UPDATE 7/30/18: I wrote this about a year and a half ago. Thumbtack.com has actually changed the bidding process on the back-end of things that somewhat mitigates the chances of the scam I wrote about. BUT, this is still a common enough money scam, even outside of Thumbtack.com, that I think it’s important to share this story to help others recognize the warning signs.
I hadn’t planned on this post because, well, no one plans on getting scammed. But, here we are.
When you side-hustle to survive, you directly open yourself up to a world of money scams. Unfortunate, but true. You naturally depend on other people for your livelihood – moreso than you would at an office job. Most people don’t take advantage of this built-in vulnerability…
There’s any number of ways these assholes can try to con you out of your money, but it’s easy enough to study up on the red flags.
Until I win the Powerball, my main money-making side-hustle is face-painting. This particular money-scammer, ‘S’ for short, came to me through Thumbtack.com. For those of you unfamiliar with how it works, potential clients fill out canned questionnaires about their event, open it up to bids from five potential freelancers, and pick out the professional they wish.
So, ‘S’ put in a job request, I bid, he accepted, and we went from there.
Red Flag #1: the request itself was odd.
Whatever your specialty in the side-hustle world, become familiar with what a ‘normal’ request is. Recognize the patterns and don’t be afraid to question a client when something is abnormal. For this particular face-painting request, four things were amiss:
- He had a ridiculously high budget, as far as face-painting for a birthday party goes.
- It was incredibly last minute, only two days before the alleged party.
- The length of the party was seven hours – unless the Good Lord Himself is showing up, ain’t no birthday party in the world lasts for seven hours straight on a school night.
- It was a weird demographic, in that, this was allegedly for a 16-year-old boy’s birthday party. Now, in the eleven years that I’ve been face-painting, never once have I been requested specifically for a teenaged boy’s birthday party.
Any of these alone wouldn’t have necessarily suggested that ‘S’ was a money scammer, but…
Red Flag #2: he would only communicate through text messages.
Again. By itself, not necessarily a red flag. I totally get it. Talking on the phone sucks, especially with strangers. Texting and emailing is the way to go, plus a written account is good protection against liabilities. I don’t pressure clients to call me if they would clearly rather text/email, but this guy’s texts were somewhat incomprehensible. When I was able to understand what was going on…
Red Flag #3: the details weren’t lining up.
It was relatively easy to get ‘S’ to confirm he wanted to hire me, and he seemed fine with the
hella expensive quoted price. When I asked for details about the party itself, he would go radio silent for hours or days on end (odd since, as I mentioned, this was only two days before the party.)
Eventually, he said that the ‘party’ was on a different date altogether. I asked three separate times where the party would be held, and when he finally told me, it was a different city altogether. Still room for plausible deniability on his end, but he made the mistake of assuming I wouldn’t Google the address he gave me.
The devil is in the details, friends.
The house address was empty and listed for sale on Zillow. The property owner’s name (per the county website) was not this man’s name.
So, what the f**k was this guy up to?
Red Flag #4: overly insistent on pre-paying.
‘S’ asked about a deposit. A valid question, and something I normally require. However, the ‘MONEY SCAMMER’ klaxon was blaring. Loudly. To test the waters, I said that no deposit would be necessary. He replied (more quickly than any other communication up to this point) and insisted on paying me not just a deposit, but the full amount ahead of time (which, red flag #4.1: no normal customer insists on paying a ridiculous price for services not yet rendered). I suggested Paypal or Square. No good. He says his prepaid credit card would not work with those.
He asked for my bank details.
There it is. Whole lotta nope. Nuh uh. No way, Jose. Hard pass.
At this point, I politely told him to pound sand, blocked his number, and reported him to Thumbtack (who rock, by the way – they responded in less than twelve hours, blocked him from the site, and refunded the credits I spent to bid on the job).
What was the plan, scam?
It’s called a ‘fake check scam’ or ‘overpayment scam,‘ and it’s common (unfortunately) on Craigslist.
Here’s how ‘S’ was hoping this would all shake out:
I agree to pre-payment, and I give him information on how to wire/transfer money to my bank account. He transfers the money, but whoops! He has ‘accidentally’ overpaid by, let’s say, a hundred dollars. Oh, what a silly mistake! I, naively, would’ve said, “No problem! Let me transfer you the difference right back.” I send him the hundred dollars. All seems well.
If he hadn’t ghosted me at this point, and it actually came to the day of the party, I would have showed up to the house. But, it’s empty! I must have the address wrong… let me text and call the guy… wait, why isn’t he answering?? He paid for my services! This is definitely the address he sent me. I don’t want to screw him out of his money…
A few days later, the money ‘S’ sent me doesn’t process / bounces, the funds get pulled from my account, and I’m out the hundred dollars I sent him.
Why was I a target? I’m sure I’m not that special – Thumbtack.com and similar sites are breeding grounds for money scammers: it’s literally a directory of thousands of self-employed freelancers. There’s a good chance that if these scammers try hard and long enough, they’ll come across some desperate folks who are going to ignore the warning signs in the hopes of some desperately needed business and cash.
Unfortunately, there’s no good way to extinguish these leeches from the Internet entirely, and the due-diligence falls to you, the free-lancer.
- Never EVER give your bank details to get paid for a job. If you’re taking payment through a credit card, there’s just no good reason at all to give out your personal bank information. There’s safer methods like Paypal or Square. Thumbtack.com even offers credit-card processing services. When you give out your bank info, not only is it a possibility that you’ll get scammed out of the money, you could actually, unwittingly, be part of something illegal like money-laundering.
- Trust your instincts. My gut was rumbling pretty loudly throughout this whole ordeal. Even if this guy hadn’t been attempting a money scam, I didn’t exactly like the idea of showing up somewhere amidst all the sketchiness. At first, I didn’t want to be rude and drop him abruptly, but that instinct is exactly what scammers prey on. Remember: temporary discomfort is worth personal safety
- Google is your friend. I Googled this man’s name and the address he sent me. Nothing was adding up. I couldn’t find any record of him, and, as mentioned, the address he sent me was an empty house listed for sale. Seriously, even if your client doesn’t seem sketchy, keep in mind that they’re still perfect strangers you met online and Google. That. Shit. For better or worse, we live in the information age: use it to keep yourself safe.
And to the scammer: go f**k yourself.
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