Copyright © ProZ.com, 1999-2017. All rights reserved.
When it comes to scams, many if not most of us will have read about the notorious advance fee fraud, the "travelling businessman" scenario and the like. But there are other, more sophisticated scams that translators need to be alert to, such as the type described in Enrique Cavalitto's article, "Scammers who steal translations". Sadly, there are clients out there who want a translation but have no intention of paying the fee you quoted, despite agreeing to it. You end up receiving either nothing at all or just a fraction of what you expected for your hard work. Even well-established agencies have been known to try it on, as colleagues have reported in the forums.
The psychological impact can be just as damaging as the financial one. Once you realize you've been taken for a ride, your faith in other people can be shaken and you may even blame yourself. "How can I ever trust anyone else completely again?" "How could I have been so stupid?" But these are, of course, overreactions. Most clients out there act in good faith, it's just a minority who don't. So how can you tell the two groups apart? How can you steer a middle course between being overly trusting and being paranoid?
There are plenty of precautions we can take to minimize, if not completely eliminate, the risks. Some excellent ones have already been suggested in other Knowledgebase articles (in particular, doing your homework on new clients). But there are a few others of a more psychological nature which I believe can also help, and it is these that I will describe in this article. Scams of all kinds tend to involve a fair amount of hidden psychology, because in order to succeed, a scammer needs to manipulate our behaviour or "pull our mind strings", if you will. To do that effectively, scammers need to see things from our point of view and predict how we will respond to their overtures. By the same token, if we want to guard against scams, it can help to understand something of the scammer's mindset. The scammer behaviours that I describe in this article are my personal "red flags" – ominous signs that I watch for when dealing with clients.
Before I share my red flags with you, let me stress an important point: I find that they work best when applied cumulatively. In other words, one on its own isn't necessarily cause for concern. If I notice one, I won't necessarily walk away; instead, I will consider the circumstances and watch carefully for others before making a decision. But if I see a second one, I will definitely steer clear. I like to compare the scammer mindset to a syndrome which can only be reliably diagnosed when at least a couple of symptoms are present. The list below is not necessarily exhaustive, and you may prefer to draw up a different list based on your own experiences. It is no substitute for the usual common-sense checks that we should all make when dealing with a new client; rather, it offers additional safeguards that can be built into your "scam defence system". They are behaviours that I have consistently observed in my own experience and in situations described by others in discussion forums. So, here they come!
1. Guilt-tripping or "pity plays"
Scammers understand that two of the most powerful levers that can be used to manipulate an honest person with a strong sense of conscience are guilt and sympathy. To take one example that I read about in the forums: while in the middle of an urgent job for an agency he hadn't worked for before, a translator became suspicious about the agency after learning that the PM had worked for another agency (same address and contact details but a different company name and website) which had failed to pay another translator and was allegedly being sued for thousands of euros. Sensibly, the translator said that he would stop work on the job until he received a PO, which the agency had promised but failed to deliver up to that point. The agency's response was: it's not fair of you to take that translator's word over ours and it's too late for us to find someone else to complete the job now, so how can you put us in this predicament? Note how the agency appeals to the translator’s sense of fairness and turns the situation around 180 degrees by making itself out to be the victim and accusing him of placing it in a predicament, when in fact its failure to issue a PO as promised put him in a predicament. This kind of hypocrisy is something that always makes me run a mile!
2. Inconsistencies, contradictions, bad logic
These can take many different forms. In one case that I read about, a translator was halfway through a fairly large job for an agency when it suddenly told him that the job was cancelled, as the client had made a mistake and didn't need the translation. The agency indicated it wanted to renegotiate the payment terms for the work done. When the translator offered a 50% discount, it said it didn't have the money to pay him even that (this despite the fact that according to the translator, it was a "large established agency"). However, although the client supposedly didn't need the translation, the agency added that it still wanted the rest of the work completed as it claimed the client might try to use the translation in future. You see the contradiction: an agency expecting a hefty discount for a "cancellation" when the job hasn't really been cancelled. The agency wanted to talk terms on the phone and bounced the translator's subsequent emails back to him, presumably so that there would be no written record of whatever was agreed over the phone.
Mismatches between what an agency claims to do and what it does in practice can also be a bad sign. One agency that seemed a little too full of praise for my CV made all manner of claims on its website about how it complied with numerous ISO standards and used an extremely complex risk management system designed to weed out all possible errors, yet what the agency asked me to do was to proofread highly technical translations into a language that is not my native tongue. I add that I am not, and did not represent myself as, a technical translator in the relevant field, yet when I pointed this out to the agency, it blithely shrugged off my concerns. I decided not to sign up with it. Later, I learned that its parent company had an extremely chequered payment history.
The more unconcerned we are about contradictions like these, the more susceptible we may be to a scam. Perhaps scammers deliberately use them as a screening mechanism to determine how "scammable" we are!
3. Excessive charm
While a certain level of friendliness is desirable when we build relationships with new clients, occasionally a client may seem a little too friendly or say things that seem over-the-top. The aim of this oily charm is, of course, to gain your trust so that you don't expect to be scammed. The more you trust someone, the less inclined you may be to take precautions that you might otherwise take, such as insisting on receiving a PO before starting work. For example, the agency that tried to scam the translator mentioned in section 1 above told him how "excited" it was about receiving his "quality" translation despite the fact that he had never worked with it before and it had no way of knowing for certain whether he was reliable. I might expect a potential client to say something like "we look forward to working with you", but "excited" seems excessive. Another thing to watch out for is when clients mention that they happen to have a lot of things in common with us. While this is not necessarily a bad sign (coincidences do happen, after all), it can also be a way of persuading us to trust the client, the psychological subtext being: I'm just like you, and you're an honest person, so of course you can trust me!
I'm also wary of clients who ask too many personal questions. One lady running a small agency who said that she was "very interested" in working with me really laid on the charm with a trowel, promising to keep my details "preciously" and proceeding to give me her entire life story. She then showed great curiosity about my life and asked a number of personal questions on the pretext that "it's always nice to get to know the people you work with". She also tried very persistently to have a chat with me on the phone, calling several times within the space of a few days, but always at times when I was out. A family member answered the calls and told her that emailing me was the best solution if she needed to get in touch with me urgently. In the end, she gave up calling and never contacted me again, so her great interest in me proved to be short-lived. I was later told by another translator that she had ripped them off.
While personal questions can be perfectly innocent, if you're unlucky enough to be dealing with a scammer, they might just be a way of assessing your personality and finding out how trusting or open you are with people you don't know. The information gained can also be used to mirror back to you your own personality traits, interests and so on, to reinforce the impression that you and your new client are like two peas in a pod. And of course, when you're talking to someone on the phone, you have less time to think about your answers than you do when you're writing an email, so it's easier to be caught off guard.
One of our biggest defences against scams is thinking time. The more time you have to think about whether someone might be trying to scam you, the more time you have to do your homework on the client and figure out that something may be amiss. Scammers, of course, want to minimize the chance that you will have second thoughts, so one of the ways they go about this is to give you as little thinking time as possible. Deadlines will tend to be extremely short, so short that you'll probably have to drop everything and rush like mad to get the job done on time. In addition, the more work you complete before you smell a rat, the more capital you will have invested in the job (money at stake plus time already spent) and the more unwilling you will be to pull out of the job: "I've done so much of this job now, I may as well finish it and hope for the best, otherwise all the time I've spent already will be wasted." That's why setting an extremely tight deadline makes a lot of sense from a scammer's point of view. If you become suspicious about a client midway through a job and seek extra guarantees, beware evasive replies along the lines of "we'll sort this out tomorrow, but for now, please can you just continue with the job? It's really urgent and we can't let the client down..."
The "cumulative rule" I mentioned above is especially applicable here – most urgent jobs aren't scams, of course!
5. Client turns nasty: rudeness or threats
Besides the carrots of flattery and empty promises, scammers sometimes also use the sticks of rudeness or threats as ways of getting us to comply. The more meek or submissive an intended target is, the more successful this method will be. Sometimes, after dazzling us with initial charm, a client can unexpectedly turn nasty when a translator seeks payment safeguards or balks at a request that may seem onerous or inappropriate. Friendliness can suddenly give way to threats of legal action or ultimatums, and this "Jekyll and Hyde" pattern of behaviour is something I regard as a sure sign of untrustworthiness. Threats can be explicit ("we will sue...") or implicit ("we will not regard the matter as closed until...") Reportedly, when one translator learned that an agency he had agreed to work for had scammed another translator and asked for payment up front, the agency angrily retorted that he was imagining things and being illogical, and used a string of unrepeatable words to describe the translator who alleged it had scammed him. A bona-fide agency shouldn't react rudely when asked a perfectly reasonable question.
The best defence against this kind of behaviour is, of course, a willingness to stand up for yourself. A reasonable level of confidence can save you a lot of grief!
I hope that by sharing these observations with you, you may be better able to guard against scams. If you've had the misfortune of being scammed in the past, you might like to think back and try to remember whether any of these red flags were present. Sometimes, in our enthusiasm and eagerness to gain a potentially important new client, we can choose to overlook the warning signs.
You may also recognize some of these red flags from the advance fee fraud scenarios that are often mentioned in the "Scams" forum. For instance, guilt-tripping and urgency are the cornerstones of the "business trip" scam. You know the kind of thing: a businessman is about to go abroad on an important business trip and needs a presentation translated. He then sends you a cheque for an amount that's way too much and implores you to send a cheque for the surplus amount urgently to a third party, such as an interpreter, otherwise his plans will fall through and the poor businessman will be left stranded and helpless in a foreign country. This puts you under moral pressure to send that cheque pronto! And once you've done that, the cheque he sent you will, of course, bounce or turn out to have been stolen.
Another thing to bear in mind is that sometimes, even clients we've worked for in the past can try to pull a fast one. Some translators have reported that agencies have attempted to scam them out of large amounts after two or three small initial jobs were paid as agreed. The reason why a scammer might use this technique is, once again, to win your trust. Once you've done a couple of jobs for someone, you become more inclined to assume that the client always acts in good faith. When a larger invoice isn't paid, you may then be more likely to swallow the reasons the client gives you: that the work was below standard (here again, a lack of confidence is a scammer's best friend), it's having a temporary cashflow problem, and so on. If I ran an agency and wanted to manoeuvre translators into accepting less than they bargained for, I wouldn't do it every single time because if I did, translators would soon desert me and I'd have no way of fulfilling orders. Instead, I'd wait until I had gained a translator's trust and then just try the technique every once in a while with a big job, so that the translator would be less likely to think I was doing it deliberately. From a scammer's point of view, that would be a better way of conning people and keeping a business going, and it also explains why some agencies have very hit-and-miss payment histories that alternate between effusive praise and angry reports of non-payments or "enforced discounts". If you've done a few small jobs for a client and then start to wonder whether you're being scammed with a much bigger one, try not to let the previous jobs influence your judgment too much.
If you understand the psychology that goes into scams, you'll be in a better position to spot trouble before it happens. Trust your instincts and don't base your decisions solely on how reputable or big a company may seem. And don't forget that these red flags can also be applied in other spheres of life. Scams aren't confined to the realm of translation, after all!