There are a million and one ways to get scammed on the internet, we all know that. And of course there are also scams directed at artists specifically (1). But there is a new scam in town that I want to talk about that is geared specifically towards online artists.
If you are an artist with an online presence chances are you have received one private message or other on one of your social sites. These messages differ, depending what they are trying to sell you, but they usually have one thing in common: they sound like YOU are going to be the one earning a shit ton of money – for next to no effort. And usually that is because your art is just so special.
aha. sure *sigh* (hint: no ones art could ever be that special)
Note 1: I am not telling you any names because the next person trying to scam you might use a different one. Ultimately, the name is completely unimportant, what is important is to know that you should not get into these kinds of things in the first place.
Note 2: the first part of this was written before I got the additional information mentioned below – so some things may repeat.
Let’s look at an example
Let me give you an example of what I recently received on deviantArt via note from :
The set up is different for all of my artists. You decide the arrangement that you are comfortable with. I only make $10 per print. You decide your fee. You submit what you want to represent your work. When someone buys something of yours your fee is added to the cost. The higher your fee the more expensive your art costs are. My most successful artists charge $10 and sell more prints. I have some artist that charge $200 fees and rarely ever make a sale. I have been selling locally but I am building a website right now to bring it to the internet. I am limiting the amount of artists. More interested in discovering up and coming artists then using big name artists because I want to help people who could use the money more then just padding someone’s savings account. For now we can set up any payment method you are comfortable with but as it grows I will need to use one method for all the artists to simplify things. I would be happy to have you as part of the team, If you decide your interested just let me know your fee and ill send you agreement papers with the terms. Then you submit what pictures you want me to use. Nothing ever gets printed unless you are paid. The file size needs to be 1200 x 800 minimum. jpg, png, gif or pdf and then I do the work to convert it to the proper format for back lite printing
Now, you may think I must have made a mistake when copying and pasting because there is no greeting, no signature no nothing. But this is exactly what I got. This is on purpose. Because when I told him he could take his scam and leave me alone, he got to reply with:
I can see how you would think that but this is not a scam. The message I sent you was screwed up somehow and only part of the message came through. I am only contacting artists who’s work I think would look amazing back lit. Our company is called B-Lyt out of Florida. It is new but I have been selling backlit art for over 6 years at conventions and home shows. If you will permit me I will print up one piece of your art of your choice and show you what it is we are proposing to do with your art. You at all times retain all copyrights to your work and can pull your art off at any time. You have some work that looks like it was made for Back Lite. Your piece “Lost” for example would be unbelievable. I really hope we can work something out. Sorry if I did not do a better job of introducing myself and presenting the offer but words are not my talent.
[name of guy + company deleted] (Gallery and Print Shop)
This should put everyone’s mind at ease, right? He’s just not good with words, probably young, inexperienced,… Backlit prints are all the rage, dA doesn’t offer them, so why not check it out?
Because it’s a scam. That’s why.
There are a multiple red flags in this proposition, so let me break them down for you:
- There is no personalized message at first, he is just trying to see who even reacts; there is only mention of my art specifically in the second note “your piece Lost…” which is I think the most successful image in terms of favorites for my gallery in a long time. There was no effort here to actually look at my art, he just picked the one he thought I’d feel the most flattered about. And I bet he only looked after receiving my note back. The rest is just as vague as the first bit.
- The first message does look cut off, front and back, like only “the important bits” came through. Think about it: how likely is it that a glitch in a system like dA notes which has been very reliably in all my 15 years using the site will leave exactly that bit in? So much for “somehow and only part of the message came through.” How exactly did you manage to cut off the beginning AND the end? This is a deliberate strategy to keep everything very, very vague. He can decide based upon your reaction which bit of info to feed you next in order to get you hooked.
- The promise that “you decide”, everything is personalized, everything is tailored to your specific needs (including the payment method, at first at least). This has at least three upsides for him:
- for one, it lets him automatically off the hook if you were to ask about any specifics about the arrangement – he can just say this is all up for debate / negotiation / whatever instead of having to say something that could spook you away. See point 2 above.
- It will give you the false confidence that you are in control. How could you be scammed if you are in control of every step like that?
- And it has this air of luxury and being cared for that you probably don’t get selling prints on redbubble or dA. Especially not if you are not a big seller to begin with.
- The pricing is ridiculous, but also kinda tempting if you don’t stop to think about it: so he only makes 10 USD per print. The artist can choose their markup freely, but it is best not to be greedy (“My most successful artists charge $10 and sell more prints. I have some artist that charge $200 fees and rarely ever make a sale.”). The 10 USD for him can be read two ways depending on your level of “business savvy”: the sales price is 10 USD + 10 to 200 USD + nothing for the business expenses such as the print itself, the labor cost, the shipping,… ? Alternatively, all of that is included in the 10 USD “for him” and he is not talking about actual profit but only about sales revenue? But then what on earth is his profit? How does this business even run? And then, do all sizes have the same markup? Why would you do that? Btw, the way I see it the print itself is not very expensive, but you’ll need a lightbox and a light to go with it – that can get very expensive very fast (6).
- Cue the altruistic motive: “More interested in discovering up and coming artists then using big name artists because I want to help people who could use the money more then just padding someone’s savings account.” To be frank, when someone has to tell me how much of a helpful / honest / caring / etc person they are, then I get immediately suspicious. If you were such a helpful person, you would hardly feel the need to tell me you are not in it for the money. You’d have something to show for yourself that would convince me of that in a different fashion. What he is really saying is “anyone with a bit of experience will know what I’m doing, so I chose you.”
- Which leads me nicely to the fact that there is absolutely no information on that guy or his business online at all. No name, no address, nothing (2). He gives an explanation early on “I have been selling locally but I am building a website right now to bring it to the internet.” which is a load of crap. Who would be able to get any sort of business these days without at least an instagram or facebook page? If you want to promote your business, why is your dA profile completely empty? Why are there no pictures of your gallery or store? Because you MUST have some sort of store or gallery to sell prints if you are not doing it online. Why is there not a single trace of your product? There is also no trace of any of these artists that you mention making decent money with you – you’d think if you needed to convince someone to hop on board you’d show them what they were hopping on board for – and how happy other artists are working for you. It’s called a testimonial. And you don’t have any. None of the “credentials” given in the second note can be verified (“I have been selling backlit art for over 6 years at conventions and home shows”). Even though it should be easy to get pictures from such shows or, again, testimonials of happy artist and/or customers.
- He packages the whole thing as on one side being without any barrier for entry: “The file size needs to be 1200 x 800 minimum. jpg, png, gif or pdf” which is ridiculously low for a print and is more or less the resolution you see online for display anyway. This means he is not excluding anyone, even if they’ve never created anything to be printed and work on low res as a hobby. (3)
- Then he infers that the process behind the backlit prints is complicated, he says the file formats need to be converted (“then I do the work to convert it to the proper format for back lite printing”), but no worries, he does everything for you. A quick google search shows that actually, the equipment you need can be elaborate, but it comes down to the usual “use a good resolution file as input and print the thing” which means: no, there is no conversion required. Just a special kind of printer (4).
- He uses FOMO – fear of missing out – like most scam artists do. They try to put you on the spot and make time of the essence. In these notes this is done rather subtly by trying to spin the narrative that you are so special, you should be an early adopter (“I am limiting the amount of artists.”) and as long as you are you even get to choose your payment method. Can you hear the cash coming in already? The sooner you jump the faster you make money.
- Despite all of the above, he can of course show you a sample: even better, he can even show you a print of YOUR very own work! “If you will permit me I will print up one piece of your art of your choice and show you what it is we are proposing to do with your art.” Maybe he will show you some “samples” (if he does it doesn’t mean they are from his shop) or maybe he will say that the prints can’t be photographed well, so you’ll have to see it for yourself. And what better way to see than on something you are familiar with? You can even keep it! Want to bet he wants you to pay for the production cost of this sample?
- Do I really need to point out the appalling English? “you’re” is not the same as “your” and sentences don’t start somewhere in the middle. He’s not just “not good with words”, this is just one block of text with the punctuation all over the place. In fact you need to read it multiple times to get all the info out of it. Which again is probably on purpose: he is counting on you latching onto what is important for you and then he can deal with that without having to go into details for anything else.
I received additional information from a fellow dA member
The person I know this from is a fellow dA artist who sent me screenshots and will stay anonymous (5). This is the part that was written after the part above.
It is worth noting that the initial note they received was longer than mine – also all in one block of text, no personalized greeting but already including the name. The rest of the information given was similar (print size, he will do everything for you, implying how complicated this is to do, altruism, etc) but with the notable exception that here he gave a price range of 10 to 20 USD per print as “realistic” artist profit, not mentioning the 200 USD not selling.
Though here there was another extra spin saying that he had been selling prints “locally at conventions and open houses but since COVID there is a need to go online”. Which explains just as little as what he told me – there is no valid reason not to have at least some form of online presence these days. Before COVID, after COVID. Who cares? He is just using the current “all-encompassing explanation” for why he had to change his business tactics.
Here are a few more interesting points that transpired over a few extra notes and emails:
- After being asked to, he shared some very dubious photos of art that look illuminated from behind and that were not very flattering: the pictures were of two very corny Christmas scenes that I very much doubt anyone would pay to have backlit in their home, especially seeing as the lightboxes are pretty expensive(6). It is not even 100% clear from the pictures if these were backlit prints or rather digital picture frames. They do not show up on a reverse image search, but in my opinion that doesn’t make them legitimate: it could be pictures taken by the guy somewhere that has nothing to do with him.
- He shared the address of his shop/gallery – when googled this is a classic well-off neighborhood in Florida. On street view, you can see the garage with a not too cheap car in front. But no indication of a shop / business address. I think he chose something not too high end, but well off to impress the potential victim.
- He sent an agreement to sign which to me does not look like much: it doesn’t even include that artist’s address (only name, phone and email) and consists of one page with three headings. There are no definitions in the contract, and the language does not feel very “lawyer-ish” to me. But then I am not a lawyer to evaluate the content.
- All I can say is that the American contracts I have seen in my line of work (engineering) are much, much longer than this and include pages worth of clauses for every possibility that may arise as well as a ton of definitions both which is due to the American legal system based on Common Law (7). So to me it looks weird that this agreement is only a one pager, but that doesn’t mean it is not binding (in fact I would bet that it is, but anything not defined therein is simply not defined and thus this might not be a great contract to sign – just a gut feeling though).
- So what could be the purpose of this agreement? My guess is that it serves two main functions: a) to make the artist feel in control and b) it makes everything look much more legitimate and therefore has the potential to saw doubt in the artist’s mind in case they do arrive at the conclusion that this whole thing isn’t worth their time. They are more unlikely to call it a scam or they are afraid they may be sued if they accuse the guy in public.
- The agreement lays out that payment for the artist is “per print”, the same no matter how large the print is. That alone should make you suspicious I think because, as said above: this cannot be how any business operates. Where is the transparency you’d need for a long business relationship? Where is the incentive for the artist to provide large print files? This is not a business with a plan, it’s just window dressing.
- Furthermore, the artist can buy their own art at 10% discount as well as “(1) Lightbox at discounted cost”. This is an interesting wording I think: Not for free or at 10% but at discounted cost. No indication what such a lightbox might cost at all. Or where that discount will end up.
- He says on one hand that they are looking for artists to provide the material for going to online sales (with an “aggressive sales blitz in February” before which it is on purpose that there is no online presence at all – yeah right) but at the same time he claims he’s been successfully doing this for years, so he must already have artists, doesn’t he?
- He “explains” the convoluted pricing after being asked to do so in an email where the artist has also indicated he wants to make sure it’s not a scam and also asks for some sales record / legal paper etc (anything to verify legitimacy).
- He does not give any proof of sales or legal docs, but “explains” that producing one picture costs 30 USD (no matter the size I guess? it’s again not specified) and “the boxes and labor costs cost hundreds of dollars”. Apparently, the customer buys one box but usually 3 prints and later even more prints constantly (as if they’d switch the picture every week or something), presumably to switch them out. Furthermore, company’s profit per print is only 10 USD + the 30 USD for the production + whatever artist’s profit (say 20 USD) so the print alone is worth 60 USD or thereabouts (which is so far above market value it’s ridiculous, see (6))
- He opens that mail saying “no hurry” but then proceeds to put pressure on the artist along the lines of, if you don’t want to it’s fine but I need to know so I can give your spot to someone else because we need to prepare the launch and need to know if you are on boar (FOMO!).
- He also says “I understand it takes a certain type of person to do sth new and bold”, making it a cowardly move to back out, as if he were the next big thing after Apple (double FOMO?!).
- He ends this email by asking if the artist would like to see the agreement paperwork… but from what I can tell he had already sent that 3 or 4 days earlier. Now that makes you feel special, doesn’t it?
- In one of the later emails, he said he could print one sample of the person’s art “at cost”.
In the screenshots I have he did not specify a price for that yet but seeing as they can do hardly anything with the print file to make money from it, in my opinion this is the heart of the scam. I think they will offer a backlit print for 30 USD (which again depending on the print size is already too much, see (6)), but then say you’ll also need a lightbox for it to be properly viewed and then they want more like a couple hundred all in all, incl shipping… That is speculation of course, however speculation based on the email screenshots I have seen.
So all in all, when you get offers such as this, ask yourself: what is the business plan? Where is the money coming from? If you cannot figure that out then the answer is most likely: from you. Even if it is not very obvious at first, they do find a way.
If there is no business case in this, the source for their money is you!
That btw isn’t just the case for such scams, but also for “actual business opportunities”: there are so many people out there who are just downright bad with money, but some of them go on to found a start-up or other kind of business anyway. Some are good with money, but only with your money. It might not be an actual scam as per the definiton of the word, but every time someone promises you an opportunity to make money, be careful.
Think about what they get out of it before you commit. And NEVER ever pay them anything (remember: they approached you!): if their business plan is so great, they do not need your money – they have investors and an actual plan and are most likely VERY good with words (or they wouldn’t have gotten that money from the investors). They know how to pitch, they don’t need you to guess your way through!
And on a sidenote: if this were legitimate and I was thinking about selling my art somewhere, I personally would want to see what kind of art the other artists there would be selling in order to see if it is worth my time and effort to get in on this. If the other art is crappy Christmas scenes I wouldn’t want to be associated with such a shop at all, no matter the promised revenue.
I hope this makes you a bit more aware of the latest art scam and you don’t fall for any of this in the future!
(1) If you are interested to find out more about the various artist scams out there, I suggest you take a look at this very comprehensive list on artbusinessinfo.com.
(2) If you do find the company or store or something online I would be very careful though with just believing a random guy on *social media of choice*. It’s not like you need to jump through hoops to prove you are who you say you are when opening an account. All you need is an email address, and then you can pretend to be whoever you want (unless it’s a verified account for example on instagram – but these guys don’t have those) and say whatever you like. You could use a real company, lift the image off of their about page and pretend to be the founder… so be cautious and try to think a bit like a criminal sometimes in order not to get scammed 😉
(3) At 300 ppi which is a good print resolution, you will end up with a postcard sized print (4 x 2.7 inches or 10 x 6.7 cm), at best you get double that when using 150 ppi. The lower your resolution gets the lower the quality (which may be okay if you are not getting too close: for example a billboard could get away with a lower res, but who’d order a billboard of your art for their living room?). For someone selling something so special that the customer will want to buy a backlit print for at least 20 USD (plus expenses or not?) this is tiny. Sure you can offer small sizes for the odd customer that may want something tiny, but these would just be an add on, not the main selling point.
(5) After leaving a comment on the guy’s dA profile “beware this is a scam!” (which btw he hasn’t responded to in any way, but it sits there nonetheless) I was contacted by a fellow dA artist who told me that the guy took everything to emails (that way dA cannot get him for using their platform, scammers love email) and then demanded money for that first show print (he said basically: I can show you how great your art will look and for that you can purchase one print at cost) . I don’t know how much, but with that info, all that shit falls into place, don’t you think?
(6) A few more thoughts on the pricing of the prints: the printed artwork itself is actually not all that expensive, there are lots of online print shops where you can have a backlit print printed, but they rarely sell the lightboxes to actually mount them in (example of a German repro service) which is probably because this type of print is used mostly in advertisement where the boxes exist already but need fresh prints every few days or so (in Germany these ads are all over bus stops and railways, I’d imagine it’s the same for the rest of Europe). Those that do sell both the print together with the mount can be quite expensive as you can see here (large lightboxes for sale, at least 1 m high, starting at over 500 €, German) and here. The latter is a UK company selling also smaller, not so expensive boxes “Indoor Light Boxes” but the cheapest in A4 already comes in at around 72 €. If you are going for a piece of art you may also look at the “Fabric Light Boxes” which for A4 start at over 400 €.
(7) article about the difference between Common Law (US, UK,…) and Civil Law (Europe) contracts; a noteworthy excerpt: “Overall, a common law system is less prescriptive than a civil law system. There is an extensive freedom of contract when setting up a contractual relationship between two parties. Few provisions are implied into the contract by law, although safeguards often are implied to protect private consumers. As a direct result, ALL the terms that govern the relationship between the parties need to be clearly defined in the contract itself. Such necessities often result in a contract being longer than one in a civil law country.”