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.

—————————————————————

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.

Continue Reading

Adventures in Craigslist, or How I Accidentally Got Recruited for Escorting

I spent most of my childhood watching little TV outside of PBS offerings and NOVA specials, and while I don’t like to use the word “sheltered” to describe myself, I was so detached from what my friends were watching that I might as well have lived in another world. I didn’t know what Pokemons were or what a Sailor Moon did or why people liked Spongebob Squarepants so much when he was clearly the most frightening thing that humankind had ever created. I had happily embraced my little bubble of purely educational entertainment, and it was bliss.

But then high school came around, my parents got wifi, and I discovered that you could semi-legally watch TV shows online. It set off a brief period in my life in which I gleefully binged on a world of TV that I didn’t know existed before. Like Plato’s shadow-figure emerging from the cave, I was overwhelmed at the bright world of easily digestible downloadable entertainment ready for the taking, and because I had no self-control whatsoever, I acted on every single recommendation my worldly friends gave me.

“Check out Dr. Horrible.” “Here’s a link to The Tudors.” “You should watch Gossip Girl!”

I ended up not studying for the SATs that year.

secret diary of a call girl

It was my best friend Alix who got me hooked on Secret Diary of a Call Girl. It was fascinating the same way the Harry Potter series was fascinating—it was like a fantastic alternate reality. I knew, of course, that the show was based on the real experiences of a famous blogger, but in my mind this world—where a woman led a glamorous double life earning loads of money as a call girl—was just as unbelievable as a world where a boy wizard fought soul-sucking dementors and spoke Parseltongue.

(Besides, both Secret Diary and Harry Potter take place in the UK, and we all know that Great Britain is just an imaginary place anyway.)

If you had, at any point, asked me which of these worlds I would like to materialize in my own life, I would have chosen Harry Potter in a heartbeat. I mean, I still feel somewhat robbed that I don’t live in a universe where I can just Accio things at will.

Of course, life doesn’t always give you what you want. Which brings me to my latest Craigslist adventure.

As a Young Person Straight Out of College I’m always on the lookout for ways to make a little extra cash. Luckily for me I’m a relatively tall female with a reasonably un-hideous face, and ever since my friend Laura got me a gig at some Lady Gaga concerts, I’ve done a few promo modeling jobs here and there.

Being a promo model or brand ambassador, by the way, is basically when you’re paid to look cute and hand things out to people at events, or get them to sign up for something. It’s really easy as far as work goes, and is the least sketchy way I know to make money from being somewhat attractive.

I get regular emails with bookings through the agency I’m with, but most of them don’t work with my schedule. So I had the bright idea of looking for additional promo modeling work. To Craigslist I went!

Now, the “talent” listings of the Craigslist gigs section is a sketchy no-mans-land, a tortured glimpse at the seedy undercurrents that course through the internet. For your personal edification, I’ve taken some screenshots of the most recent listings and helpfully annotated them for you:

1 2 3

This is what “talent” is on Craigslist. Not music or acting or dancing of the non-exotic kind, not art or gymnastics or even clowning or magic—”talent” here is the willingness to be naked or have sex under the guise of making “films” or “modeling.”

It’s pretty daunting, but luckily there is a search feature. (Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until after muddling through what seemed like thousands of these listings.) After an easy breezy search for “brand ambassador,” I found a few legit-looking ads for sales agencies and publicity companies looking for promo models. Some of these ads explicitly (ha) stated that this was REAL PROMOTIONAL WORK, NOT SEX. Score!

I sent these companies my promo modeling resume and my stats.

I woke up to a few emails the next morning. One explained that they represented a sales team for a company, gave me the link to the site, and asked me for a few photos of myself. I sent them and then checked out the site.

I’m not going to link to the company, but I’ll tell you that it’s a generic site with a generic name using a generic template, and the copy is mediocre and dotted with spelling errors. (Not a good sign, considering that the company claims to specialize in branding and reputation.) They also linked to their Twitter account, so I took a look, and this is what I found:

4

 

Maybe I’m being totally unreasonable here, but don’t you think a legitimate company that specializes in brands and internet trends and popularity would have more than two followers, and more than nine tweets? The last tweet from that account, by the way, was from January. (In case you just awoke from hibernation, it’s the end of November.)

The “recruiter” quickly responded to my photos by asking if I had any photos of myself “in short dresses and heels which will be your standard attire at work.”

“Standard attire at work?” What the hell kind of work is this? None of my gigs through the agency have ever had me wearing short dresses and heels, and why, after receiving my headshots and full-body photo, would they still need an additional photo of me in specifically inappropriate attire? Something smelled off and I stopped emailing the recruiter.

I turned to the next email I’d gotten that morning. This was the beginning of it:

5

 

Say it with me: WHAT THE EVERLOVING THING-THAT-RHYMES-WITH-DUCK?!?!

Note how I said this was the “beginning” of the email. It was a long email. It linked to a website (which I’m not going to include here) with more masses of text and, yes, a gallery of the “ladies.”

My first two thoughts were:

1. “Oh no, oh no, I sent this guy my photos and my information, and now he has it, and when the cops bust him for prostitution they’re going to think I’m connected to him and they’re going to come after me!”

2. “Of all the imaginary worlds my life could turn into, of course it’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Why is this the kind of thing that happens to me?”

My next thoughts were:

3. “I have got to tell my friends about this because this is actually kind of hilarious” and

4. “I actually know some people who would be into this.”

Obviously, I didn’t bother responding to the email. I have absolutely no interest in turning my life into some Secret Diary-esque fantasy, and this guy had a lot of nerve putting up an ad for sales and event staff and—surprise!—following up with an attempt to recruit me to be an escort.

No. Freaking. Way.

That being said, the email and website were a comedy goldmine, and my best friends and I had a really good laugh about it.

But that’s the last time I’m responding to “talent” listings on Craigslist.

(Because I’m paranoid as hell, and you never know what happens when you mess with or partially expose people who make obscene amounts of money through illegal activities: if for whatever reason after the publishing of this blog post, I disappear or die suddenly, I’m 99% sure it’s because of this post, and several of my friends have the information that could be critical in the investigation, and maybe I watch too many crime shows. Also I hate that this is not the first time I’ve had to make a little “if I die mysteriously” footer at the end of a blog post.)

Continue Reading

Steinway Hall

3

Well guys, I’m feeling kind of dead tired. I spent a week in New York, and then a week in LA, and now I have to get back into my non-traveling routine.

I did have time to put together a post about one of the highlights of my New York trip—a visit to Steinway Hall on West 57th in Manhattan, across from Carnegie Hall. It’s over on the travel blog, and I encourage you to go read it!

If you just want to look at photos, I also have a collection of photos from my visit over on Google+.

9

 

And yes, I did get to practice in Steinway Hall. It was lovely.

Go read the post go read the post go read the post. [falls over from tiredness]

Continue Reading