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:
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?
Several months later, I got this email, from one Terry Lindsey:
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, firstname.lastname@example.org…
…and found that he has left the exact same message on the guestbooks of countless other obscure (no offense) classical musicians…
…and that some people actually did follow through and send him something:
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.