The Autograph Scam

Update June 2017 (really?): I’m just going to ruin the punchline for you here: this post ends with the conclusion that random unspecific autograph requests are not a scam. I keep getting angry messages from autograph collectors telling me off for calling them scammers. (Also a lot of you seem to be angry at me for “calling myself an expert” when I never said any such thing and in fact admitted in this post that I’m pretty clueless about this stuff.)

Please work on your reading comprehension, guys, you’re making me sad for humanity.

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As a not-yet-famous person, I get mistaken for being a celebrity about 99% more than I am actually recognized for being myself. A salesguy once mistook me for a famous YouTuber and once on a flight a girl my age kept glancing over at me until she finally approached me and shyly asked, “Excuse me…are you someone famous?”

These people are always mistaken, though it is, admittedly, flattering that people at least think I look like someone who would be famous. These encounters always end in me being totally awkward and saying that no, unless they keep track of extremely obscure classical pianists, there’s no way they know me for anything.

So I was kind of bemused when, several months ago, I received an email out of the blue from someone claiming that they were a huge fan and wanted my autograph:

Autograph scam

Now, I’m a child of the internet. I grew up at a time when the internet was more of the Wild West and less like the insanely networked, Google-able TMI cesspool it is today—my point being that I am automatically suspicious of everything I see online.

So my inner Scam Alarm went off when I got that email. I barely have any web presence—a website and a few YouTube videos, but that’s it—nothing for anyone to be a “big fan” of for “years.” And this Hubert Zbikowski never said anything specific about me in his email. I’ve gotten tweets and comments from people saying things like “I love the way you play Prokofiev’s Gavotte!” and you’d think someone who was such a big fan would say something to that extent.

So I responded to Mr. Hubert Zbikowski’s email, telling him it was so nice to hear from a fan, and could he tell me his favorite piece that I’ve performed?

No reply.

Several months later, I got this email, from one Terry Lindsey:

autograph scam

Again with the ultra-flattering, wide-eyed, yet totally unspecific fan request. I also thought it was odd that there were so many spaces before my name, as if someone was copy-pasting my name into a pre-written message.

So I wondered, what is the deal here? My first thought was that maybe these people were phishing for my signature (and maybe my return address) for the sake of identity theft—yet that seemed highly unlikely and, well, not very smart. A person’s autograph is not likely to be the same signature that they use on official documents, and giving your victim your address (or any address that can be linked to other people) just leaves a trail for people to track you down.

So I did some Googling. First, I Googled our friend Terry Robert Lindsey’s email address, pam13tj@gmail.com…

Autograph scam

 

…and found that he has left the exact same message on the guestbooks of countless other obscure (no offense) classical musicians…

Autograph scam Autograph scam

 

…and that some people actually did follow through and send him something:

autograph scam

 

I figured if one person was spamming people this much, there must be more, and there must be other people having this problem. So I Googled “autograph scam”…

…and found that a lot of barely-famous people have gotten similar messages.

In fact, reading the resulting posts and their comments, I noticed a curious phenomenon. These scammers (for lack of a better term) seem to operate in cliques-by-subject that target different types of people. There’s one set of scammers that focuses on obscure writers, one that spams models, one that goes after indie bands, and of course a group (one that our friend Terry is part of) that follows obscure classical musicians.

But why are they doing this?

In most of the posts and comments I read, people couldn’t really come up with a motive for all the autograph request spamming. The most likely reason I found, though, comes from Arnold Zwicky’s blog:

At first, some of [the commenters on one of the blog posts] considered the possibility that this was part of an identity theft scheme, but the consensus was (I think correctly) that the collectors were assembling banks of autographs from people who might some day become famous enough that their autographs could be sold or traded. [The blog author] and I (and others who reported similar experiences) are maybe C- or D- list celebrities, so we’re easily flattered.

Here’s autograph hounding in one of its more traditional forms, as described by pornstar Jack Wrangler in his (auto)biography The Jack Wrangler Story, p. 130:

A few quick notes about autograph seekers, now that I’ve become a jaded recipient of that kind of flattery: They’re always the same people. They always hit the current hit shows, and they seem to have no discernible means of support. They always hand you a three-by-five card to sign–just your name, no message. Because, you see, they trade them, and I guess in some instances sell them. These people are not necessarily fans. Often they don’t have any idea who the hell you are. You know you’ve been spotted; you smile warmly; they rush up to you breathlessly. Your hand is poised and ready. Then they hit you with “Are you anybody?” Pop goes the balloon. Their singular aim in life is to build the biggest autograph collection in the world, so they keep coming back with their damned three-by-five cards, which they use for leverage: “I’ll give you ten Jack Wranglers for one John Travolta.” 

For you TLDR people: it seems these autograph scammers/spammers are simply collecting as many autographs as they can from people who are not (yet) extremely famous, in the hopes that some of their marks will become famous later.

It’s like the worst insurance scheme ever.

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17 Comments

  1. Oh my word! I just got that email today! I immediately had the “scam” feeling as I’m absolutely not famous and had no clue why this guy would know of my music in Virginia unless he had randomly come upon it somehow. Even then, why would you really want my autograph? And, no, I don’t have millions asking me all the time. Anyway, I appreciated your post as it helped confirm my suspicions. I, too, had Googled his name/address and low and behold saw the word-for-word email on someone’s site. Sigh. And that was my first official email to my site. So pathetic. Ha!

  2. I caught on to this a while ago. I run the fan club for an actor who was on daytime TV and continues to perform on stage and has done many recordings. Suddenly we were receiving autograph requests from the Czech Republic every other day. It just did not seem right. As you mentioned they all were vague as to how they knew of him. Most made mention that they were a fan of his “movies” and that threw up the red flag because he had never done any films. I too emailed a few back asking how they knew of him and they never responded. I began doing research to see how common this was and found your blog and a few others. Received one this week from Germany and apparently this person has an identity problem because the email was from “Monika Förster ” but it was signed from Bjorn Forster. I found this name in other places—and again the requests being made all said the same thing and they asked for not one but two autographs which seems to be the other thing. Why do they want two?

    1. Wow, that is so fishy! I have no idea why they would want two…one to keep and one to sell/trade/whatever? I’m amazed at how common this seems to be; is it really that profitable???

  3. Just wanted to say thanks for this post – I was really worried it was identity theft. I still kind of suspect there’s more going on than real people wanting really large autograph collections. These requests have to be automated somehow by some sort of spammer program. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to research & write this! Good luck avoiding these lunatics.

    1. Good point! There probably is something more going on, but I really don’t know what it is; best to just be safe and not send these people autographs! Thanks for reading, glad I could help. 🙂

  4. Hi Sharon and all,

    I’ve been collecting autographs (mainly from baseball and other sports) since I was a junior in high school in 1999. I stumbled across this page when I was trying to research why certain players think their IDs can be stolen if they sign certain items (i.e., blank index cards).

    I collect because it’s a fun way to de-stress from work and life in general, and is a heck of a lot more wholesome than drinking, smoking, doing drugs, etc. I honestly have no idea why people from Europe would be interested in obscure American classical musicians’ autographs, unless they have your CDs and want the booklets signed. I can, however, tell you why I get guys to sign while they’re in the minor leagues (within an hour or so of Syracuse, NY, we have teams at the Triple-A, Double-A, and Short-Season Single-A levels), and that is because current players can start to get jaded about signing long before they ever set foot on a Major League field, especially the top prospects. It’s also sometimes hard to shake the “you’re over 18, so you must be a dealer” mentality that some players (and fans) have. I won’t lie, I know some of my fellow Syracuse-area ‘graphers sell their stuff. I just take solace in knowing that I don’t.

    As far as through-the-mail collecting (or “TTMing” for short) is concerned, I’ve been doing that almost as long as I have in-person, so I think I can offer a few pointers, should the occasional HONEST fan write you, or approach you in-person…

    1. Don’t send them anything at your expense. Any TTMer with half a brain will include a SASE for return postage, and if they’re a real fan, they’ll already have their own pic (or other item) specific to you included in the envelope with their fan letter and SASE.

    2. Sign using a signature that’s somehow different than what you’d sign on checks, legal documents, etc. That way, on the off-chance there ever IS an issue, you can tell the authorities “that’s not how I sign official documents, that’s my ‘fan autograph’.”

    3. Personalize every item, and sign it so that the top edge of your signature goes through the “To – Whomever” or “Best Wishes”. Sharpie ink can be removed from glossy photos/trading cards using rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip, so personalizations are relatively easy to remove, unless the signature goes over part of the above personalization. Then they can’t remove it without damaging the autograph.

    As far as the question “why do people want more than one autograph?”, again this mainly applies to the sports guys, but there are a LOT of collectors who work on signed card sets from a specific brand and year, and if they’re working on multiple sets, and guys are in those sets, they want both cards of a player done. I have no problem asking them to sign 2 or 3 if the cards or photos are different. The worst they can say is “Just one, man.”

    Sorry for the long read, just wanted to add perspective from a collector who still does it for the fun and excitement of meeting noteworthy people.

    All the best,

    Steve
    East Syracuse, NY

    1. Hi Steve,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I don’t know anything about autograph collecting so this was really elucidating. Love your tips, too.

      Happy collecting!

  5. Hi. I stumbled across your site. I’m also a collector. I don’t use index cards. These can be scanned then photoshopped onto photos for mass-reproduction.
    I send photos or football cards.
    I agree that dedicating the autograph to the recipient makes it less re-sellable. If part of your signature overlaps the dedication or is in a darker area of the item to be signed it makes it less scannable for reproduction. A good thing some celebs to is have a rubber stamp that says “this autograph is specifically for [requester’s name] and NOT for re-sale” to discourage selling in eBay.
    When making a request I on occasion include 1-3 things to sign, but I ALWAYS write to the person that the can keep as many of the extras as they want. The extra signed picturesare useful for me as I can keep one in storage and frame the other one for display.
    The other reason someone might want more than one (especially over time) is that celebrity’s autographs change over time. It’s nice to have the different varieties. We’re not all creepy stalkers or profiteers (I hope I’m not considered one)
    🙂

  6. This is to anyone reading who has been asked for an autograph: I myself have been collecting autographs for years, In person, TTM(Through the mail), by email, and I have purchased some. I am a collector and of only actors/actresses, musicians, writers or sports players that I like or have enjoyed their work. I have never once tried to trade any of the autographs I have obtained. I have also never asked for an autograph looking to scam someone or use it for fraudulent purposes. I do understand there are some scummy people out there but believe it or not some people are genuine and do have respect and values. I only heard about this so-called autograph scamming recently and was shocked by hearing this. For one thing you can find so many pictures of stars autographs online that if you were really trying to scam someone you could probably find the signature through a google search rather then go through the trouble of contacting them and trying to get them to send you one. To actors/actresses who are more of C or D level and haven’t made it big yet, there are two reasons someone would ask for your autograph. One reason is because they genuinely love your work and see the potential you have to be bigger then your current status. The second reason would be to obtain your autograph now before you become so big that we as fans and collectors cannot even get a real autograph(Hence Studio Fan Mail) unless we miraculously meet you somewhere in person and even only then if you aren’t so mobbed by people that we were actually able to get obtain one from you. Not everyone is out there scamming. I have actually had people write me back and tell me that is exactly what they needed to hear, almost as if my words encouraged them to go bigger and motivated them to get to that next level. Personally I think it is a shame that we cannot ask for an autograph anymore without something being assumed other then the fact that we love to collect them. Having your autograph is like having a small piece of you. It is like we are in Hollywood or New York with you on that stage or in that movie/TV show rather then stuck here in our normal plain lives working all day just to get by. Anyways hopefully these scammers will give up and move on to the next scam so we can have our hobby back, our joy…

    1. Hey John, I never said that every request is a scam. I’m pointing out that there are people out there who spam artists with requests for autographs when they haven’t bothered to get to know the artist’s work or do anything to help the artist get more exposure. It’s a pretty insulting practice to the artists, don’t you think?

  7. A very ignorant blog from an unknowledgeable non expert. I collect autographs and have done for many, many years. It is a sorrowful would we live in that a hobbyist is met with suspicion. I have a very large collection and it worrying that someone who I have asked for an autograph from would think scam. I am sure there are scams but why would you email / write and ask for an autograph if it was going to be used criminally. I am sure 10 minutes with Google would produce an autograph example from an actor or artist. This is another example of because you are found on Google you have suddenly become an expert, ridiculous. Also please provide a single example where an autograph request resulted in the autograph being misused. You should rename your website doodly rubbish!!

    1. With an attitude like that, it’s a wonder anyone deigns to give you their autograph. If you had actually read the post, you would have found that I concluded that this wasn’t a scam. Hope the new year teaches you to be more kind and thoughtful.

  8. I agree with Simon, your blog / website, is very demeaning to autograph collectors. You have set yourself up as an expert but actually know nothing about autograph collectors. Another vacuous, pointless blog.I wonder if the collector’s know you have placed their personal details onto your site, did they give you permission?
    I like to see useful information but your blog is awful, pointless, I’ll informed, and perhaps one day you will be important enough that people ask for your autograph.

  9. Read your blog, you have set yourself up as an expert when in reality you know nothing about collecting autographs. I am glad that I am not the only one. I have been collecting autographs for years, both through the mail and in person. Some actors like John Goodman were wonderful, others like Ralph fiennes were rude and ignored autograph hunters. The worst theatre was the young Vic, overprotective and ridiculous. So as you can see autograph collecting is difficult enough without scare mongering blogs such as yours. I can absolutely say that it is a bizarre thing to say that autographs can be used fraudulently, I would think how David walliams signs his name on your programme is very different than how he signs personal financial things. You need to stick to things you know about.

  10. You may not be calling autograph collecting a scam but boy oh boy are you rude, sad for humanity, you are so dismissive.

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