How to Spot a Scam Agent
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
A few weeks ago, I made a video covering some of the common scams plaguing publishing right now. I hadn't planned to write anything about that or go into depth, but it's been getting worse, so here we are, talking about grifters again. If you've written a novel and are shopping it around, you might want to read on.
Recently, we've seen a number of scammers imitating actual, well known literary agents and publishers, and a number of people have already been taken in. The imitation aspect is a new wrinkle in something that's gone on for a long time - criminals presenting themselves as representatives of literary agencies or publishers, or as independent agents. If you're active in online writing communities, there's a good chance you've dealt with one of them, directly or indirectly.
It's worth repeating that these people do not want to steal your book - they want to steal your money, and they have a few ways to do this. Sometimes they'll ask for payment up front in the form of a "reading fee" or "representation fee." Scammers working a longer con may wait it out, then request money for various editorial services, and keep asking for more and more until the mark wises up. Other times, they won't ask for money directly, but will steer the mark toward a vanity publisher or shady editing service. There have even been cases in which the fake agent isn't after money at all, but is seeking to humiliate the mark for one reason or another.
So I'm going to show you some red flags - things that should make you suspicious about this agent you're dealing with. If you have reasons to be suspicious, you can visit Writer Beware (from which I'm cribbing a lot of this) for more information, including lists of known bad agents and publishers.
Seven Red Flags for Fake and Unscrupulous Agents
1. Cold contact
Fake agents tend to have very light digital footprints - an email address and maybe a few throwaway social media accounts, but no website. This means that they make contact first. Typically, they'll find their marks through writing forums, Facebook groups or on Twitter, and make contact through the platform or through the mark's website.
Cold contacts aren't always fraudulent - there are plenty of cases of legitimate agents reaching out to authors directly to offer representation. However, these tend to be successful self-published authors with followings. A lesser-known writer might receive inquiries after something boosts her profile - for example, a major media appearance, a shout-out by a famous author, or a blog post or story going viral. If nothing like this has happened lately and you get a cold email, it's reason enough to be a little suspicious.
2. Upfront request for money
As a rule, you should never give money to a stranger on the internet, but if this agent opens a conversation with her hand out, it's an especially big red flag. The days of reading fees are long gone, and any agent soliciting money out of the gate is likely to disappear as soon as the transaction goes through. Reputable agents just don't do this.
3. Inappropriate language
Writing scams, like every other type of fraud, are an international game in the 21st century. This means that many scammers are non-native English speakers, and may give away the game through their own writing. Most people are going to be rightly suspicious if they receive an email from a literary agent in broken English.
There's a much more subtle tell, though, and that lies in the dialects. If you are reading an email allegedly from an American agent, but it seems to be written in British English, that's reason to be suspicious. A lot of ESL materials - including those I use - are produced by companies based in the United Kingdom. Of course, this could be an agent born in the UK but living in the US...but it is another reason for caution.
4. Misspelling the name of the company
Look, some agencies and publishers have names that can be easily mangled. For example, there's a very large literary agency called Writers House. It would be very easy to slip up and call it "Writer House" by accident...easy for most people, anyway. For a person who allegedly works for that company, who has that company's name and logo in her email signature line, it's a lot less understandable.
5. A connection to the Philippines
So when I mentioned international fraud, I'm sure that a lot of you pictured India, as Indian scammers are involved in a lot of telephone and internet fraud targeting English speakers. But writing scams have always had a close association with the Philippine islands. Many of the bigger vanity publishers are based there, as are some of the current crop of fake agents.
Of course, an imitator posing as an American or English agent is never going to admit that they're in the Philippines, but they still have to get your money at some point. If the agent pressures you to work with a Philippine company or wants money sent to an address in the Philippines, then it might be time to do a little research.
6. Wrong email address
More than a red flag, this is a fast way to confirm an agent's identity if you're already suspicious. Most agents use work email with their company's domain name, while imitators are more likely to use free web-based email. There are some independent agents who use Gmail or Yahoo, but it's not something you see with the bigger companies.
Additionally, some scammers use multiple email addresses and may switch between them while working with a mark. It's a sloppy mistake, but it can still be easy to miss if they switch in the middle of a long correspondence.
If you have several red flags flying, you can validate an agent's identity by comparing the email address in your correspondence to the actual agent's email address on the agency website or on Publishers Marketplace. If you spot a mismatch, then you've just found a scam.
7. Unrealistic promises
Even if you're not dealing with an imitator, even if this person is who she claims to be, it doesn't mean that everything is above-board. Guides on avoiding scams always end the same way: "If something looks too good to be true, then it probably is."
The problem is that the general public may not understand the publishing process well enough to know what "too good to be true" looks like. A person who is rightfully skeptical of a come-on claiming that they can make thousands of risk-free dollars per week dropshipping or that they can lose weight while eating cheeseburgers and pizza every day may not be so wary when an agent claims to have landed multiple six-figure offers with major imprints after less than a week, even though that one is just as absurd.
Scammers prey on ignorance and willful blindness. A decade back, there was a account of a writer whose fake agent made those claims about landing multiple offers within days, and she believed him - until he started making mistakes. She was lucky enough to only lose her pride, as this was one of those fake agents that wasn't after money. There are other people who got burned badly.
Most victims of a fake agent can expect to lose anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, but the credulous marks of a long con can lose as much as they have. The criminals keep the mark in suspense for years, promising big-time six- or seven-figure deals just around the bend, and then coming back every few months to ask for more money for developmental editing, or a marketing plan, or a book trailer. They rely on a combination of FOMO and the sunk cost fallacy to keep the mark paying up, with the implicit threat that they stand to lose fame and fortune if they ever say no.
Already I've heard about imitators taking people for upwards of ten grand, and if you go back into the history books there are more extreme examples than that. Twenty years ago, UK-based fraudulent agent Robin Price bled some of his clients for hundreds of thousands of pounds. And this is just one type of scam.
I'm pleased that you listened this far, but if you really want to keep up-to-date on disreputable practices in publishing, I'll once again recommend Writer Beware. If you think your agent or publisher might be picking your pockets, they'd be the people to ask.