Imposter Syndrome: The Rise of Impersonation Scams

From Writer Unboxed:

The current self-publishing industry has its roots in the mid-1990s, when three startups–Xlibris, Trafford, and AuthorHouse–began selling digital publishing services to individual authors.

(Bear with me: I’m getting to the subject of this post!)

Along with similar provider iUniverse, these companies later incorporated under the umbrella of Author Solutions, Inc. (AS). A pioneer in the assisted self-publishing space, AS also pioneered the hard-sell sales tactics, deceptive advertising, and expensive junk marketing techniques that dominate this publishing segment. (Junk marketing: marketing services that are cheap to provide, sold at a large markup, and are of dubious value for book promotion.)

Sometime in the mid-2000s, AS began outsourcing most of its sales and production to the Philippines, where there is a large, educated, English-speaking work force that’s also less costly than equivalent workers in the USA. Inevitably, some of the more entrepreneurial-minded of these staffers, seeing how lucrative it was to convince writers to spend large amounts of money to publish and market their books, decided to set up their own self-publishing enterprises to poach authors away from AS and other companies.

When I first started discovering these AS knockoffs (here’s my first blog post about them), they were mostly just selling Author Solutions-style publishing and marketing packages–although exponentially more overpriced and deceptively advertised than the original, with terrible customer service and the books and other products far more likely to be of poor quality (and that’s when they didn’t just take the money and run).

In recent years, though, their numbers have exploded—there are hundreds of AS knockoffs in operation now, and more cropping up all the time—creating fierce competition for customers in an increasingly crowded field. This has driven them to adopt ever more brazen practices to support their quest for writers’ cash: forging documents and contracts from Big 5 publishers, selling completely fictional products such as “book insurance”, engaging in elaborate front operations involving multiple fake businesses, and impersonating reputable literary agents, publishers, and movie companies.

Impersonation scams especially have become common over the past couple of years, and they can be quite convincing. In this post, you’ll find examples of the three types of impersonation scam you’re most likely to encounter, along with a look at the telltale signs that can identify them.

LITERARY AGENT/AGENCY IMPERSONATION

You’re most likely to be targeted by an impersonation scam if you’re a self-published or small press author—but any writer may be approached. The scam usually arrives out of the blue, via an email solicitation like this one:

Steve Troha is a real agent with a real agency–Folio Literary Management—so if you Google him, you will get authentic results. The website URL in his signature card is the real Folio website. However, there are multiple red flags in this email.

  • A real literary agent (or publisher, or film company) is highly unlikely to contact you out of the blue with an offer ready to go—even a provisional one. Agents don’t “test the waters” for writers they don’t represent.
  • It’s a mass email (you can tell because the “from” and “to” addresses are the same). A rare, genuine contact from a literary agent would come to you personally. You’d be addressed by name, and your book title would be mentioned—neither of which this email does.
  • A real agent with Folio Literary would be reaching out from the Folio email address (@foliolit.com)—not from an alternative address (@groupof acquisitions.com) that has no discernible connection to Folio.
  • The promised “upfront payment” (a real agent would say “advance”) amounts are preposterously inflated. Advances for first-time authors are more likely to fall in the $5,000 range than the $150,000 range. Scammers often try to turn writers’ heads with big money promises…which they can then argue will more than offset whatever large fee the writer is asked to pay.

Another sign of scam: an alert on the front page of Folio’s website. They’re aware their agents are being impersonated, and like a number of other targeted agencies, have posted a warning. (The absence of a warning shouldn’t be taken to mean there’s no malfeasance going on: the agency may not be aware it’s being impersonated.)

Here’s another one.

Again, Jennifer Carlson really is a literary agent with DCL Literary Agency, which a websearch will confirm. The email is personalized to the author, with their email address and book title (both of which I’ve redacted). The link to the DCL Literary website is genuine.

As with the fake Folio email, though, solicitation is a warning sign: busy literary agents don’t generally cold-call writers. In addition…

  • The tone of the email is off. Would an established agent with an extensive track record really spend three paragraphs pitching her credentials as if she were completing a job application? Seems unlikely. Agents expect you to pitch them—not the other way around.
  • There’s also the vagueness about how she happened on the author’s work (who exactly furnished the “high praise”? A rare, real contact from an agent would say) and a telltale lapse in the fourth paragraph: agents don’t describe publishers as “clients” (an agent’s clients are authors, not publishers). For that matter, a real agent wouldn’t use the term Traditional Publisher, since it’s a given that that’s the kind of publisher an agent works with.
  • The email address, @dcl-agency.com, looks authentic–but it’s fake. Per its website, the real DCL Literary’s email address is @dclagency.com (no hyphen). Scammers often use email addresses that look like real ones, but include small differences; it’s always wise to double check.
  • Also worth checking: when the email domain was registered. In this case, it was registered on July 14, just 5 days before the email was sent–which doesn’t really fit with an agency that has been in business since 2005.

Like Folio, DCL has a scam warning on its front page.

Other warning signs to watch for (this applies to the examples below as well): a gmail address (a genuine contact will use the agency’s email domain), English-language and grammar lapses (since most impersonation scams come from overseas—though thanks to ChatGPT, this is less likely to be a marker these days), a list of things supposedly required by publishers other than a manuscript and synopsis, such as professional reviews, professional editing, a query letter, or a book trailer (publishers are interested in none of these things, and agents don’t demand them), and any mention of fees or purchases (other than commission).

As with all scams, the ultimate aim is money. The writers who received the emails above were informed by the fake agents that their books had to be edited to meet publishers’ standards, and referred to a “trusted” editing firm…aka the scammer behind the curtain. The fee: $3,500 and up.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed