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,…

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.

Scammer Update

So remember when I got a Facebook message from a scammer claiming to want to buy my iPod Touch? And I messaged “her” back with a made-up story?

(I also looked up this type of scam online…apparently the scammer transfers the money to your PayPal, you mail your item out, because it’s an international exchange PayPal asks the scammer if they authorize the payment, they say no, they get their money back, you lose your item, and it’s hard to get them back because it’s international.)
Well, here’s the rest of the exchange:
Denise (June 15):
Cool.. whats ur paypal email address so i can send money
Me (June 15):
What law firm does your colleague work at? I need to make sure Gerald can get the iPod to him so we can make sure shipping isn’t an issue.
Seven days later…
Me (June 22):
Hi Denise,
My brother is leaving for Canada in five days and keeps asking me what law firm your colleague works at. Please let me know ASAP so I can arrange for him to get it, and I can collect the money from you.
Denise (June 22):

i told u i already purchased one

Really? Is that all? You’re going to tell me that you already got one, claim that you told me, and then never speak to me again? I’m hurt!

Obviously I have too much time on my hands…

…or rather, I decide that responding to scammers is more productive than practicing, working on my website, working on the website I’ve been hired to design, or preparing for lessons and interviews. Hmm.

Anyway, I responded to “Denise” who claimed to want my iPod Touch for her “colleague” supposedly interning at an Ontario law firm. I’m really curious to see if they do when you scam them right back. (Like, is she going to insist that I just give her my PayPal account already? How many times can I respond before the scammer behind this goes “THIS ISN’T WORTH IT I GIVE UP ALREADY”?)

Hi Denise,
You’re in luck! My brother Gerald just graduated from USC with a major in pre-law and he is currently visiting law firms in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. In less than two weeks he will be shadowing at several law firms in Ontario.

I told him about this and he said he will be more than happy to bring the iPod straight to your colleague. There is a very high chance he will run into him and even if he doesn’t it will be very easy to meet up. This means that I won’t ask you to pay any shipping charges, just the flat price of $200.

My brother will be staying with a friend at the University of Toronto for one week and then at the Square Philips Hotel in Montreal. It will be easy for your colleague to meet him there, and there may even be a chance that your colleague might actually be at one of the firms my brother is visiting.

I’m sure this plan will work out perfectly for both of us! Let me know what law firm your colleague is at so I can let my brother know, (also his/her name so Gerald knows who to contact) and if you’re okay with all this I’ll set up a PayPal account and have you transfer the money to me!

Let me know as soon as possible, my brother leaves on the 27th. He is currently wrapping up an internship examining fraud cases with Aldrin, Mosby and Scherbatsky. (You might have heard of them, they were on TV recently!)


No, I don’t have a brother Gerald, I don’t know if there is a University of Toronto (I assume there is) and I really hope whoever is behind this is not a fan of How I Met Your Mother.