When I was about 8 or 9 years old, while walking home from elementary school, several of my friends asked me to chip in a couple of dollars for a rocket they were going to build. This was before Sputnik — I couldn’t imagine anything like the enormous rockets to come — but I did fork over some money in the belief that a vague and modest form of extraterrestrial flight was within our reach. I was a laughingstock for weeks.
I thought I had put that sort of thing behind me. Then my wife, Christa Maiwald, an artist whose website includes her email address, received the following:
My name is Whiteney Jackson from Washington DC. I actually observed my Husband has been viewing your website on my laptop and I guess he likes your piece of work. I’m also impressed and amazed to have seen your various works too, You are doing a great job. I would like to purchase one of your Piece “Guard Cats - (Ai Wei Wei), as a surprise to my Husband on our anniversary. Also, let me know if you accept CHECK as mode of Payment.
Okay, the grammar, capitalization, even the sender’s name were a bit odd, but the specificity of the request piqued our interest. Several emails were exchanged, during which we told her the price, $1,600, which we suspected would end the matter.
To our surprise, she accepted the price and added that her check would include a little extra to cover shipping, which she would arrange. I of course explained that we could not release the work until her check cleared.
I should add that for reasons I can’t in retrospect understand, neither her claim that she was a civil marine engineer currently on a training voyage in the North Atlantic nor the news that she was about to move to Canada seemed at all sketchy.
Over the years I had received those familiar email requests from people asking me to be the conduit for money to be deposited in my account and sent elsewhere, and those obvious scams were always deleted. Why not this one?
Maybe it was because we needed the money, maybe it was because Christa has received other expressions of interest in her work from strangers that were legitimate, maybe it was because I thought as long as the check cleared first there was no risk. (Not true, as I was to find out.)
Cut to the arrival of the check by certified mail. The amount, drawn on the account of the Ferndale Garden Club in Glen Burnie, Md., was $4,500. When I asked why it was so much more than the purchase price, she explained that she had included the fee of the shipper, who would essentially be moving the artwork to Canada along with the rest of her personal effects. Instructions as to where to send the shipper’s fee would follow.
I went to bed slightly uneasy, but it wasn’t until I woke up at 1:30 in the morning that I began to realize her request wasn’t so very different from the other scam emails I had always ridiculed for their obvious falsity.
Unable to sleep, I went to my computer, Googled the Ferndale Garden Club, and found no mention of Whiteney Jackson. The club’s officers were four elderly women. Through Whitepages.com I was able to find their phone numbers and resolved to call them in the morning to verify the efficacy of the check and of Ms. Jackson.
I had Googled Whiteney Jackson before without results, put perhaps I had typed “Whitney” by mistake, so I decided to try again and added Washington, D.C. Bingo! Up popped a page from the Agora Gallery titled “How to Recognize an Art Scam.” There it was:
“A very common example is when the ‘customer’ overpays and asks you to send the extra amount to their shipping company, using the details they have sent you. You send the money on — from your own bank account — and only discover a week or two later that the cashier’s check you had received from the ‘customer’ is not genuine.”
After I ripped up the check I scrolled through dozens of posts from readers who had gotten similar emails from various scammers and then, there it was, from somebody named Ed who had received it a few months before: “Hello There, My name is Whiteney Jackson from Washington DC. I actually observed my Husband has been viewing your website . . .”
Just before I ripped it up, I took another look at the check. It wasn’t actually the Ferndale Garden Club’s check; it was from the “Ferdale Garden Club.”
Mark Segal is The Star’s associate arts editor.