine which then made me realize it wasn’t worth leaving a message. The entire thing was a basic scam. I hope by documenting this experience, it will act as a public service message to help others to be as protective of their finances and business affairs which could be easily compromised by some ne’re do wells out there. In this electronic age, I was “found” online, so if you’re a creative with a portfolio or catalog, it could very well be you as the next target. Be aware of these petty (or complicated) criminals who are very devious and diabolical. As the great Ronal Reagan once said “trust but verify”. Do your due diligence when encountering similar scenarios and keep your antennas up. I know with myself personally, if there was a drop of greed inside my soul, I’d have run to he bank asap and just told them to deposit the entire check but I put all of the pieces of the puzzle together as the project slowly but surely fell into place. A so-called “event planner” personally removed themselves from the equation by not having a phone number (oh, of course, I was provided with a number if I wanted to text her).
Then the cashier’s check arrives drawn on a bank that could not be reached, and the name of the company appearing on the check as a DBA (doing business as), was also unreachable and removed them from the equation via answering machines and ultimately you may be wondering if I contacted the Occidental Chemical Corp. in Topeka, Kansas. I did! And a security guard answered, giving me a number of their financial officer where I left a message…..you guessed it, no call was ever returned. The deviousness of it all has me wondering just how many people fall for this scam. I mean the people at the first bank said it looked like a legit check….and the routing numbers were all matching the bank listed on front of the check plus it contained a lot of detailed and meticulous security features.
Don’t be vulnerable and let greed rule your decision making
If I can help one fellow creative out there, sharing this experience will have been well worth it! Don’t hesitate to contact me if you’ve personally had a similar experience, I think it would be interesting to compare notes and share ideas in order to help others avoid potentially be robbed. One word comes to mind, as I mention all of this “skepticism”, if you are or skeptical of certain situations it will save you…..don’t let greed be your downfall. Like many basic human emotions, greed can hurt you in the long run! Be skeptical and ask questions!
Update / addendum:
After sharing this experience with fellow cartoonists and illustrators across the country via a popular cartoonist’s forum, I discovered that a well known Mad Magazine cartoonist also was contacted with a similar proposal as was another cartoonist / illustrator in the Buffalo, N.Y. area. In regards to personal privacy issues, I prefer keeping their names out of the conversation.
I also discovered in recent communications with one of these artists, that the way it would would have worked had I actually deposited the check, would have been to immediately let Shantel know about my deposit, a couple days would pass when she’d then advise me that her “sponsor” had to put the seminar on hold and I would be contacted later in the year to actually proceed with the remainder of those illustrations I was paid for in advance, and would be requested to mail the extra proceeds to an address she’d provide. Of course I don’t think I’d be that ignorant, but again “greed” could play a factor in many people’s decisions. It’s another instance where these basic human emotions could affect you financially.
As the old saying goes “If it sounds too good to be true….it usually is.” The moral of the story is to listen to your instincts, be very aware, ask questions and investigate and above and beyond everything, don’t be gullible. If you have had a similar experience, feel free to contact me so I could enhance this article in some way, in order to alert, and make other creatives aware of bad people who scour the internet, hoping for an easy mark.