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Fake-check scam targets artists

A West Hollywood painter survives a brush with a fraudster who pretended to be interested in buying his artwork.

August 30, 2011|David Lazarus
  • Carlos G. Groppa, 80, with one of his original artworks, which he sells on a website called FineArtAmerica.
Carlos G. Groppa, 80, with one of his original artworks, which he sells on… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Fake-check scams have been around for a while. But here's the first one I've seen that specifically preys on artists.

When not editing the magazine Tango Reporter — which, yes, covers the sultry world of tango aficionados — Carlos G. Groppa paints cheerful watercolor landscapes depicting cottages, gardens and other friendly subjects that one could easily imagine seeing on the wall of a hotel room or at the doctor's office.

Groppa, 80, of West Hollywood, sells his original art online. He uses a website called FineArtAmerica, which features the works of about 75,000 artists and facilitates sales of prints and greeting cards if a buyer isn't interested in an original.

Groppa is modest in his asking prices, typically seeking about $100 for an original watercolor. He said he sells about three paintings a month.

"That's not bad," Groppa told me. "But it's not good. Making $300 a month isn't such a big deal."

So it was a pleasant surprise for him to receive an email recently from someone who really seemed to like his work. The buyer, who identified herself as Jane Peterson, listed five paintings that she wanted to purchase.

Groppa informed her that the total price for the works would be $485, plus $25 for shipping.

Then things got a little weird. Peterson replied with a lengthy email explaining that she was in Cancun for her twin sister's wedding. She said she was expecting a baby and was also preparing to move from New Jersey to London, where her husband had been named head of his company's information-technology division.

OK, Groppa thought. A little more information than he required. But a sale's a sale. "I was still very happy," he said.

About a week later he received a check in the mail, but not for the $510 he'd been expecting. Instead, it was for $3,900.22.

"Is this a mistake or a joke?" Groppa wrote Peterson. "Please send me a check for $510."

In response, he got an email from someone named Shawn Wilson, who said he'd be handling shipment of Groppa's paintings to Britain. He instructed Groppa to wire $2,000 from the check he'd received to a London address to cover "insurance, tax, packaging, labeling and shipping."

Suspicious, Groppa said he contacted his bank and asked them to see if everything was hunky-dory. It wasn't.

"The check was fake," Groppa said.

It's a classic scam. The fraudster sends a bogus check for too much money, then asks the victim to deposit it in his account and send money back. In most cases, the victim doesn't know the check is bad until it's too late and ends up sending his own money.

Groppa said he emailed Peterson and Wilson, and told them what he'd learned. "I told them to go to hell," he said, "but I didn't say it that politely."

He received no other emails from the scammers. Peterson, or whoever was using the name, didn't respond to my own email seeking contact.

Sean Broihier, chief exec of FineArtAmerica, told me this wasn't the first time one of his artists had been targeted with the fake-check scam. He said he'd heard about half a dozen or so other such incidents, and assumed many other artists simply haven't reported being approached for the con job.

"But that's not the biggest scam we see," Broihier said. "The main one is a kind of money-laundering scam."

In these cases, he said, the fraudster poses as an artist and posts images online of his work (the images could be of anything). The person, usually based overseas, then uses a fake or stolen credit card number to purchase prints of his own art.

FineArtAmerica sends the prints to a bogus address and wires the "artist" his share of the proceeds. By the time the company finds out that the credit card number was no good, it's too late.

"Someone tries to pull this off at least once a month," Broihier said. "We try to stay on top of it, but it's hard."

He admitted he never expected his online art gallery to become a magnet for thieves. But he's not surprised that scammers have found ways to exploit both his business and his artists, many of whom jump at the prospect of a sale.

"I try to tell people that if they receive a check for $1,000 more than the asking price, don't do it," Broihier said. "But you can't send out that warning every month."

If you ever find yourself in such a situation, whether you're selling art online or wheeling and dealing on EBay or Craigslist, don't take the bait if a big fat check comes your way. Report it to the Federal Trade Commission and then tell the sender what you think.

And, like Groppa, there's no need to be polite.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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