Back in March, we received a contact form submission with a simple request: Could you help my company design a new website? Of course we can, that’s what we do! So, naturally I respond, first by email, then by phone a few days later after not getting an email response. No answer and no voicemail. Eventually after a couple of unanswered follow-up emails I chalked it up as an unfortunate missed opportunity. Then, in May, I get the following email:
Thanks for getting back to me.
I just open a new Thailand restaurant in Houston Texas, which I now run and I need a website for my business to grow. I need you to go through this example link site https://www.andamanthairestaurant.com/ but I need something more perfect than this if possible.
I will like you to get back to me with an estimate. The estimate should include hosting and I want you to understand that I want the same page as the benchmark website. I only want it in English language, you will be responsible for updating the site quarterly or yearly.
The site should be up and running before early July. I want a shopping cart in my reservation page, also I don’t have a domain name yet and I will prefer: AETONRESTAURANT.COM.
My budget is $3500-$9000 for the web design. I have a private project consultant, she has the text content and the logos for the site with the image artwork, so please go ahead and check the example site.
Kindly get back to me with:
(1) A price estimate/quote based on the above information :
(2) your cell phone number:
Amazing, right? Not really. In hindsight, there are a few red flags that stand out in this email, but at the time, I glossed right over them. After all, even though we are in Pennsylvania, it’s not unusual for us to receive inquiries from other parts of the country, or even the world. So, we proceeded to waste time on a proposal. After sending it to “Keylee,” they responded with this:
Sounds good !
After reviewing the price quote, I think we should continue with the next step since we already have a deadline to meet. This email also confirms my readiness to approve your Quote and also to proceed further.
Please give me your payment information so that I can issue your deposit payment in the form of a check payment mailed and addressed to your US based individual/company/entity or your partner since that is my only available payment method right now.
1. Full name on check:
2. US Mailing address with Apt/Rm # if needed (No PO Box):
3. Your direct cell phone number :
4. 90% deposit amount due(I can pay in full also):
As informed earlier, the consultant has the necessary content (all) for the design and will be in touch as soon as there is a payment/contract agreement.
I could have called but I am unfortunately in Asia right now and won’t be available for calls until I get back to the states. Email should do justice and would always try to reply to email fast.
Please let me know if there is any paperwork to sign and you can send it so that I can sign it electronically.
After reading through the above, it was obviously a scam (more on why in a bit), but I wanted to gather more information. After some back-and-forth they responded with:
Good Morning Chris,
I just received an early update from my bank that the payment of $7500 is already on its way to the given address via courier. The Project consultant funds for content/scripts/logo (about 3500) were added along with your initial deposit of $4000
Once the payment of 7500 is delivered, you can proceed to have it deposited for clearance at your bank (this usually takes overnight or maximum 24 hours). You can send the Project consultant her money after the check has cleared your bank. She (project consultant) took down your contact details and will be contacting you as soon as she gets her money to pass over all assets to you.
Once again, the project consultant has all data and content ready for the design. I could have paid her directly but she does not have the facility to receive a check at the moment.
I hope you understand and sorry for any inconvenience.
And there it is, the scam. In case you didn’t pick up on it, they plan to send a check from an account that is either fake or stolen. I deposit the check, send their “project consultant” (money mule) $3,500, the bank realizes the check is fraudulent, and rather than making $4,000, we end up losing $7,500. No thank you. At this point I should have waited to receive the check so I could report it to the authorities, but without thinking it through I responded letting them know this was not an acceptable arrangement, as they would need to pay their consultant directly and that we would wait seven business days for the check to clear before starting work. I also indicated that any overpayment would be added to their account as a credit for future invoices. Apparently they didn’t like that response as I never heard from “Keylee Jones” again, nor did I ever receive a check in the mail.
So, what were the “red flags” that I mentioned earlier?
Initially, the imperfect English stood out to me, but I ultimately ignored it since the inquiry was for a Thai restaurant. I also thought the request for my cell phone number was a bit strange. Had I done a simple Google search for “Keylee Jones” and their email address firstname.lastname@example.org I would have quickly discovered both had been used in similar scams in recent years. Even searching for some of the text in the initial email yields results on the web.
The second email offers some more obvious clues:
- Paying only with a check
- Offering to pay a higher than requested deposit amount, or even a 100% deposit
- Involvement of a third party (“private project consultant”)
These scams aren’t just limited to web design agencies either. Similar scripts can be found targeting all sorts of small businesses, so it’s important that as a business owner, you do your due diligence before accepting payment for any contract.
Fast forward to last month, when I receive an email from William Salter (email@example.com):
Hello! My name is William Salter. I’d like to know if your company offers web design services?
After informing William that yes, our web design agency does in fact offer web design services, he responds:
Good, I have a business which I want to turn into a large scale business now located in Brunswick, GA and the company is based on importing and exporting Makeup Accessories such as Eyelash Applicator, Eyeliner ,Lip Gloss ,Eye Shadow etc. I need the best of the best layout design for it. Can you handle that for me? So I need you to check out this site but I need something more perfect than this if it’s possible https://doebeauty.com/ I have a private consultant that has the text content and logo for the site. the site would only be information, so I need you to give me an estimate.
Please share this blog with your business colleagues to help ensure they are aware these scams exist. If you or someone you know has fallen victim to a scam, you can file a complaint.