In general I am a fairly optimistic person. Call me naive, but I prefer to see the world through rose-colored glasses and find that if you put positivity into the world it will always come back to you. But in the past two years, since leaving my many years of schooling behind, I have also learned how important it is to be constantly aware of people who might be attempting to take advantage of you professionally.
Everyone is always out to get the best deal. Weddings are extremely expensive (as I am learning right now) and there is often little money left in the pot for a ceremony musician. Of course there are those rare gigs that come right out and offer great pay above your rates, or gladly accept your proposal, but more often than not I have to haggle with clients regarding my rates, explaining the reasoning behind why a 20 minute wedding ceremony costs more than a cocktail hour. Then there are the gigs that seem impossible… that you toss a crazy high quote at in the hopes that it will scare the client off…
Freelance work, in my experience, is sustained primarily through personal checks and cash transactions. I am always happy to take payment in any form… but in 2015 I learned that checks are the payment type that is most vulnerable to fraud attacks.
According to the 2013 Federal Reserve Payments Study:
* Checks (consumer and business) were the payment instrument with the highest average value of unauthorized transactions in 2012. The average unauthorized check transaction was valued at $1221, as compared to ACH at $730, ATM withdrawals at $217, general purpose credit cards at $138, and general purpose debit cards at $105.
Some resources for spotting fraudulent checks:
I was contacted by a man named John Barbs (I use his real name so that if anyone is ever contacted by this person they will know to be wary) through my free Wedding Wire profile on August 2, 2015 for a wedding on September 26, 2015 in Miami. I immediately replied to his email with my standard response, which includes my ceremony and cocktail hour rates as well as information regarding what is included in those packages and a link to my Dropbox folder that holds all of my client recordings.
We spoke on the phone a few days later and he informed me that he and his fiancé were interested in hiring me not only for the ceremony, but for 4 hours of the reception as well and to please send a quote via email. Now, I don’t know about you… but a 4 hour wedding reception is not exactly my cup of tea… it’s hard on the body, and it’s hard to take breaks when you are the only entertainment. I tallied up what my rate would be for this event and fully anticipated at least a little blow-back on my rate, but was surprised when John accepted the rate no questions asked.
“Great!” I thought. From this point on everything went very smoothly. Contracts were signed, music was chosen, and I made more than a few recordings specifically per John’s request. When it came to the deposit things began getting a little strange…
John said that a deposit payment of 85% of my full fee would be paid to me through his company, which struck me as strange for a few reasons. Firstly, I generally only require a 25% deposit at most for any event. Secondly, the fact that his company would be sending me a check, but that I wouldn’t be required to fill out a W-9, seemed very odd to me since the payment would have been over $600. But then again, who am I to argue with someone who is so willing to pay me!
John and I spoke on the phone again in late September and in this conversation he proposed what would become the mistake that almost happened. He explained that his fiancé had experienced a medical emergency and that for this reason he would need my assistance in ensuring that her reception dress arrived in time for the wedding. That the 85% deposit check would now be much more, and that I would be doing him a HUGE favor if I could deduct my full fee and then transfer the remaining amount to the dress store in New England. This was so strange to me… red flags waving in every direction… but I tried to be as empathetic as possible over the phone. After much talking I agreed that this would be possible.
In an email on September 4th John said: “I was informed the payment was issued out today and hopefully by Monday or Tuesday, you will get it and as soon as you get the pay check, have it cashed at your bank and deduct your part payment as agreed, send the difference in balance to the bridal shop manager whose information will be provided later. The reason being that he requested to be paid via western union or money gram, and the company I work with can not do that please I am counting on you to take care of this for us please.” I waited but nothing arrived.
I didn’t hear from John again until September 13 to send me the tracking number for the check, and the information for the dress shop where the balance of the money would be sent. And speaking of that check… it would be a check for $1,950… I thought to myself: “John must be a very trusting person to send a total stranger this amount of money in the hopes that they will send along the balance to some other party.”
The check arrived and warily I brought it immediately to my local Chase Bank branch. The woman behind the desk confirmed the suspicion that had already been growing in my mind… that this was a fraudulent check and that if I somehow successfully cashed it I would then be liable for $1,950… except that over $1,000 of that money was to be sent to another person. I don’t know about you, but $1,000 is a lot of money in my world. I was at the bank that day for about 2 hours, speaking with managers, tellers, and check fraud experts, in person and over the phone.
I left the bank pretty disappointed with humanity. This total stranger was willing to put me in a really terrible position, stealing money from me; I was pretty dejected. I left John a voicemail that afternoon explaining what had happened at the bank and that if this was a mistake to please call me as soon as possible to figure out something. I might have also said that if this was not a mistake and that he did in fact send me a fraudulent check where he could stick said check…
I then called the company whose name was printed on the check… they told me that they had no employees named John Bard who lived in the area that he claimed to be from, or had the same contact information as my supposed client. They were very happy to hear that I would not be cashing a check in their name.
I was lucky, for sure. Luckily the bank teller that I had at Chase bank that day knew her stuff, knew what to look for and how to best advise me in this situation; I can never thank her enough. Those of you who have been freelancing for many years will probably read my story and shake your heads knowingly, having experienced something like this before. If you haven’t already experienced something like this and are in the wedding field, don’t allow my story or anyone else’s to scare you; learn from it, and follow these rules:
- Never send money to a stranger at the request of another stranger.
- If you are suspicious that you might be dealing with a fraudulent transaction always:
- follow your gut – if it feels off it probably is
- go into the bank to talk to a teller rather than depositing your check through the ATM – a person is 100% more likely to catch a fraudulent check as compared to a machine. (87% of statistics are made up on the spot)
Even after this experience I still believe that people are essentially good natured and that sometimes the craziness of life makes people do crazy things. I believe that the best way that we can protect ourselves from situations like this, is to be aware! Has anything like this ever happened to you? Share your stories below so that others might benefit from your experience.