Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Blog comment spam

The price of popularity.  Because my blog posts about international shipping scams achieved a fairly ranking with most search engines, I find that I am now the target of a different kind of Internet annoyance: blog comment spam. My troubles with this are nothing compared to the bloggers who get hundreds of these messages daily, but it's a nuisance even on a small scale.

Essentially, comment spam is a blog comment that's nonsensical, off-topic, or complimentary in a way that adds no value to the topic or the discussion (like "great post" or "nice blog").  Most importantly, however, it always includes a link to another website.  Here's one I received today, just as an example:
Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "International shipping scams, part 3: out of the nutshell":

I'm impressed, I have to admit. Seldom do I come across a blog that's both educative and entertaining, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The problem is something not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about.
I'm very happy that I came across this in my hunt for something concerning this.

Feel free to surf to my homepage - Instant income blog [actual hyperlink removed]
Well I, too, am glad you came across this in your hunt for something concerning this.

In most cases, comment spammers are trying to scam search engines into boosting a website's ranking by sprinkling links to it all over the Internet.  Many search engines use the number of inbound links to a particular website as an indicator of that site's popularity and credibility, and the more external links there are to a given website, the higher up in search results it will appear. 

In other cases, comment spammers are trying to drive traffic to a particular website by providing convenient links to it everywhere they can.  The links might lead to commercial websites, they might lead to porn websites, they might lead to malicious websites that put nasty files and programs on the computer of anyone who visits them. 

Some bloggers are philosophically opposed to moderating the comments they receive because the spirit of the blogosphere is open discussion in which anyone and everyone can participate, share ideas, and debate points of view.  They rely instead on filter programs to identify and block spam.  But filters have their limits: some spam comments are not blocked, and some legitimate comments are inappropriately blocked.

My choice is to moderate all the comments I receive.  I don't publish any comments that contain links I haven't tested myself first to make sure they're legitimate and safe. 

In the process of doing a little research on this, I came across a couple resources that are worth checking out.  One is an article titled 5 Ways to Identify Blog Comment Spam on that discusses how people who use spam filters for their blogs can catch any comment spam that their filters miss. 

Another is the Museum of Comment Spam, a hilarious collection of comment spam messages, "lovingly curated" by a witty blogger named Don Brown.  Ditto for Michelle Kay's post titled 12 Most Silliest Spam Blog Comments That Made Me LOL!  I think you'll be happy you came across this in your hunt for something concerning this.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The love of the craft

As a result of my international shipping scam blog posts, I made the wonderful long-distance acquaintance of Rosa Ziv from Carmel Gifts in Israel, who offered me the incredible sequence of contacts she'd had with a shipping scammer for publication in my blog post International Shipping Scams: Part 3.  Thanks to Rosa's help, thousands of people have read about exactly how these scams work, and many have been saved substantial time, trouble, and money in the process. 

The spike in the number of visits to my blog immediately after
publishing the post on which Rosa and I collaborated.

And, as a result of our having collaborated on the shipping scams post, Rosa invited me to write a guest post for her store blog!  I was delighted to be asked, and greatly enjoyed doing it.  (Amazing how the Internet can build relationships between people who would never meet or cross paths in any other way!)

As I considered various ideas about what to write, I finally settled on talking about – and correcting – a few of the common misconceptions people have about handcrafted soap.  I focused, for example, on the issue of soaps vs. synthetic detergents because in my experience, many people don't fully understand that there is a difference, or what that difference is. 

I talked about the environmental and skin care ramifications of using cleaning products that are manufactured with chemical vs. natural ingredients.

I also addressed the issue of whether handmade soap made "has lye in it," which is another area of misunderstanding for people who are unfamiliar with the basic chemisty that converts oils and fats into soap.

Given this, you might wonder why Rosa chose to title it Handmade Soap Contains Love

One simple reason.  As a crafter myself, as one who has always delighted in the uniqueness of anything that's handcrafted, and as one who's had the privilege of meeting, getting to know, and working with crafters in many different media, I know that what draws and binds us to each other is our love of what we do. 

As I put it in the post for Rosa's blog, "whenever you buy anything that’s handcrafted, you’re also getting – at absolutely no extra charge – all the love and care that went into making it.  You can’t put a price tag on that."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

International shipping scams, part 3: out of the nutshell

In my first post on this topic, I wrote "in a nutshell" about how these international shipping scams play out.  With greatest thanks and appreciation to Rosa Ziv of Carmel Gifts, this post will crack that nutshell open and show
exactly what happens when a business owner pursues, in good faith, the sales opportunity one of these e-mails appears to present.

Rosa had been corresponding with a scammer who calls himself "Robert Jones" of De-Crown Stores in the Netherlands (who has also tried to scam me), and after reading one of my previous blog posts on this subject, Rosa offered to send me the entire chain of e-mail messages in her correspondence with him.  They show, step-by-step, exactly how shipping scammers attempt to con their targets into paying for shipping to a retail business that doesn't exist, using a shipping company that also doesn't exist.

The Initial Contact

In Rosa's case, the initial inquiry was made through the "Contact Us" form on her website, not through an e-mail. Here's the text of the e-mail notification she received:
Someone submitted the form from your 'Contact Us' page

A user has submitted the contact form on your store.
Here are their details:

Full Name:  Robert Jones
Email Address:
Company Name:  De-Crown Store
Phone Number:
Order Number:
RMA Number:
Hello, How're you?I want to place an international order from your company to our store in Netherlands. I want to know if you can ship internationally and accept credit card as a form of payment?I'd love you to reply me back and we can proceed further Eagerly await to read back from you and we can proceed.
Thank you and God bless you

De-Crown Store
Robert Jones.
Interestingly, this is not the same as the e-mail I received from Robert Jones.  But it's almost exactly the same as a recent e-mail I received from someone who calls herself/himself Theresa Gullit:
How're you?I want to place an international order from your company to our store in Amsterdam,The Netherlands.I want to know if you can ship internationally and accept credit card as a form of payment?I'd love you to reply me back and we can proceed further Eagerly await to read back from you and we can proceed
Thank you and God bless you.
Theresa Gullit (Mrs)
Also, if you didn't already notice, Robert's e-mail address is a free hotmail account that's meant to give the impression of an official business e-mail address.  On the one hand, it might be what he uses for his business.  But on the other, it might only be a free e-mail account that looks like a business e-mail address.  This will come up again later on.

The Initial Response 
Subject:  RE: Someone submitted the form from your 'Contact Us' page

Dear Robert,
Thank you very much for your interest in Carmel Gifts.
Yes, of course we ship internationally and of course we accept credit cards.
In order to pay by credit card, at check out, you have a choice of PayPal or other form (credit card). When I receive the order, I will send you an email request via my PayPal for you to pay using your card. I don't see your card details and PayPal deposits the payment in my account.
Please let me know if I can be of any more assistance.
Best regards,

The Order

Robert then e-mails Rosa his shopping list. 
From:  De-Crown Store []
To:  Rosa Ziv

Hello Rosa,
Thanks for your reply back. I can't wait to have your lovely products in my store for my customers.
Below listed is the items I want to order for and will want you to get back to me with total cost plus shipping cost and I can provide you my credit card for you to charge and have my order ready and I can carry your product in our new inventory for our numerous customers.
AHAVA Dead Sea Intensive Dermud Foot Cream
Qty ... 20
"Sea of Spa" Dead Sea Foot Cream Avocado and Aloe - Set of 2
Qty ... 20
"Sea of Spa" Mineral Sun Block SPF15
Qty ... 20
Zaatar Hyssop Aromatic Seasoning Blend from the Galilee
Qty ... 20
"Sea of Spa" Dead Sea Foot Cream with Magnesium
Qty ... 20
Mauritskade 63
1092 AD Amsterdam,
Hope to read back from you with the total cost and the photos of the selected products and we can proceed and finalized my order.
God bless you.

De-Crown Stores.
Robert Jones.
One odd thing to note here. Robert has obviously visited Rosa's website to put this list together.  Rosa has pictures of all her products on her website.  So why does Robert ask Rosa to include "photos of the selected products" along with the price quote?

I point this out for the simple reason that it doesn't quite make sense.  And things like this that don't quite make sense -- even little things -- are another tell-tale sign that you're dealing with a scammer, not a legitimate customer.  

In any case, Rosa writes back:

Dear Robert,
Thanks very much. I will prepare the quotation for you.
I would like to point out that I am constantly adding more products.
If there is anything in particular you are interested in that you don't see I will try to source it for you.
Just to clarify, regarding the payment by credit card, you will not need to give the details to me, but rather I will send you an email requesting funds via PayPal and your card details will go securely [Rosa's emphasis, not mine] to PayPal and they will transfer the funds to me. I can walk you through it when we get to that point!
In the meantime, I will prepare my best offer.

Rosa then prepares a formal price quote for the items Robert specified and attaches it as a .pdf document to this e-mail:

Dear Robert,
Attached please find Quotation No. 2154.
I have offered you 15% off your entire order PLUS Free Shipping.
I look forward to turning this quotation into an order!
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
Best regards,

Rosa Ziv
Note that Rosa has offered Robert both a discount and free shipping for his order. Sounds like a sweet deal to me!

Enter the Shipping Company

Here's where it starts to get interesting.  Robert the scammer wants Rosa to use his preferred shipping company.  I've bolded the key elements in his e-mail and will summarize them below.
From: De-Crown Store []
Sent: Friday, June 21, 2013 11:58 AM
To: Rosa Ziv

Thanks for your email, I really appreciate you getting back to me with the cost of my order. I got you from online business  inventory and you what I needed to add to my stock and also to my customers. I have experienced lots of difficulties when it comes to getting my items to my address here, I will want you to contact my shipper which I uses every time I order for goods worldwide. Contact them via the below E-mail (, with the weight and dimension inclusive the value for insurance quoting my customer ID#: QP34567555A. They will come pick my order up at your location I will need you to obtain a quote and tell them that I want to Insure the package and I will like you to get back to me with overall cost of the items including the shipping cost via my shipper.
Once I have these details, I will get back to you with my credit card details immediately for payment.
God Bless you (Amen),
Kind Regards,

De-Crown Store.
Robert Jones.
Note the following:
  • Robert has been offered free shipping but apparently doesn't want it (!) because he's had lots of problems receiving things that were shipped to him
  • For that reason, he has a reliable shipper that he always uses
  • Robert wants Rosa to contact his shipping company for a price quote that includes pick-up and delivery
Also note that the e-mail address Robert has provided for the shipping company ( is another free e-mail account that looks like a business e-mail address but may or may not be, just like Robert's e-mail address.

I know that Rosa sensed there might be something fishy about all this from the start, but she also wanted to give Robert the full benefit of the doubt.  She decided to continue negotiating in good faith until the transaction was either successfully concluded, or until it was clear beyond a shadow of doubt that Robert was up to no good.  In her next response, she gently but clearly indicates that she's a little leery by asking Robert whether he actually intends to place an order, and by asking him for a link to his store.

Dear Robert,
Do I understand this to be an order?
My advice – based on years of export from Israel – is that you let me ship the goods with EMS, which is special delivery, tracked and insured via the Israel postal authority. They are very good. Also, I would not charge you shipping, as per the quotation.
My suggestion is that you pay for just the goods, I will receive them from the different sources, repack them as efficiently as possible and send them to you at my expense, insured.
I have not had any problems shipping to Amsterdam.
What do you think?
Could you send me a link to your store?

Robert offers an explanation for why he can't provide a link to his store website:
From: De-Crown Store []
Sent: Friday, June 21, 2013 1:10 PM
To: Rosa Ziv

Hello Rosa,
Thanks for your reply back.  I understand your fact concerning the shipping of your products. If this is how you feel them I want you to ship it directly to my customer who order for it. He made the request from Africa.  The name of our store is De-Crown Stores Ltd. We're new and just springing up, we don't have a website yet. But we're in the process of expand to other parts of the world in the near future where we can have our website up and running.
Await your reply back

OK, De-Crown Stores Ltd. doesn't have a website because it's "new and just springing up."  Plausible enough, I suppose. 

But note that Robert has changed the story line.  Remember earlier when he was so eager to have Rosa's products in his store for his numerous customers?  Well apparently he forgot that he wasn't actually ordering them for his store, he was ordering them for a particular customer.  And that customer is actually in Nigeria, not the Netherlands.

I've omitted a number of e-mails in the series here, but the important point from them is that Rosa is not comfortable with Robert's insistence that she use his preferred shipping company and contract with them directly.  If Robert wants to use his own shipping company, fine, but he should treat the purchase of products and the payment for shipping as two separate transactions: he should contract with Rosa for her products, and he should contract with his shipping company for pick-up and delivery.

As a professional courtesy, however, Rosa asks Robert's shipping company for a quote.
Forwarded Message: Pick up from Israel CUSTOMER ID NO. QP34567555A
From:  "Rosa Ziv"

I have been asked to contact you on behalf of your customer Robert Jones of De-Crown Stores, Netherlands, CUSTOMER ID NO. QP34567555A
He has asked that you advise estimated shipping costs.
Attached you will find my calculation of the estimated weight without the box: approximately 18 kilos divided across 2 to 3 boxes. I do not yet know the size of the boxes, but I trust that the actual weight and dimensional weight will be similar.
Total Value: €1026.50. (quotation attached).

This is the best estimation I can give at this point without fully processing the order.
Please advise his shipping costs from pickup in Haifa, Israel.
Goods should be available for pickup approximately 2 weeks from receipt of payment.
I believe he wants delivery to Nigeria.
Best regards,

Rosa Ziv
Enter Western Union

This is one of two absolutely key parts of a scam like this, because when you send money through Western Union, you pay in cash and the money is GONE.  There are no refunds.  You can't stop payment on a wire transfer the way you can on a check.

And guess what.  The shipping company only accepts payment through Western Union.  In advance, of course.

The following e-mail from the shipping company is long, so I've bolded the critical part.
From: [] On Behalf Of Western Multi Freight LLC

Dear Client,
Thank you for contacting Western Multi Freight LLC(Freight & Container) for your  service. We're a private shipping agent with private affiliate all over the world. We ran into our data base on the location you provided and also rectified the customer id number (QP34567555A) ad later got to discover that we have shipped some Merchandise to De-Crown Store in the past. We are located in United Kingdom but help private customers in pick up like this and have got affiliate all over the globe. So getting your shipment from to your client won't be a problem.
For a shipment moving from Haifa, Israel  to The Nigeria with the total Total weight and dimension you provide, below is the Standard and Express Shipment Air Freight quote.
Customer ID Number (QP34572955A)
Express Shipment (2 to 3 days)  €600.00 EUR
Standard Shipment (3 to 5 days)  €550.00 EUR
The freight costs includes:
Collection from your Yard
Customs clearance
Duties & taxes
Inland transit to The Nigeria
Door To Door Delivery
Pick up will be made by our agent in the states from your address after payment is Confirmed. We will need you to provide us with estimate pick up date and time so that we can schedule a date and time for you, before the the goods are ready for picked up as we normally have a lot of shipment request. As soon as we got payment confirmed, we invoice your shipment and scan it to you to print out and paste on the shipment.
As soon as we receive all necessary information from you we will proceed on the pick up at your location, Also we'll like to inform you that we only accept Western Union/Money Gram Money Transfer for now prior to pick up and collection of package which will be paid as soon as the order is ready for pick up. You would have to send us the amount to which the weight of the goods weight via Western Union/Money Gram Money Transfer so that we can do the pick up and settle the necessary tax and custom duties, this price includes insurance and all duties, then we will get back to you with the necessary details. We have greatly reduce the price of your shipment. For further information don't hesitate to contact us.
Looking forward to be of more service to you.
Yours Sincerely,

Jackson Walter.
In other words, as soon as Rosa pays the shipping bill via Western Union, the shipping company will get back to her with details about the order pick-up.  (Note that the shipping company response was sent from yet another free e-mail account.)

Rosa writes the shipper back to make it clear that she will not be paying for the shipping, Robert Jones will:
From: Rosa Ziv []
To: 'Western Multi Freight LLC'

Dear Jackson,
Thank you for your speedy reply.
Please note that your customer De-Crown Stores, would be paying for the shipment. I will forward this mail to him and wait for further instructions.
(Please note that I am in Israel, I think you mentioned an agent in the States)
Best regards,

Rosa forwards the price quote to Robert Jones, and he writes back with a number of new twists in the transaction.  Again, this is long so I've bolded the important part. 
From: De-Crown Store []
To: Rosa Ziv

Hello Rosa,
Thanks for your message. I want you to supplement the original order to fill the 50 unit as Assorted Variety. Thanks for the total quote of my order. The total cost of my order is  okay by me and I'm ready to pay the bills send me an invoice via email and I'll email you my Credit Card for you to charge for the payment of my order. But,i just got a response from my shipping Agent that He cannot receive payment via credit or debit card from me at the moment. I  want you to help me Charge another €600.00 EUR to my shipping agent who is going to  pick up my ordered items from you.
The €600.00 EUR that will be sent to the shipping agent is for the shipping of my order plus other items I ordered from different countries which will be deducted from my credit card. Also, I'm compensating you with the sum of €100.00 EUR for the transfer fee and for surcharge. Please note that I should have given the shipping agency my credit card for him to deduct the shipping funds but He told me that he doesn't have the facilities to  charge or debit credit card at the moment, so that's why I bring my vote of confidence in you and I don't want you to betray  the vote of confidence i put in you, I want you to transfer the funds to him after you have make the charges and the money charged from my credit card is in your account, then you can now make the transfer  to the agent via Western Union/Money Gram. I'll have love to do this my self but there no Western Union/Money Gram here, So the charges you'll make on my credit card will be:
Order Fee (€1,026.50 EUR)
Agent fee with shipping fare  (€600.00 EUR)
Transfer Fee plus Your compensation (€100.00 EUR)
Total:(€1,726.50 EUR)
Note that my credit card will be charged for the amounts above (€1,726.50 EUR). Please do get back to me if you are in the office right now so that I can forward my credit card details to you , then you can charge full amount and transfer the agent shipping funds to Him via Western Union/Money Gram.
Hope you understand?
Thanks for your co-operation & understanding.
Hope to read from you ASAP
Thanks and God Bless you

Robert Jones.
OK.  Now let's recap:
  • Robert tried to pay the shipper with his credit card, but it turns out the shipping company isn't able to accept credit card payments at the moment
  • Therefore, Robert wants to pay Rosa in full for the order and the shipping using his credit card, and he is willing to trust that once "the money charged from my credit card is in your account," Rosa will pay his shipper via Western Union and send the products
  • Robert would love to be able to pay the shipping bill himself via Western Union, "but there no Western Union/Money Gram here"
Now just a minute.  It may be that there are no Western Unions where Robert actually is, but a simple Internet search shows that there are nearly 100 Western Union locations all over Amsterdam, where he claims to be. 

But also note how Robert tries to spin this so it sounds like he's the one taking the risk by paying Rosa upfront with his credit card and trusting that she will follow through on paying his shipping company.

Enter the Fraudulent Credit Card Number

This brings us to the other key part of the scam.

Robert will use a credit card number that's been stolen, obtained by computer database hackers, or "phished," and the charge will be approved.  But that does not mean the money is "in your account."  The charge will be approved only because the rightful credit cardholder does not yet know that a fraudulent charge has been made on his/her card, and the cardholder won't know this until he/she receives the next bill.

In the meantime, a business owner who doesn't realize that this is a scam will go ahead and pay the shipping company -- which is really the scammer -- via wire transfer.  And there is no doubt in my mind that having succeeded once, a scammer like Robert Jones will immediately want to place a second, larger order while the business owner is still under the impression that he's a legitimate customer, and while the credit cardholder is still unaware of the bogus charges.

What many small business owners like me don't fully appreciate is that while consumers have protections against fraudulent charges made on their cards, business owners have very few protections against fraudulent charges they've accepted.  If and when Robert Jones's charge is successfully contested by the rightful cardholder, the business owner will end up with nothing and lose every penny he or she paid for shipping.

Did Rosa Get Scammed?

Rosa did not respond to Robert's last e-mail as promptly as the others, because at this point the nature of the scam was clear to her beyond any shadow of doubt.  Robert, meanwhile, is getting a little anxious because he's right on the verge of scoring a nice chunk of change, so he follows up with another e-mail:
From: De-Crown Store []
To: Rosa Ziv

Hello Rosa,
How are you today? Do you get my last mail detailing on instruction on how to proceed and you get back to me with the order invoice and i can advise with payment and we finalized.
Kindly reply back today and let me know if you get it.
Thanks and God bless you

Another reason she did not respond right away is that she was doing some Internet research on Robert Jones and De-Crown Stores, and came across my blog International Shipping Scams Part 2 as well as other sites with information on Robert Jones and his numerous scam operations. When she wrote back, the message was simple and concise:
From:  "Rosa Ziv"
To:  "'De-Crown Store'"

Dear Robert,
Too many suspicious aspects. I'm sorry.
Too many suspicious aspects indeed!  And thank you so much, Rosa. Your willingness to share the details of your experience will be of immeasurable benefit to other business owners targeted by these scammers.

To readers of this blog post: Have you received scam e-mails like this?  Have you had an experience with one of these international shipping scammers that you'd like to share for the benefit of others as Rosa did?  Please do so using the comment box below.  (Comments are moderated and any that include links to commercial or otherwise inappropriate websites will not be published.)

To read my initial post on this subject where I outlined in general terms how these shipping scams work and provided a list of my own rules and observations regarding international shipping inquiries, see International Shipping Scams.

To view additional examples of international shipping scam e-mails, including the one Robert Jones sent to me, see International Shipping Scams: Part 2.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

International shipping scams, part 2

Since I published my initial blog post about international/overseas shipping scams around six months ago, the number of people who've read it and responded has been greater than anything else I've ever posted.  It hasn't made any difference in the number of scam e-mails I continue to receive, but it has helped spread awareness, and it's provided a resource for people who get e-mails just like these and wonder whether they're legitimate.

Just for the heck of it, here are a few more of them.  (You might want to read my post International Shipping Scams first for background on how these scams work, how the scammers make money on them, and what some tell-tale signs of an international shipping scam e-mail are.)

Customer #1:
Subject:   inquiry
Date: Fri, Mar 15, 2013 7:54 am

Hello Sales
         I would like to order for a product from your store to mine  in Australia .so let me know if can ship down to Australia so that i can email you the product i am interested in.also payment will be done via credit card details if you do accept that let me know so that i can place my order and the Items will be picked Up by my shipping Company at you store , please Get back to me so that i can email you the items i am interested . Address:50/60 Norcal Road Warburton, Victoria Australia 3799 Phone (+03 ) 5967 3590 Fax (+03 ) 9873 7432

best regard,
Bravo Group Company 
I didn't respond to Arlin, but I thought that including a shipping address PLUS a phone and fax number in his e-mail was a very nice touch, as was the signature "Director, Bravo Group Company."

As before, note that Arlin conveniently has a shipping company that will handle pick-up and delivery.  Also note the e-mail address:  Doesn't it seem a little odd that a "company director" doesn't have a corporate e-mail address?  Like "" or something?  Just sayin' ...

And what "product" would he like to order?  He doesn't say.  That's because the only thing he's interested in right now is finding out whether I'm going to take the bait and respond.  Nothing else matters. Yet.

Customer #2:
From: "Robert Jones" (
Date: Mon, May 20, 2013 5:09 pm


I want to place an international order from your company to my store in the Netherlands. I want to know if you can ship internationally and accept credit card as a form of payment? I Eagerly await to read back from you soon. Thank you and God bless you

De-Crown Store
Robert Jones
Again, note that in this case, the e-mail address has absolutely no connection to either the supposed sender name, Robert Jones, or the supposed store name, De-Crown Store. (My guess is that is an address for an account that's been hacked, but I won't pursue that here.)

Customer #3:
Subject:  international order
From: "theresa stores" (
Date: Sat, Jun 01, 2013 7:25 am

How're you?I want to place an international order from your company to our store in Amsterdam,The Netherlands.I want to know if you can ship internationally and accept credit card as a form of payment?I'd love you to reply me back and we can proceed further Eagerly await to read back from you and we can proceed Thank you and God bless you. Yours
Theresa Gullit (Mrs). is another common ploy these scammers use to convey the impression that you are being contacted by an actual store owner.  You or I or anyone else could create a free gmail or hotmail or yahoo mail account using just about anything with "stores" tacked onto it, and have what appears to be a business e-mail address.  That doesn't mean it is, of course.  Just that it appears to be.

My response

Being more than a little annoyed that I received almost identical scam e-mails from both Robert and Theresa less than two weeks apart (and being particularly annoyed that both scam e-mails said "Thank you and God bless you" -- scammers have NO shame), I e-mailed both of them back with the same message.  To Robert I started by saying:
Date:  Mon, Jun 03, 2013 9:07 am
To:  "Robert Jones"

Dear Robert:

It's so interesting that just a couple days ago, I received almost the exact same e-mail from someone who calls herself "Theresa Gullit" ...
[Then I cut and pasted in Theresa's entire e-mail message here -- and in my response to Theresa I cut and pasted in Robert's entire e-mail message here.  And in both responses, I said:]

I'm going to add both of you to my blog:

Edgewater Soaps
For obvious reasons, I never heard back from Theresa.  But about a week later, I did hear back from Robert:
From:    De-Crown Store ( 
Date:    Tue, Jun 11, 2013 11:34 am
To:    "" (
I am sorry for not responding your message all this days. I was busy at the workshop in New Zealand. Do let me know if you still interested in dealing with me.

Did Robert even read my response?  Not likely given that he still thinks there's a chance I might want to do business with him.  And clearly he didn't bother to click on the link to my blog.  He must have been really distracted by whatever was going on at that workshop in New Zealand!  Also note that now he's using as his e-mail address rather than ogregg1@gmail.

Will there be a Part 3?

Just today, before I published this follow-up post, I got a phone call from a small business owner who wanted to know whether I had ever received an e-mail from a Robert Jones in the Netherlands.  If I had, he said, he wanted to ask what my experience dealing with Mr. Jones had been.  He, the business owner, has been corresponding with Mr. Jones about an order and is starting to get suspicious.

We chatted, I told him the story above, he told me what has happened so far in his dealings with Mr. Jones, and then he said, "You know, if something comes out of this that's worth adding to your blog, would you be interested in including it?"

Didn't have to think very long about that one.  My response:


Update 06-26-2013:
There is now a Part 3, and it comes from a totally unexpected source!  Interested in knowing exactly how these scammers weave their webs to trap their victims?  See International Shipping Scams Part 3.

To read my initial post on this subject where I outlined in general terms how these shipping scams work and provided a list of my own rules and observations regarding international shipping inquiries, see International Shipping Scams.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

International shipping scams

This has nothing to do with soap making, but it has everything to do with scammers targeting small businesses like mine.

I regularly receive e-mails from people who want to buy nice quantities of my products, often so that they can sell them in their retail stores.  Sounds great, right?  The most recent one, received 2 days ago, is typical:

Customer #1
From:  synthia shan
How're you today? I want to purchase an order from your company to our store in The Netherlands.I want to know if you can ship internationally and also accept credit card as form of payment Await your reply as soon as possible.
Thank you
A similar e-mail received about two weeks earlier:

Customer #2
From:  jordan murray
Subject line:  KOREA ORDER
I will like to order some of your products to be shipped to SOUTH KOREA. I have a shipper that will handle the delivery aspect of the transaction. Kindly get back to me regarding my inquiry and if there is any special pricing i need to know about. i will be sending you my card details for payment. I hope to hear from you as soon as possible.
Shipping Address:
#37340 ,
Postal Code:120180
I must say that including the shipping address was a nice touch.  Gives it an air of legitimacy.

Yet another e-mail received about three weeks before that:

Customer # 3
From:  Mel Mclauren
Hello Sales Dept,
I want to place an order in your store,and I will like to know if you ship to Kowloon,Japan and my payment will be remitted via Visa/Master Card issued in US bank. So please let me know if you can assist me with the order,and please do not forget to include your website in your reply.Your quick response will be highly appreciated,I will be very glad if you treat this email with good concern.
Note that all involve international shipping.  Note also that all involve payment by credit card. 

Most importantly, however, note that the second customer mentions he has a shipping company that will handle pick-up and delivery.  The other customers did not mention this in their initial e-mails, but after I replied, thanking them for their interest in my products and telling them that unfortunately, I do not ship internationally and only accept credit card payments through my website, here is what they wrote back:

Customer #1
From:  synthia shan
I have a freight forwarder that will come for the pick-up from your exact location after i have placed the order and make the payment. So will take care of the shipping myself.
Thank you
Customer #3
From:  Mel Mclauren
Subject:  Re: Inquiry
Thanks for your prompt email,can you make the small quantities of 100 Pieces.I can arrange for shipment in your location who will handle the shipping process to my store in Hong-Kong.
(That's odd.  Mel originally wanted to know if I could ship to Kowloon, Japan, and now suddenly it's Hong Kong, China.  But whatever.  Japan, China, South Korea, the Netherlands, Argentina ... all that matters is that it's really far away.)

In a nutshell, here's what happens: the customer cons the business owner into paying the shipping company upfront, often via a Western Union wire transfer, promising that the shipping cost will be included in their payment.  And it is.  But the customer's credit card (or bank check or whatever other form of payment they propose) turns out to be fake or stolen, the shipping company doesn't really exist, and the scammer pockets whatever the business owner paid for overseas shipping.

On the surface, it might seem a no-brainer that there's something fishy* about this. Why would anyone halfway around the world want to order my soaps and pay as much or more for shipping than they're paying for the product itself?  Kind of defies common sense, don't you think?  But if my products were pricier -- let's say I made handcrafted jewelry or clothing with an average price of around $40 or $50 per item -- it might seem more plausible.

So with protecting my fellow crafters and small business owners in mind, here are my rules and observations about international shipping inquiry e-mails:
  • Number one, be immediately skeptical and suspicious about any unsolicited inquiry that involves international shipping.
  • Number two, do not under any circumstances allow the customer to choose or dictate the method of shipping.  
  • Number three, do not ever engage in a business transaction where the buyer proposes to send you credit card information via e-mail.  At best, a buyer who proposes to do this is either naive about the risks or careless about taking them.  As a reputable businessperson, it is your responsibility to counsel the buyer out of such an unwise action, or to simply refuse such a transaction.  At worst, a buyer who proposes to do this is a scammer who doesn't care whether the credit card information is sent securely because the credit card info is stolen. 
  • International shipping scam e-mails are sent from free personal e-mail accounts, not from business or corporate e-mail addresses.  Two of the above came from gmail accounts, the other from a hotmail account.  
  • International shipping scam e-mails almost never mention the name of the store in which they propose to sell your products in the initial contact. And even if they do, they never include a link to it online.  
  • Similarly, they almost never say exactly what they want to buy in the initial e-mail -- just "products," or even more vaguely they'll say they want to make "make a purchase" or "place an order."  The simple reason is that scammers send these e-mails to many different kinds of small businesses, and they can't be bothered with personalizing them all.  Their game is based on quantity, not quality. They will only say what they want to purchase if you respond to their inquiries.
  • Like many other types of scam e-mails, international shipping scam e-mails are typically sprinkled with grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors.
In short, rather than being a case of caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware"), international shipping e-mails are a case of caveat venditor: let the seller beware.

You can find a follow up to this entry with more examples of scam e-mails in my blog post International Shipping Scams Part 2.

You can find a real-life example of exactly how one of these shipping scams played out in my blog post International Shipping Scams Part 3.

* One intriguing study (with enough statistical mumbo-jumbo to make your head spin) suggests that online scammers may actually make their e-mails sound fishy on purpose. They're looking for folks who are naive or trusting or gullible, and they don't want to spend days e-mailing back and forth with people who are just going to become suspicious and drop out. So, by making their e-mails just fishy enough that savvier folks recognize them for what they are and simply hit the delete button, scammers effectively get their victims to self-select because the only people likely to respond are the kind of naive or trusting or gullible folks they're after in the first place.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Scientific soap making part III: essential oils vs.fragrance oils

As I prepare to teach a couple of soap making classes in the coming weeks, one of the topics I'll be covering is essential oils vs. fragrance oils and the pros and cons of each in cold process soap making.  My clear preference is essential oils because they're natural and have beneficial properties that fragrance oils don't have.  But first, let's clarify what the difference is between the two.

Essential oils are natural scents extracted from the leaves, bark, roots, flowers, and fruits of plants.  Fragrance oils are synthetic blends of the aromatic compounds found in essential oils and elsewhere. 

Is one preferable to the other?  Strictly in terms of cold process soap making, it's a toss-up.

Essential oils have an edge in that they have benefits beyond just scent.  Tea tree is a great example because its natural antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties are well researched and documented.  Eucalyptus essential oil's value in relieving symptoms of respiratory infections can make it a beneficial additive in skin and bath products.  Many beneficial claims are made for other essential oils, although most are poorly researched and largely unproven.  Fragrance oils, however, have no such additional benefits. 

A field of Bulgarian lavender, considered by many to yield the highest quality lavender essential oil.
It's a toss-up between essential and fragrance oils in that both can be problematic to use in soap making. 

A problem with some essential oils is that the temperature at which their scent vaporizes (i.e., the flash point) is so low it won't survive ordinary cold process methods.  Eucalyptus, unfortunately, is a prime example.  With a flash point of around 110 degrees F, it can only be used in a soap that is prevented from heating up and going through gel phase, and preventing gel results in inferior soap texture and appearance.  The Lavender Oatmilk bars pictured below are a perfect example of a soap that did not go through a proper gel.

See the rind-like appearance of the outer edge?  It's noticeably lighter than the center of the bars, and it has a somewhat chalk-like texture.  Bars like these I either use myself or give away. 

Fragrance oils, on the other hand, have high flash points so that's not an issue.  The problem with fragrance oils is that some accelerate the saponification process and cause the soap batter to become so thick so quickly that it becomes difficult or impossible to pour.  With some I've used, the window of time between when the fragrance is added and when the soap becomes so thick it glops out of the pot rather than pours is less than 60 seconds.  You gotta be ready to move fast! 

Fragrance oils have an edge in cost and lifespan.  With just a few exceptions, fragrance oils are less expensive than essential oils.  Those with which I've been happiest cost around $1.50 per ounce, and their scents hold up for years, both in the bottle and in the soap.  Many of the more popular essential oils, on the other hand, average around $3.00 per ounce, and some (jasmine or sandalwood, for example) cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars per ounce.  Essential oil scents also tend to fade faster.  Citrus oils can be especially short-lived in soap, with noticeable scent degradation in as little as six months.

One thing I personally like about fragrance oils is that I can use or experiment with scents that are either too costly to buy as essential oils -- like jasmine and sandalwood -- or that aren't available as essential oils.  I do love the fresh, crisp, clean and slightly astringent scent of cucumbers, for example, but there's no such thing as cucumber essential oil.  You can also get fragrance oils that are imitations of popular designer perfume and cologne scents, which some folks really love.

An open question is whether one is safer for skin contact than the other.  Essential oils are derived from natural sources, but some are known to trigger adverse skin reactions.  Lemon essential oil, for example, is known to be irritating or sensitizing to some people's skin, as are spice essentials oils such as cinnamon and clove.  Synthetic fragrance oils . . . well we usually don't know how safe they are because the compounds used to make them do not have to be itemized on product labels.  We do know that phthalates used in fragrance oils and many plastic products have been linked to a number of health risks, but most fragrance oil manufacturers that used them have reformulated their products to be phthalate-free.

But whether scents are natural or synthetic, their effect and power is something I find endlessly fascinating.

I recently invited a friend to smell the scent blend I used in a new soap I formulated. She sniffed and appeared to have no reaction at all, just a funny kind of blank look on her face. 

"It reminds me of playing with Barbies," she finally said, completely unable to say why, or even whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.  The most she could add was that she didn't mean the soap smelled like a Barbie doll, just that it reminded her of playing with Barbies. 

Science can help to explain how we perceive and process scents, but it can't account for the uniquely personal associations we make with them or the emotions they trigger.  That is beyond both the art and the science of scent development.  And that is the reason I so enjoy experimenting with new scents and scent blends, using both natural and synthetic fragrances. 

One customer told me she absolutely loved a soap she bought that smelled like leaves burning in the fall.  I personally can't imagine wanting to use a soap that smells like anything that's burning, but I totally understand that she has her own special connection to that scent, and that's all that matters. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I'm a user, I'll improvise

Just saw "Tron: Legacy" this weekend.  Loved it and loved the line "I'm a user, I'll improvise."  Users are customers, and if they want to use my soaps as sachets, who am I to tell them otherwise!  Great movie.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Eczema and soap

Since my TV debut on the Channel 7 news, there's been a lot of interest in Edgewater Soaps.  It's kind of amusing that, having seen and heard me on TV, many of my new customers seem to feel they know me.  And I'm sure that feeling is reinforced by the fact that they also know something personal about me.  They know I've had problems with eczema.  And knowing that enables them to talk freely to me about their eczema and other skin issues, or to seek my advice on behalf of a friend or family member with skin problems. 

What I hear from so many of them is frustration.  I share it.  It's frustrating to deal with a chronic condition that may not be life-threatening, but definitely interferes with quality of life.  It's frustrating to research the condition you have and find, as with eczema, that the causes aren't very well understood and the remedies are limited.  And it's frustrating to have to use prescription products -- especially when, as I know from my experience and many others', they're often not very effective -- for something that ought to be treatable or controllable another way. 

I didn't start making soap because I knew it would help with my eczema.  I had no idea that it would.  But I know that ever since I started making and using natural soap products, I've never had a problem with eczema like I used to. You'll find the reasons why on my FAQs page.

Others have also found it helpful.  One of the people who saw the Channel 7 feature bought a Sensitive Skin Formula and a Lavender Oatnilk bar online a day or two after it aired.  She called me earlier this week and left one of the most remarkable voicemail messages I've ever received.  She had been using my soap for the past ten days, she said, and already her skin was starting to clear up.  She was thrilled.

It turns out she's had an eczema-like skin rash that she thinks was brought on by some medication she was taking.  She's seen five or six skin doctors about it and gotten a number of different prescriptions, and so far nothing has really helped.  But since she's been using my soap, it's starting to improve. 

"The places where it already existed are still there," she said, "but it's stopped spreading!  I'm not developing any new patches, and the old ones aren't getting worse." 

"Even my husband has noticed I'm doing better," she said.  "The other night when we went to bed, he said, 'Debbie, you're not itching!'  And I said, 'I know!'"  I could just picture her with her fingers crossed, hoping the improvement continues.

I know that a lot of my new customers are like Debbie, and I'll be following up with all of them to get their feedback and comments.  I'll share them with you here in future posts.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Living Green with ABC 7

"Hello, this is Sylvia Jones from ABC Channel 7, and we're interested in filiming you making soap for ______ . . . " 

Wow!  How cool!  And completely out of the blue.  The top-rated TV station in Chicago wants to feature me on something!  I didn't hear a thing she said from that point on, except that she wanted to schedule it in two days' time and I knew that wasn't going to happen.  Fortunately she was willing to schedule it a couple weeks later.

And when I say fortunately, I mean it!  TV cameras in my house?  Bright hot lights exposing every bit of dust, random scrap of paper, and smudged fingerprint?  Let's just say major housekeeping ensued.  Including washing windows and walls, and repainting woodwork. 

When the big day came, however, I was ready.  And everything went smoothly. 

We started with the interview, and then the cameraman filmed me making soap.  The producer had been very specific about wanting to film the entire process,from start to finish, and that's exactly what happened.  The cameraman frequently asked me to stop what I was doing for a moment -- measuring oils into the pot, for example -- so he could change positions and film it from a different angle.  Sometimes three or four different angles.  Fascinating. 

The result is pretty impressive, I think.  You can see it here: "Edgewater Soaps uses natural ingredients" on Living Green With ABC 7.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Scientific soap making part II: curing soap and water discounting

First, let's be clear that we're not talking about "curing" in the sense of helping to get over an illness or disease.  We're talking about curing in the sense of aging and mellowing: storing or keeping something under controlled conditions for a period of time long enough for it to develop certain desirable or unique qualities -- like complexity of flavor in an aged cheese or fine scotch.

With cold process soap making, the time spent actually making the soap is minimal.  What takes time is curing the soap once it's made, and that's four to six weeks depending on the soap.  Or is it?

Curing soap does two things.  It ensures that the soap is fully saponified, and it allows moisture to evaporate so the bars become firmer.  If the soap goes through a full gel stage, saponification will be nearly complete within 48 hours.  If it doesn't, it may take longer.  But in no case should full saponification take longer than two weeks, so after that it's just about letting it dry out and become nice and firm. 

With that in mind, it stands to reason that if you use less water to make it, there's less moisture to evaporate.  And that should shorten the drying time, right?

To test this, I tracked the weight loss of three different soaps over a six-week period, and found that the soaps made with a lower percentage of water (a solution of about 60 percent water, 40 percent lye) reached a stable weight in about 3 weeks.  Those made with a higher percentage of water (about 66 percent water, 33 percent lye) took about 4 weeks to reach a stable weight.  Clearly, using less water shortens the drying time.

Some soapmakers maintain that drying time is bascially immaterial, and that curing soap for six weeks or longer somehow makes it even milder and better.  One even suggested that a soap that has cured for a year is about as close to the ultimate as you can get. 

But what happens to soap in a year that doesn't happen within 3-4 weeks of having made it?  Soap isn't cheese, and the chemcial and biological processes that are key in aging cheese or wine are irrelevant when it comes to soap.  The only thing that really happens over an extended period of time is that the soap's scent tends to fade, and the bars themselves become extra hard.  That's about it.

My conclusion is that reducing the amount of water in the recipe shortens curing time and results in soap that is ready to use sooner rather than later.  To learn more about water discounting here's a link to a detailed description of the process.