How Authors Can Protect Themselves From Potential Scams
One thing every book needs when it is released is a Press Release. I don’t care if you self-publish, vanity publish, or traditional publish, a Press Release is a “must have” for any new book brought to market. A Press Release is in itself a form of advertising and marketing of your book to retailers, merchants, buyers, and more. However, like everything else in today’s digital age, there is a dark side to issuing a Press Release.
Many Press Releases will include some form of contact either for the author, their publicist, or their agent depending on what level of representation and notoriety that author may have achieved. For many self-published authors or vanity published authors the contact information is more often than not their own personal contact information. This means that as these new, hopeful authors release their works into the wild, they may start getting random phone calls and/or emails.
I’m no stranger to these phone calls and emails. I’ve exchanged no less than 110 emails since Dec 2020. Most emails either get zero response from me these days or a polite declining of services followed with a request to be removed from future mailings from that group. And that doesn’t count the phone calls and voicemails.
Along the way, I’ve developed my own process for vetting these companies before I even consider entering into any kind of serious discussion of services. And while my process helps to identify possible red flags to indicate if a company is worthy of my interest or not, it is not a sure fire process. Some things that might suggest a possible scam might also just indicate a startup just looking for some leads. Likewise, something that might suggest a company that’s been around for a while might just been that they’ve managed to do people dirty for a long time. There are a lot of factors involved.
For those curious, here is my process each time I get a new contact from a company that I’ve never heard from before:
- I always check their website
- I look at the professionalism of the design and look for coding errors. Most professional companies are willing to invest in quality web design so websites with poor design and/or poor coding are usually signs that a company isn’t interested in their own reputation and appearance. If a company isn’t concerned with their own quality then what quality can I expect from them? I’d assume the same as their website. In today’s digital age, a website is your business card. If you have a crappy card, people have to expect you provide crappy work/services.
- I look for copyright dates posted at the bottom of the page. A lot of companies will post copyright dates on their website. This might give an indication of how long the website has been in service and can be compared to other data later.
- I look at what they offer on their website. If someone calls talking about turning my book into a movie but their services list things like building a website, social media marketing, and book shows then that’s a bit of a red flag for me. Why would someone call me about a movie deal from a company that doesn’t provide that as a listed service?
- I look at the HTML code of select pages on their website. Now this may not be useful to those who aren’t familiar with HTML but sometimes you find extra nuggets of information in the HTML regarding who built the website, locations affiliated with the website, etc. Usually there isn’t a lot of useful information but as a coder I find it interesting to look.
- If no website can be found, red flag. How does a modern company not have a website? Why would they have a domain registered for sending emails but not a website? Just no!
- I always check www.bbb.org
- I try to do a general search with just the company name to see if anything comes back but if I don’t get a good result then I’ll add the city and state listed on the website.
- I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to the ratings. I’ve seen some ratings that seem suspect. The ratings are based on reviews and given that the website is a public service, anyone can review any organization at any time without any real validation. This means that people can post 5-star reviews for a company even if they are an employee of that company or just a random person with no affiliation or experience with the company being reviewed.
- Instead, I like to read the reviews themselves, even the positive ones. Are they all recent or spread out? Are all the reviews positive with absolutely no negative reviews? How old does the BBB say the company is? If the BBB lists the company as being relatively new and all the reviews are within a short period of time and all positive, that screams suspect to me. How can a company be that new but already have multiple positive reviews, especially on services that often take many months to complete? Do any of the reviews mention the staff by name? Do other reviews show to be posted by a person named in another review? I’ve seen it done. Are the reviews generic in their praise but never really say anything? All these things seem suspect to me. Why not provide details in your review? How can an employee provide an objective review about their own company’s services? I’d expect a new company to have almost no reviews, much less multiple within a short period of time. I’d expect an old company to have several reviews with a solid mix of good and bad because even legit companies can fail to meet expectations at some point.
- I also like to take note of any responses from the company about complaints lodged on this public website. This back and forth between the customer and company regarding dispute resolution can tell you a lot about how the company provides customer service. Public disparaging of customers who lodged complaints or repeated failures to resolve disputes serve as red flags to me. Not everyone who has a bad experience will lodge a complaint but when you see multiple complaints that either were not resolved or only resolved through legal action then that implies that such issues are more commonplace than a single website might represent.
- I always try to find the company on Facebook
- Any company that wants to be taken serious today knows that a social media presence in a must. Facebook is free and is widely popular. Plus, if they have a FB page, it will tell you when the page was created. This date can be compared to the copyright date from the website to see how well they align. Older companies may have copyrights that pre-date their FB page but any company with a social media page that has been created in the last 1-2 years is an immediate red flag. Sure, they may just be a new company with a new profile but I’ve found more often than not that these groups will tell you about how they’ve been around for years and were established a decade or more ago. When you start to see these discrepancies, take note. FB is not new. A company that’s been around for that long should have an old FB page.
- Likewise, the absence of a FB page is another red flag. FB is a powerful marketing tool. How can you sell social media marketing services on a website but not have a social media presence on the premier platform?
- But just having a FB page is not enough. You have to look at their FB page. What do they post? How often do they post? What are the quality of their posts? Are the posts consistent with the services being offered on their website? Are there any posts consistent with the services being marketed to me in whatever email or phone call I received?
- I always try to find the company on Instagram
- The same rules apply for Instagram. No IG page, red flags. New IG page but promotes itself as being around for years, red flag. An IG page with few posts, few followers, a lack of quality content, red flag.
- I always do a Google search for the company name
- I try to see if the company shows up on any other websites, personal blogs, etc. What are others saying about this company that might not be on the BBB website? Any complaints? Any praise?
- Often if it is a new website, regardless of how long they claim to have been around, there will be little information on Google that isn’t directly tied to their own website.
- I always do a Google search for the contact person’s name with the company name
- Sometimes people will name names when posting complaints or commendations about a company. If they had a great experience with someone, they’ll want to give that person props. If they clashed with an individual or individuals, they’ll want to blast the people that pissed them off. I’ve found things online that mentioned the people who contacted me with very explicit details regarding their interactions. Most of the time, such posts are very negative and detailed so it is always worth a check.
- I always do a search on Reddit for the company name
- Reddit is a sea of information. You’d be surprised what you might find on Reddit with a little bit of effort. I’m not a Reddit guru so I’m sure I’ve missed stuff there but when I find things, I find it helpful. It never hurts to explore such a prominent service that hosts millions of users and probably trillions of threads.
- I do a Whois lookup on the company’s web domain name
- This is a bit of a techie thing that not everyone knows about. Every website from yahoo.com to facebook.com has a registry entry. These registry entries can be searched online for free. Go to a website like https://lookup.icann.org/en and just enter the domain name you want to lookup and the website will return the registry entry. This registry entry will tell you when the domain was first created, which the current registration is set to expire, and in some cases, who it is registered to. By default, domain registries are public and you can see who registered domain and even where they’re located, For an extra fee such details can be hidden from public searches but I’ve found most of the domains I’ve found suspect weren’t willing to spend that money. I have my theories on why but I’ll leave them off of here since they’re only theories.
- Again, the dates here can be telling. If someone tells you their company has been around for years but the domain was created within the last several months, red flag. Websites have been around for year more than Facebook. Companies had websites before social media was a thing. A company isn’t going to be years, or decades, old with a website that was just recently created.
- I always ask for references, when I engage in communication
- Pretty much any reputable company that is conducting cold-calling sales techniques to sell you services that can cost thousands of dollars will be prepared to provide references. Any company that refuses to provide references is a red flag. Any company that says their references are on their website is a red flag. If I control my website, I can put whatever I want on it and if I refuse to provide any other references then there is no way for anyone to refute the claims posted on my website.
- Most companies take the approach of saying that they won’t provide contact information for their customers out of privacy concerns but as a consultant, I have a list of current and former customers who have given me permission to use their names and provide their contact information to others when discussing potential work. One would think that if these companies were legit that they would have a similar list of “go to” customers that would be willing to help them out with new clients.
- I’ve taken away their privacy argument by suggesting that they provide my contact information to their customers who can reach out to me however they feel comfortable, email, phone, text messaging, or social media, and that way I’d be able to learn more about the company from an unbiased perspective. I have yet to have anyone take me up on this deal.
- I never agree to have a coordinated meeting between me, the sales rep, and their reference. I want an unbiased opinion, not one that is influence or coerced by the company’s participation and monitoring of the conversation. I want to be able to ask real questions and get honest answers. That can’t happen if someone from the company is listening in, perhaps chiming in too.
Other things I’ve noticed from a few encounters:
- Does the email address the email was sent from match the web domain of the company’s website (if one exists)? If not, red flag. I had someone email me from a personal @gmail.com account. A company will not use personal email addresses for contacting potential clients.
- When the phone rings, does your carrier flag it as “Possible Spam”? This means that others have either reported this number as a spam caller or the carrier’s algorithm has detected something fishy with that number. Maybe it’s a voip number through a registered service like Google and not a real number.
- Are their emails poorly formatted text and nothing else? Maybe a few basic images? Companies spend thousands, if not millions, on marketing materials annually. There’s no reason why a legit company wouldn’t have marketing flyers, pdf catalogs, and other professional marketing materials available to send via email instead of clunky text based emails that look like they were put together by someone learning how to use MS Word.
- Do their emails talk a lot about everything but their services? I’ve gotten emails about book fairs where the company wanted me to pay them to represent my book at a book fair. However, the email talked more about the book fair itself and not really much about what the company would do for me at the book fair. It was almost like they were trying to sell me on the legitimacy of the fair and not the legitimacy of their services.
- I actually reached out to one book fair that a company tried to get me to buy their services for only to find out that no such company was a registered participant in that show. MAJOR RED FLAG!!!
- When I engage these companies in communication it is usually not because I think about going into business with them but to see what they say when I ask these questions and point out these discrepancies. It’s fun to fluster someone who is just looking to make a quick buck off a schnook. I ask how long the company has been around. Are there any notable authors that they’ve worked with and what did they do for them? I always ask how they plan to achieve the results they inevitably promise me. They usually try to talk around the question by attempting to use terminology and lingo that they think will confuse and/or amaze me but get flustered when I call them out on it. When I call out their claims to being a decades old company but one with a new website or no social media page it’s always, “we’re working on it”. Most of my phone calls end up with me just hanging up on them because they won’t give up the illusion even when its obvious they’ve been busted.
- If they tell you that they have someone from Hollywood or Netflix wanting to talk to you about turning your book into a movie, always ask for that person’s name, which studio they represent, and why they are reaching out to you through a group that does not represent your or your material. In most cases, they’ll explain it away as they have a working relationship with these people, even if their posted services make no mention of movies. In many cases they won’t give you the person’s name in advance but will instead want to coordinate an introduction call between you and them where they’ll ask you for money. Never give them money. Always ask for a contract up front and then verify any information they give you. Find that studio and call to see if that person really works there. Have an attorney review the contract before you sign anything. And above all, NEVER SEND THEM MONEY!!!
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