It has been a while, but about a month ago, I was scammed by a rather comical fellow who got two artworks out of me and a couple others for free. His approach was quite simple: Have somebody do a single small portion of an image's creation, then leapfrog it to another guy to also do a small portion. The images were, in all honesty, very simple affairs; just easy single-character compositions of a World of Warcraft character that didn't have a whole lot of detail to her.
It started off with one guy doing a quick sketch of her, then another guy doing a quick inking, and then while those two were chasing on his heels demanding payment, he managed to sneak it off to me for colors before the other two caught on they were scammed and called him out.
Thus, when the news broke, it was on me. I had just finished my portion, and luckily for the scammer, he was sent the completed high resolution files just a couple hours before I discovered that I too wasn't going to get paid.What Did I Do:
In response, I played dumb. He assured me I'd get paid when the whole pack of images was complete, not the two we originally had, and he sent me more work to do at the same rate. He obviously wasn't going to pay me, he was just going to keep sending stuff until I got wiser and either called him out for it or broke communication. Instead, I let him keep a hold of me a little longer, and baited him into depending on me instead of sending the work off elsewhere. I assured him I'd get to it, even sending little snippets of "progress" on the images (five minute increments of effort), and while he waited on me, did some research and helped compose a case against him.
Not a legal case, mind you. More of a breakdown of previous infractions to solidify that he was a scammer just playing freelance artists, and helping spread the word around.
The information not only reached the dA footer but got posted and shared around several high-profile blogs. While he can change his name, the images he tried to con others into completing will never be finished, and he'll have to start over from scratch.What Now?
To prevent future scams, here are my recommendations that we as a community could adopt.
First off. Line artists, demand payment up front.
Line artists are at the greatest risk of being scammed like this. The only thing they have to base their image on is a quick description, and a scammer has to utilize zero existing works beforehand to get a line artist started on their portion. From my end, I need a completed image already present to get started, meaning another artist has to already be suckered or be in on the scam (and if they have existing artwork, it would mean they also have existing reputations they can't just jump between). But to scam a line artist, you just need a quick description and a promise to pay them.
"Hey," I could say to any of you. "Forty bucks for a Bioshock Infinite character art plz?" Seems legitimate until I say "I'll pay you when it's done."
Paying you when it's done maybe works for restaurants. It maybe works for auto mechanics. But those are positions where you have a lot to lose if you refuse to pay them, and the fact there's so much physical interaction between you and the one rendering the service that you run a bad chance of getting chased down and kneecapped.
Art scammers? They don't even have to get up from their chair to get away with it. They just drag and drop the file off Dropbox, and boom, you're screwed, they got you, they win. They could even keep telling you the payment is on the way or they'll compensate when some check clears or whatever, they have a hundred reasons they could pull out of a hat to keep you at bay. Worst of all would be if they lashed back and played your guilty conscience by calling you greedy
if you start asking too much, and as a freelance artist, greedy
is the last thing you want to have as a descriptor for your services. You're an artist, a creator, the type of humble appreciative folk who scoff at the Wall Street fatcats and oil tycoons and their eight-story underwater mansions and fancy-shmancy jetpacks and hover limousines.
They're the greedy ones! Not little ol' studio-apartment drowning-in-student-loans feet aching from standing behind a counter at Peet's Coffee you!
Secondly, for all artists: Don't accept royalties as payment.
You don't have an accountant. If you did, that would mean you're rich enough to not need to do freelance art to keep ramen stocked in your pantry (slash dresser slash medicine cabinet). You don't have a department that keeps tabs on the dozens of clients you work with, keeping constant overwatch over their receipts to ensure they're paying you what you're owed for every sale they make.
Your royalties-toting client could go to a convention, sell a hundred books where you're entitled one dollar royalties from every purchase, and they could make the hundred dollars owed disappear with any story they want. They could make up a different number, saying they only sold five issues, or didn't sell any
issues. How would you know? You weren't there. Are you going to scour Facebook and ask everybody there if they bought a copy and just how many? They could cite whatever expenditures they want if you're on a royalties deal based on net profits.
"Hey yeah, so you'd get your 20% net profits, but after the cost of the table, gas, rental car, lodging, hookers, food, hookers, airfare, hookers, and bail...as a 20% stake holder you are owed...let's see here, carry the one, move the decimal...negative 827 dollars and 58 cents. We expect a check by Tuesday."
Royalties works for something massive that is slated to sell thousands-plus in a short period of time with a 60% minimum net profit per item sold, and has an accounting/legal department working in tandem to ensure all contracts are upheld. The person hiring you over deviantArt very likely doesn't have an accounting/legal department at their disposal, and if they did, then I weep for the state of our economy.
Never accept royalties. Never offer royalties.
Royalties. The moment I read that word in my inbox, I immediately assume the person isn't serious about their project, is inexperienced in the field, or is just using fancy lucrative words to scam us when they have zero intention to pay up.
Lastly. Watermark the crap out of unpaid work.
Against my own advice above to line artists, I don't feel as "at risk" as a colorist, so I'm maintaining my "you pay nothing until you get something" policy, as well as my 100% refund policy if you don't like how the medium resolution preview copy looks. I mean it. If you don't like how it looks, you don't pay, you don't even have to explain your reason why, and I won't feel negatively towards you for it. I'm on the business side of art; my interest is getting what you
want (as opposed to the snooty artsy
side of art, where I pee in a can of rancid spaghetti-o's and huff condescendingly at the mainstream Philistines who fail to comprehend the deep metaphorical nuances to post-contemporary society
I take all the risk off the client.
But that doesn't mean you can skirt free with a medium resolution file.
Whew tangent. Let's try this again. Watermark the crap out of unpaid work.
After the recent scam, I apologize to all my clients and hope this isn't a burden, but until payment goes through you are getting work that is watermarked like crazy. If you'd like a review copy that doesn't have watermarks with my name and signature and contact info and a big ol' "not for distribution or sale" you'll have to either pay up front or be a long-time client whom I know I can trust. This is a step that I've been wanting to avoid, but after some very unfortunate turns of events, it is a protection I have to take and a protection I urge everyone else to adopt.
The good news? This means the risk still falls upon me. Not the client. They still have ultimate control, and if I fail to deliver, the only loss is the time spent writing the "this isn't working, I'll go with somebody else" email telling me to stop on their commission. Their bank account is unaffected.In closing...
I appreciate and respect all my clients. Even those who scammed me, I find it difficult to hate them for doing what they do because they're helping me see vulnerabilities in my current business model and thus prompting me to seal it up even better. They're lessons I can pass on to others, and lessons that honestly came at very little expense to me. To the scammer's credit, he gave me some pretty awesome lines to work with, and it was simple enough so I didn't bust a rump getting it done. Those works were very relaxing and low pressure on me; a great way to spend an afternoon, and honestly, a couple of my favorite works I did in the last few months.
They were so easy, I felt compelled to give the characters a fleshed out background just so he'd get his (unfortunately misguiding) money's worth. He didn't prompt me to give them a background, but I did anyway, and the amount of practice and development I got from those backgrounds really built up my confidence.
He also taught me to be more weary, yet did so in a manner that didn't harm me that much.
It's a petty theft, a featherweight scam job, one that made me a smarter artist in the end. In place of payment, I got knowledge instead.
Of course if I ever discover his home address, I've got a can of rancid spaghetti-o's ready to turn his driveway into avant-garde installation art.