Victoria Strauss, who runs the valuable Writer Beware blog, has this assessment of what's happening in the world of writing scams:
"Now, in 2012, Writer Beware only rarely hears about brand-new agent scams; even inquiries about well-intentioned amateur agents--which once made up a large percentage of our correspondence--have dwindled to a trickle. By far the most frequent questions and complaints we receive involve small publishers, various flavors of vanity presses, self-publishing services, and marketing or other so-called services aimed at small press and self-published authors."
As they say, one door closes, another door opens--even for scammers. Before you spend your money on any services, I suggest you do the following:
1. Read the fine print. Often there are traps buried in the text of a contract. Things to look for:
* If it's a time-based service of some kind, for how long are you obligated?
* Is there a way for you to cancel the service if you're not happy?
* What's the refund policy?
* Does the copyright stay with you? It should.
2. Do a Google search about the company, the individuals running it, and the products or services they offer. Go past the first page so you get past the fake sites.
For instance, let's say the Fraudentcheat Agency is a scam. They set up a bunch of websites with names like "Fraudentcheat Scam?" or "Fraudencheat Fraud?" These look like legitimate review sites and--surprise!--they conclude that Fraudencheat is a fine company that has been unfairly accused of shady practices.
They use SEO to make sure these sites occupy most of the first page of results. Any legitimate reviews are pushed to the second, third, or fourth page of results, which few people bother to check. Be the one in a hundred who digs deeper.
3. Check with others who have used the service. If possible, go beyond the endorsers who are cited on the web site of the people providing the service. Be aware that testimonials can be fake or can have been sent before things went sour.
I've written in the past about a publicist who ran glowing endorsements from clients--who, when I contacted them later (hindsight in action!) were not happy with his services at all. Later I found out he'd never paid for the big ad that attracted me in the first place.
4. If things that were agreed upon are not delivered, complain immediately and document every contact. By the time I caught on, several thousand pounds had changed hands. When I sued in small claims court I won but the company went bust and I was never able to collect. If you move quickly you may have a chance to get your money back before the house of cards collapses.
Bring in some bigger guns; for instance, mention that unless you get a refund you will notify the Writers Guild and name some other organizations they don't want to have snooping around. It couldn't hurt to mention that you're friends with (name of editor of publication the scammer is most likley to fear). It's not a lie--go to the editor's Facebook page and "friend" him or her...now you're friends!
Be prepared for some return fire from the scammers but don't let them intimidate you. When I named and shamed the publicist he left a message on my answer machine claiming that he'd notified the police that I had sent him death threats! He made the mistake of even making up the name of a detective he'd supposedly talked to and gave a case number. When I phoned the police they told me there was no such detective or case number. They asked me to notify them if he contacted me again so they could investigate him. He didn't call again.
Another common practice is for the scammers to threaten to sue you. Some even go so far as to send fake letters supposedly from their attorneys.
If you get one of these, stay calm. First check whether the law firm on the letterhead even exists. If it does, phone them and ask if they are actually acting on behalf of the person who sent the letter. If they do, all that means is he or she paid them to write the letter, not that there is any serious intention to follow through.
Remember, the scammers don't want to be exposed to the light of day so going public via a court case often is the last thing they want.
5. Let others know about your unhappy experience. Keep it professional and stick to the facts, don't make it personal and don't do any name-calling. It's better to say, "I paid (amount), in exchange for which (name of company) agreed to (specifics of the service). This service was not provided and they have refused to refund my money"--rather than--"(name of company) are bunch of scumbags who cheated me out of (amount of money)!" I know it would feel better to say the latter, but your case will be stronger with the former.
Use the forums of appropriate web sites, your own Twitter feed, your Facebook page, etc. The more you stay factual and avoid personal attacks, the more serously people will take you. You might at least save someone else from being cheated.
You'll find more questions and answers about how to avoid being ripped off, in this case by people who steal your material, here: http://timetowrite.com/protecting-your-material/