The all-important smell test
Earlier today I received a request to translate an article from English into German.
The sender wrote from an AOL address and signed his email with his name and email address, which I thought was odd for a private customer. Also, who still uses AOL? Nevertheless, I sent him my per-word rate and requested a copy of the document, his full address (“for my invoice”), and advance payment–all of which I thought would discourage any pranksters. He replied a little later with a copy of the document. I did the word count and replied with my definite offer and suggested timeline. Throughout this entire process I had a funny feeling that I couldn’t quite place.
He accepted my offer and agreed to pay not 33% (as I’d asked) but 50% of the overall invoice in advance. He also asked for my mailing address and telephone number so he could arrange payment. This finally raised my suspicions enough to do a background check on him. After all, my telephone number is featured prominently on my website, and he told me he had found my email address there. So why not my telephone number?
First, I checked his name and address on http://www.whitepages.com and Google maps. He was not listed, but the street address seemed to exist. Ok, so maybe he likes his privacy.
Next, I checked the email headers of all three emails I had received. They all came from an AOL client (as per X-Mailer and Message-Id), and always from the same IP address. So far, so good. However, the odd thing out was the original IP address (X-Originating-IP), which according to the IP trackers (http://www.ip-adress.com/ip_tracer/ and https://ipdb.at/ip/) I used belongs to an ISP called “Deepak Mehta FIE”. I could not find a web presence for this supposed ISP (and surely every ISP has one); also, a quick Google search showed that it was located in the middle of a field in Kansas. Ok, maybe it was some kind of a VPN or anonymizing portal, but this was sure getting interesting.
Then, I took a look at the file itself. It was a Word document and looked otherwise legitimate, but when I checked the personal information it was stripped bare of meta information. I mean, completely bare! No date, no author, nothing. Now, I know people who are paranoid enough to do this to their files. But for a guy who was ready to send me a check and his private mailing address, this really looked fishy. I finally decided to copy a couple of lines from the document and paste them into Google. Turns out it was an exact copy of a Wikipedia article.
Now, I don’t know what the deal is with this guy. Maybe he really is harmless if incredibly paranoid and private. But I’m more inclined to think it’s some kind of overpayment/refund scam (here is an example: http://jonathan-warren.blogspot.com/2009/06/overpayment-refund-scam.html).
Should I just have copied the German version of the Wikipedia article, taken his payment, and run? A scam the scammer kind of a deal? Perhaps, but I decided to play it professional and politely turned down the project.
What I learned from wasting 2 hours writing my offer and doing research: trust your gut instinct. If it “smells” funny from the get go, it probably is!