Below is a copy of a newspaper article written about my experiences in the summer of 2021, when I learned a LOT about the ‘scam’ industry. I hope it helps some people out there, both the artists who end up on the bad end of a scam, and the many consumers who have to be careful where they shop.
Here is a guide we’ve written to spotting scams online – Cin
Chester artist Cindy Chinn is known around the world for her unique take on metal art, which often involves working with saws. In fact, she’s know in many circles as “The Saw Lady”. Summer is usually a quiet time for the saw business and allows Chinn to work on bigger projects and custom orders. But this past May, that all changed.
Images of Chinn’s saw art caught the eye of a company in China. This led to a series of events and many lessons for the Chester artist. Chinn knew something was different when she started getting a higher number of orders for a couple of days, and then things went crazy. She also starting seeing advertisements on Facebook featuring her own photos of her saw art and being “sold” by companies she had never heard of previously. As it turns out, there is an entire scam industry operating in China which finds new products to market using an artist’s original images, and then they provide the cheapest possible knock-off, if anything at all.
With all of the dozens or hundreds of ads featuring Chinn’s artwork, many people saw past the scam and searched for the original artist. This resulted in a large increase in sales and many, many inquiries.
Although the scammers first showed up on Facebook, they were soon all over the internet and Chinn has spent a lot of time trying to shut down these online stores or have items removed from websites like Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Wal-Mart and many more. For some, it was an easy process. Wal-Mart Online would remove the counterfeit items within a day, while Chinn is still battling with Amazon to get them taken off of their site.
Chinn has since been in contact with other artists and ‘Scam Prevention’ groups to learn about how to combat these companies. Some of these artists have had their online sales tank due to the flood of fake products and many have devoted countless hours and months to taking down websites and trying to reclaim their brand identity. Chinn herself has benefited from the increased sales, but knows that her brand has taken a hit due to the negative aspects of these scam sites. How this will play out in the long run remains to be seen. “The scamming has been a double edged sword”, says Chinn.
Early on in this battle, Chinn was actually contacted by one of the first marketers (scammers) who wanted to collaborate. They thought that if they took in the orders, Chinn could make the saws and ship them because they were getting too many orders and shipping from China was taking too long. Of course, Chinn had no intention of working with these people, but strung him along to get as much information as she could from him.
What she learned was that this one company had sold over 3000 fake saws to buyers in the USA during the first few days. They sell them for $39.95 and it costs them $5 to buy the cheap knock-off version. This particular company has a staff of about 100 young 20-something boys and all they do is search the internet for photos of unusual products to work their scam on. Working from a cubical in their Mainland China Office building, they build a website store, a Facebook product page, and start running ads using the photos they found. They consider themselves a marketing company, and they have no problem stealing images to work their scams.
She also learned that her efforts to remove scam ads from Facebook were being effective because she was a hot topic at the scammers’ lunch table, as they complained about some of their popular ads with over 10,000 shares had been taken down.
Most of the ads the scammers placed were “Father’s Day Specials”, so needless to say, there were thousands and thousands of disappointed families who either received nothing or a cheap imitation of what they were expecting. And they aren’t the only company; there are many and they all steal from each other as well. Taking your money is a game for the boys and this isn’t illegal in China. Chinn also learned that for most, their motivation is to make enough money so they can be considered husband material in the very competitive marriage market.
So what was involved in battling a scam Facebook page? Chinn started by alerting her friends in a special group she set up, so that they could privately post about the infringing pages and ads. From there, people would follow the links to the offending pages, leave bad reviews, add angry faces to their posts and most importantly, report their ads as “Scam or Fraud” to Facebook. In many cases, an infringement report was filed with Paypal to try and halt sales. Of course, the scammers can remove comments, block users, turn off reviews and take other defensive actions (but they can’t remove the ‘angry face’). Many will just start a new page, if they don’t already have three or more going. Most of these Facebook pages are started within the past month. Some times the offending store was reported to the hosting company, but since they were all based in China, this was quite futile as the response back was to “work it out”.
Since that time, Chinn has heard from dozens of scammed buyers, many who thought they were buying from her! Yes, there was one page on Facebook listed as “The Saw Lady Shop” and using Chinn’s photos, videos, and customer reviews. They were pretending to be her to promote their scam.
The biggest lesson Chinn learned through all of this is how pervasive the fake ads and websites are. There is in an entire industry in China aimed at fraud and offering the great deals. Everyone should be aware that any ad or website found on the internet should involve a lot of investigation before getting close to a purchase. Website reviews, domain searches, and related searches – these are all part of the new buying experience. Online shopping is made to be simple and at times we get complacent and just click the ‘buy now’ button. Many people locally have bought that ‘nice shirt’ or ‘cool shoes’ they saw on an ad, only to find the actual product is of much cheaper material or four sizes too small.
As consumers, we always need to be on alert for scams and other misleading advertising. Sadly, there are many people and companies looking for a new way to separate us from our money. The old ‘bait-and-switch’ has been with us forever but is taking on new forms in the digital age and with more people shopping online.
Although we still want to shop locally and support our communities, not everything we need is available within a short drive. So what can you do to protect yourself from online scams? The first rule, is that “if it looks too good to be true”, it’s likely a scam. Read the comments on ads, Are there angry or sad faces on the comments or photos? If so, it’s likely a scam. Follow the link on the ad to the Facebook or Social Media page before going to the checkout to give them your money. If their reviews are turned off, they are likely a scammer.
Check the name of the store that is selling the product. Have you heard of it before? If not, Google it and look for reviews. If it is a store you are familiar with, check the spelling and make sure it’s the official store and wasn’t recently started. If you’re buying on Amazon or other marketplaces, check the seller reviews – there are many scammers operating there. Be vigilant, be careful and be aware of who is getting your personal information. If you use a payment system like Paypal, your Credit Card information is kept from the store.
It is now two months since the scammers hit, and Chinn has been busy every day since, although she took a day off for Chesterfest! So far she isn’t running out of saws to work on, but she is looking for new suppliers. Keeping up with orders and deadlines usually isn’t a problem in June, but with temperatures reaching 100 degrees, Chinn works at night when her welding shop is a little more welcoming.
“As an artist, I’m not going to ever complain about having too many orders – BUT – I do have other projects I’m dying get back to!”, says Chinn before heading back out to the welding shop for another session.
August 21st Update: I have been able to remove over 1000 fake saw listings from Amazon (USA) this month and over 500 in other countries, thanks to the ‘brand registry’ and ‘trademark’ tools they have. Facebook ads are mostly gone now, but there are still many websites ‘selling’ the knock-offs and Paypal does nothing when infringement reports are sent to them.