Unfamiliar Contact? Do your Homework!

Some days in PR are better than others. But few days could possibly be more satisfying than the ones when you tangibly save your client time, money and embarrassment.

Let me explain: the night before the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show began, a fellow who said he wrote for Time magazine e-mailed me, saying he was really interested in what my client was doing at the show and that he’d like to stop by my client’s booth the very next morning.

In the midst of CES preparations, I was unable to do my usual due diligence about this new contact. Since he claimed to be from Time, I figured he was either new or, for some reason, I was unaware of him. In either case, I didn’t want to put him off, because time was extremely short and my client would certainly love exposure in Time. We agreed that he’d drop by the booth in the a.m., and I planned to size him up there.

Among all of the other action I conjured up in the booth and around the convention center that day, I kept an eagle eye out for my new friend from Time. I nearly gave myself a migraine examining the seemingly thousands of press badges I saw during my travels here, there and everywhere. Finally, an hour before the show was to close for the day, we still hadn’t received a visit from him at the booth, and I needed to leave for an evening event.

I had informed my client’s director of marketing about this potential visit, however, so he was also on the lookout. Lo and behold, just after I had left the building, our man showed up and proceeded to dazzle everyone in the booth. It should be noted that my client’s key executives are hardcore consumer electronics industry veterans who have been around the block more than a few times and aren’t gullible in the slightest. They all believed he was legit, and preliminary arrangements were made to send him a review unit of one of my client’s high-end products. We’d already placed my client on the Today show, MSN and much more during the show, so this was the icing on the cake.

When I got home to Rhode Island, though, this new contact was a red flag in my mind. His e-mail address had been irking me the whole time. It had absolutely no relation to his name and, what’s more, it had numbers in it and, what’s more, it was an AOL address. What self-respecting tech writer for Time magazine, I thought when he first contacted me, would have an AOL address, and a user name that looked like that of a spammer or some schlub on eBay?  It had really stuck in my craw the whole week.

I sat down in my office and started googling his name, which interestingly enough was the real name of a cheesy radio morning show sidekick when I was growing up in Philly who passed away a few years back. Many of the hits that came up were about the radio guy. I turned to Google News for a more specialized search, and nothing came up that looked remotely like a tech article for Time, or any other magazine, for that matter. When I added “Time” to the search, I got absolutely nothing. I went directly to Time.com and got absolutely nothing.

imposterdelRed flags turned to red buzzers and sirens. I contacted my client and told it to put a hold on sending the reporter any product because I suspected he might be an imposter and I wanted to do some more due diligence. My client agreed to await my conclusion, adding, “If he is bogus, he’s darn good.” I suspected we had an illustrious scammer on our hands.

The alleged reporter had provided his home address and home phone number to my client, which I proceeded to research. The address did indeed belong to the name he gave, but it remained unclear just who this person was. One site said he was a VP of sales for a company called Intertech. Was he looking to reverse engineer my client’s product? Or was he going to try to sell it on eBay? The fact that the address was in Las Vegas, the location of the trade show, aroused my suspicion that this guy was a local crank or a con artist.

I called the phone number he provided. Adding to the sketchiness: the short voicemail greeting didn’t provide any names, and gave a different phone number from the one I called. Using my friendliest voice, I left a voicemail saying I just wanted to make sure we were sending him the right product and that I wanted to get a sense of his needs.

As I waited for my new “friend” to take the bait, I gave Time Inc. headquarters a call. The operator said there was no one employed by the company by that name, but allowed that he might be a freelancer. Fair enough.

Shortly thereafter, the man of the hour called my office. He sounded rushed. I prompted him about the product we were going to send him and he said, “Yes, that one” and proceeded to ask when it was going to arrive. I responded that before we sent the product out, I just wanted to read some of his work to get a sense of his approach, the topics he covered, and so on. I told him I normally don’t ask such a question, but that I had no luck whatsoever finding his articles online. Could he point me to a few? He responded that he writes under a different first name, and that I should search on that name.

charlatan1Um, OK. So if he writes under that name, I wondered, why does he present himself to companies under another name? Hey, who knows, I allowed to myself with an obscene amount of fairness towards this person, maybe he’s just a quirky genius type, or just a weird guy. It wouldn’t be the first journalist I’ve met who would meet that description.

So off I went to Google and Time.com to search on this new first name-last name combo. Nothing on Time.com. Some articles on Google, but nothing directly related to my industry, and certainly nothing from Time. I wrote him back, saying I couldn’t find anything. He again asked me when the product would arrive “so he could keep an eye out” and linked me to a story on a Canadian blog that had nothing to do with what my client, or what the consumer electronics industry, does.

There was no contact info for the author, so I wrote to the general e-mail address of the blog: “Hi, I’m a PR person just doing due diligence on a reporter named [redacted], who requested a review sample of one of my client’s products. He told me he writes for Time magazine and lives in Las Vegas. Is this true? Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.”

Shortly thereafter, I received a message from the real author: “I’m not the [redacted] who contacted you… I’m afraid I can’t vouch for the fellow who contacted you, but if you find out that he’s a scammer, please do let me know, as I’d be worried at any possibility of identity theft.”

By this point, it must have been obvious to the scammer that I was on to him; I hadn’t written him back or called, even though he was waiting on product. So the guy simply went over my head and tried the same rap on my client’s director of marketing, who proceeded to dance the same charade with this character. The best part of this was when he revealed that he didn’t just write for Time, but also for Time‘s “ancellory” publications; the correct word, as most writers would know, is “ancillary.” Still, the only link he provided my client was that same Canadian blog. After my client asked for a clip specifically from Time, the imposter finally stopped corresponding with us. My client got in touch with the real author of the linked article, who soon blogged about the whole experience.

Once that blog post went up, we found out that, not surprisingly, we weren’t the only near-victim of this charlatan. A representative of another company at the show got in touch both with the author and with my client.

NEW ZEALAND MCDONALDSAs he told my client, “Unfortunately the same con artist/scammer approached your booth at the CES show as well as my booth.  Let me guess, [he] said that he was from TIME Magazine and would like to write an article on your products?  I’m going to guess that he requested samples of your products too?  This clown talked to me at my booth… for a good half hour and actually interviewed me on my entire product line. He had a press pass and a business card saying that he is a journalist for TIME Magazine.  At the time he sounded pretty legit, was dressed to the 9’s, etc. I sent him samples of my products via UPS but was able to retrieve them before they were delivered to [his] address. Phewww!  If it wasn’t for [the authentic journalist’s blog post], I would’ve never guessed that [this guy] is a scammer.  I was doing all my follow up calls on all of my leads from CES and decided to Google [him].  This is how I found [the authentic journalist’s] article on “Identity theft” and how this character attempted to scam you guys as well. Thank you for looking into this guy because I would have lost a lot of money in samples. If I run into this… character at the show next year, I plan on giving him a piece of his own medicine!”

So, yeah, long story, but I just wanted to post it in the interest of not only protecting the legitimate journalist’s identity and bringing the imposter down, but also as one of those instructive “PR 101” things. As I stated at the very beginning, my diligence in this case saved my client time, money and embarrassment. If something doesn’t feel right, there’s a reasonable chance it isn’t. If you aren’t familiar with someone posing as a journalist and asking for the moon and stars, make sure you look for clips to ensure the person is legit. Match e-mail addresses and phone numbers and published work to identities. It sounds simple but, too often, it just doesn’t happen. And in this internet age, it’s way easier to take these safeguarding steps than it used to be.

Bottom line: If you are representing a client, you need to be the filter. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to filter retroactively, as I did. So you do it. That’s the job. And I’ll be honest, the detective work is damn enjoyable.

My client dubbed me “Super Sleuth.” And my client didn’t lose one dime on this charlatan. Which means we did our job as an agency. As a bonus, our actions ultimately ended up saving a company we don’t even represent significant expense as well. Good karma!

It’s not just about getting clips.

Update: My S.O. thought it was hilarious how many times I used the term “due diligence” in this post. What can I say, I am serious about due diligence! 🙂

Posted by Joe Paone


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