Scams, Fraud, and Counterfeits: What We’ve Learned So Far

16 April 2020 | 25 Comments

Recently I mentioned in our 2019 stakeholder report that “2019 was a string of unfortunate events involving a prolonged series of threats, harassment, attempts at character assassination, and triangulation fraud.” While I don’t want to provide more ammunition to the person behind all of that, I’m worried that some of these techniques might be used to hurt my fellow creators and publishers, so today I’m going to share our experiences and some solutions.

I’ll start with the stories, and then I’ll get to what creators and consumers can do to avoid, prevent, and report these scams.

Scam Websites

Last summer, I started hearing reports of people buying Wingspan from a website called Daranzon.com. This was at a time when no one had Wingspan in stock, including Stonemaier Games. Unwitting customers would pay via PayPal and even receive a UPS tracking number…but then nothing would arrive.

Eventually Daranzon was shut down, but it was only the beginning. Since then there have been dozens of scam websites, many of which use the exact same template:

While these websites often feature Wingspan and Scythe, our products are far from the only items they feature. There doesn’t really seem to be a pattern to what they offer. My guess is that they have a bunch of filler items to look legitimate, and then they have a few high-SEO products.

Some of these websites advertise heavily on Google, Facebook, and Instagram. I have no doubt that they have scammed consumers (and the legitimate retailers those consumers could have bought from instead) out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If it stopped there, it would suck, but it wouldn’t be terrible. Unfortunately, it gets much, much worse.

Triangulation Fraud

Last November, I got a call from our friends at Meeplesource–Cynthia and Chris are some of the best people in the game industry. They noticed some suspicious activity on their webstore, and they wanted to see if I noticed anything on my end.

Sure enough, there were a number of “high risk” orders in Shopify that we had recently shipped. Shopify tags orders if they identify them as medium- or high-risk, but they don’t alert you–you have to notice the order and cancel it on your own (and not all high-risk orders are fraudulent).

The orders had a distinct pattern to them. They all had different billing addresses than shipping addresses, and the billing addresses were all in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Meeplesource dug deeper, and they soon learned that our companies were the targets of triangulation fraud. Here’s how Meeplesource explains what that means:

They run “cheap deals” and other websites using fake information as if they were located in the US. They collect money for sales by PayPal, and then use stolen credit cards to “fulfill” their “orders” using legitimate websites with legitimate products…. When the true cardholder sees the fraudulent charge, which it is, they dispute it with the card issuer who charges back the merchant. That’s who ultimately pays for the well-intentioned buyer’s Wingspan game…. The scammer is not shut down by PayPal as long as they are able to successfully “fulfill” their buyers’ orders via a stolen credit card purchase.

Stonemaier got a little lucky in that the products the scammer targeted in November quickly sold out, so there was a limit to the extent of the scam at that point. I soon started to receive chargebacks (hundreds of people had their credit cards stolen and misused, and they deserved to get the money back for products they didn’t order). Typically these resulted in us paying back the credit card companies plus an additional fee, all for games that we shipped to people who ordered from the scam websites. At least they received what they ordered, even if they didn’t order from us!

And we’re not alone. Meeplesource has been hit hard too (in terms of both time and money), and I’m sure other legitimate online retailers have been defrauded. At first we weren’t sure if that was the case–if it went beyond just Stonemaier and Meeplesource–but I alerted the retailers on our mailing list after we started to suspect it wasn’t just us. Whenever the scammers can’t get a real company to fulfill the order, the person who placed the order on the fake website simply loses their money (it doesn’t seem that PayPal is helping any of them, using the UPS tracking numbers–the fake numbers–as justification).

I wish that I could end this description with some good news, but there really isn’t any. We are 99% sure we know who the scammer is, based on some early mistakes they made covering their tracks, but law enforcement has so far been slow to act on the many leads we have provided. Hopefully that will change in the future as we continue to provide new and additional evidence.

Counterfeit Games

This is completely unrelated to the scam/fraud I described above, but it involves a similar topic.

A few days ago, I was alerted that a company in Iran, Hezaartoo, was printing a Farsi version of Wingspan. This was news to me, as I had never heard of or heard from this company–we don’t have a publishing partner in Iran. It’s a full-on counterfeit version of our intellectual property.

After I commented on a few of Hezaartoo’s Instagram posts about the counterfeit, I heard directly from several employees at the company. They said they had tried to contact me (they provided a screenshot of an email sent in December to “contract@stonemaiergames.com”, which is not a functional email address), and when they didn’t hear back from me–instead of trying to contact me on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, this blog, Twitter, Skype, a real email address, etc–they decided it was okay to proceed to publish a counterfeit version in Iran.

In talking with the various Iranians who commented and messaged me (including a game cafe I chatted with on Instagram Live), the issue is much bigger than Hezaartoo. Due to international sanctions and government restrictions, companies in Iran have difficulty importing products made elsewhere. And even if they can make a licensed product in Iran, it’s difficult to transfer payment out of the country.

I sympathize with all of that. It doesn’t make IP theft and counterfeits okay, and we’ll never work with companies like Hezaartoo that choose to steal, but it’s opened my eyes to the situation in Iran. I’m currently in the process of finding a legitimate company there and a legal way to work with them, as gaming is a universal language.

What Can Creators Do to Stop and Prevent Fraud?

I’ll break down my suggestions below. As I said, my attempts to get law enforcement to pursue the scammer have not been fruitful–these are all temporary bandages. So if you have other/better recommendations, please note them in the comments.

Scam Websites

  • Tell the hosting service
  • Internet Crime Complaint Center
  • contact local law enforcement (which can escalate to the FBI)
  • contact your state attorney general’s office
  • FTC
  • CFPB
  • Report scam ads to their advertising services (Google, Facebook, Instagram)
  • PayPal

Triangulation Fraud

  • Install a fraud-block app (there are many options, and it depends on your e-commerce platform)
  • Institute a no-tolerance policy on high-risk orders (yes, some are legitimate, but is it worth the risk?)
  • Carry cyber-fraud insurance (I started doing this after November’s incident via www.kreismannbayer.com)

Counterfeits

  • Contact your lawyer to learn about your actions and costs
  • Broadcast it. Let people know about the counterfeit so they know not to support the fraudulent publisher. That’s one of the reasons I’m sharing the news about Hezaartoo here, and I also shared the news with Eric at BoardGameGeek this weekend (I haven’t heard back yet, so I’m not sure if it’s the type of news BGG will actually broadcast).
  • If the counterfeited product is being sold on Amazon, here’s some information to consider.

I’d also recommend that creators watch this excellent video containing 10 legal tips from Pencil First Games’ Eduardo Baraf.

Consumer Response

  • Many of the forms mentioned above–especially the ICCC, FTC, and CFPB–exist to protect consumers, not companies. So if you’re ever defrauded, report it to one or all of those organizations.
  • If you see an ad for a product that seems even a little bit fishy, consider reporting it to Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc (wherever you see the ad). As seen in the example to the right, the ads look real, so I don’t know how you would know the difference, though if it’s from an online retailer you’ve never heard of, you should be at least slightly suspicious of it.
  • Buy only from publishers, local retailers, and well-established websites, especially if the offer seems too good to be true. This is especially the case for hard-to-find products, and even moreso during the holiday season when scammers prey on consumers who are eager to find the perfect gifts for loved ones.

***

I think it’s truly terrible that this scammer (and other scammers) have stolen from consumers, retailers, and publishers. I hope you haven’t had this happen to you and that you remain safe, healthy, and secure, especially in these uncertain times.

If you have any additional information you would like to share to help creators identify, avoid, and report fraud, please share your insights in the comments.

***

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Leave a Comment

25 Comments on “Scams, Fraud, and Counterfeits: What We’ve Learned So Far

  1. I made the mistake of buying from one of these stores. I reordered direct from you and after a week of effort I got Paypal to refund me. I did not consider checking your site initially which was dumb on my part, but I used the Google Shopping tab to find sellers. I’m not sure what it would take but if y’all showed up in the listings as a legitimate option I think it would reduce the frequency of people falling for the scams!

    1. I’m sorry you got scammed, but I’m glad you were able to get a refund! And thank you for the suggestion. I heard many people say they searched for it and found scam websites on Google, so I’ve been working the past couple weeks to get our shop listed on Google Shopping. It’s not as easy as it may seem! Hopefully we see progress soon.

      1. Good luck! I just reported another site so hopefully it gets removed. For anyone else who was scammed, I didn’t have much luck getting a refund until I tweeted angrily at @AskPayPal. I did have to submit a claim with UPS first, luckily it had the real addressee’s name and address but it still wasn’t enough until I tweeted.

  2. According to the famous opening line of a mediocre movie: “Greed is good.” But, as you have shown here, no… no it is not.

    I hate scammers. I cannot get into the mindset that allows someone to defraud people, to prey upon others like this. I cannot tell you how many phone calls I get that are obvious scam calls trying to get me to send them money or what-have-you.

    But I am encouraged by your transparency, honesty, and desire to help others.

    Just the fact that you (and others like you) are out there gives me hope for mankind. :)

  3. I’m sorry to hear that both your companies suffered from this criminal activity. Thank you for sharing the information so that everyone can be aware – especially retailers who have to deal with this.
    From reading this, we’re going to be evaluating our systems and processes to ensure we’re hardened against this type of activity.
    Thank you again for your transparency and time spent sharing information, Jamey.

  4. As someone who grew up in Jersey and lives in PA, I hate hearing that someone from “my neck of the woods” is scamming people like this.
    On a more personal note, I have seen more and more of these scam websites (and even scam sellers on Amazon) it’s caused me to appreciate (and back) more game publishers that sell directly from their website. I really wonder if this will continue to be a future trend as people get sick of it.
    Also, when Amazon sends you a board game, it’s usually in awful packaging (the contents just slide around with no protection in a box usually too big). I recently purchased a game from another publisher and the amount of care that went into protecting the game to get to me was top notch. Small things like that incentivize me to buy direct from the publisher (even if I have to pay a bit more).

    1. Jason: In a way, I wish that clue could help lead to the location of the scammer, but in truth, I think it’s more likely that the scammer bought access to a collection of stolen credit cards. So while there’s probably a credit card thief in NJ or PA, they’re probably not the scammer we’re talking about.

  5. Gosh Jamey – that all sounds horrible and I imagine it is very common.

    It must be bad enough running a company that has to do deal with moaning and nitpicky gamers (hopefully most of us are OK though!), but this sort of stuff is just awful.

    Thanks for all that you are doing, and I really enjoy how up front and candid you are about all sorts of topics related to gaming and the industry in general.

    I must just say that games, and Wingspan plus expansion in particular, are a big help in getting us through this lockdown that we are in at present in New Zealand. Hopefully that type of feedback is positive for you, and we are really forward to the Oceania expansion (whenever that is ready – no hurry) – it will certainly be a treat for us after such a tough year.

    1. Thanks Craig! Hopefully my post didn’t sound too much like I’m feeling down. I’m fine–I’m worried about consumers being scammed and scammers getting away with it, but I’m fine on a personal/emotional level. :)

      1. No – I didn’t get that impression at all. You always seem pretty positive and upbeat. Just trying to give you some positive feedback and say how much I appreciate the hard work that you and others in the industry put in to create and publish these wonderful game that we enjoy.

        Having a decent stack/cupboard of high quality boardgames to choose from is actually pretty cool in these constrained times, and starting to play some old favourites and some games that have been sitting unplayed or hardly played. About to give Between Two Cities a go with the family this afternoon.

  6. Consumers can consider checking websites where webshops can be reviewed. Such functionality is often provided by sites that scrapes information from webshops to do price comparisions, but sites also exists whose sole function is webshop reviews.
    Examples

    * https://www.trustpilot.com/ – webshop reviews.
    * https://braetspilspriser.dk/ – price comparison and webshop reviews for board games in the EU (you might need to change the language in the right side of the menu).
    * https://www.pricerunner.com/ – price comparisons of a bazillion different products.

    I don’t know which countries Trusttilot and PriceRunner operates in, but there are tons of websites like these all over the world.

  7. Jamey,

    I’m so sorry about all of this. In the best of times there are bad people with selfish intent.

    We’re in Easter Season right now. Consider that the kind and gentle, healing and forgiving, savior of the world, Jesus… was beaten and crucified. (Not preaching. It’s quite relevant on several levels. ; )

    In the best of times, to the best of people, bad things happen through the hand of other human beings. It’s terrible.
    You just keep being the best version of yourself you can be. You’re one of the gems of the industry, and we all know it. When evil hates on you this hard… it’s a compliment saying that you’re doing something right.

    Remember, the story doesn’t end at the cross. It continues to the resurrection! : D
    Your legal battles will have theirs. TRY to keep your chin up. I know these things burn hard. I’ve been through it too. – If you need someone to talk to, you have my number.

    -John Wrot!

  8. Hi Jamey,

    This is a very interesting post. Many thanks. Please allow me to share my story with you.

    This is a nightmare that started on the 11th of June 2019 and it never really finished (I just gave up and abandoned the hope of getting my cash back).

    On the 11th of June, 2019, and after much searching, I finally found a copy of Unhappy King Charles, an out of print game by GMT. It was sold at the not very reasonable, yet admissible, price of 58 GBP (a good price for a rare game) by an apparently America-based company appearing under the name BringfunToys and using an email under the signature SonicPunchStudio (I have just discovered -as writing this email- that today they still trade under the name BigTreeToys, http://www.bigtreetoys.com). Everything went alright, I received confirmation of my order, the cash was cleared in my account and got a second confirmation email saying that my order was successfully processed. They also informed me that due to shipping times my order may take a bit long to be delivered. It was then when I noticed that it was not an American but a Chinese company hidden behind a fake American dot-com address. This made me edgy, but the easy communication with this people ant the fact that they were trading with Visa relaxed me.

    Well, to make a long story short, on the 27th of June I got a “peculiar” parcel. A small parcel shipped from China, slightly bigger that a pack of biscuits. It was clearly not my game. When I opened the package I was surprised of finding a pair of counterfeit TOM FORD glasses. After checking the details of the parcel, I noticed they were shipped by a company in Baiyun District, China; with a track number corresponding to the one of my game. There was a nasty stench on all this.

    I wrote to the company notifying them of what I innocently thought it was a legitimate mistake. They swiftly replied telling me that there was a mistake on the side of the “express company” [sic] who had mixed two different parcels. They went further, to offer me to keep the glasses and they will graciously give me a 30% refund on my purchase. All this was followed by an endless chain of emails with me demanding, begging, requesting, threatening (I even got the Chinese embassy involved in an attempt to scare them off) and begging again for a refund, and they just explaining me that this had come with a loss for them and, after many more emails, telling me that the best they could do was to refund 50% my expenses if I send them back their counterfeit glasses. I was stupid enough to go to the post office and spend 8GBP (for sending a pair of glasses not worth more than 3USD) on the hope that I will get about 30 back! Silly me, after a couple of months I got the glasses back indicating that the address where I had send the glasses did not exist. I am laughing now, but at that time I felt utterly outraged.

    After much writing (I even got one of my PhD students to write to them in Chinese telling that I will get legal support directly from China), I finally got an email indicating that the email server did not recognise the email account, and few days later I noticed that the web page had disappeared. I contacted the issuer of my credit card, only to be explained that they can refund only within 90 days of the purchase. It was then when I noticed that all this interchange of emails and swift friendly responses was a strategy for preventing me from timely claiming a refund with my bank.

    Many lessons were learnt. The first of of them, to double check whenever I buy from a new online company, and make myself sure that it is a legit business with an actual physical address and working phone number (preferably in the UK or the EU -stratospheric shipping prices rule American and Australian companies out of my scope). Second, whenever something seems dodgy, to make a reclaim to my card issuer within 90 days, no later than that. And third, to NEVER again buy from a Chinese company, irrespective of where they are based. It is sad, but as I said in my email to the Chinese Embassy’s commercial office: DISHONEST and UNETHICAL practices really affect the reputation of other (many) Chinese companies interested in honest trading with European customers.

    Hope you enjoyed reading my story… am fine…

    All the best and keep on with the fantastic work!

    Yours,

    Diego

    1. Diego: I’m very sorry that you had this experience. Though I can’t support your statement about never buying again from a Chinese company. There are good and bad companies in every country–the good companies shouldn’t suffer because of the bad ones, especially if discriminated based on nationality.

      1. Hi Jamey,

        Yes, I agree with you, and that’s why I wrote at the end of my comment “DISHONEST and UNETHICAL practices really affect the reputation of other (many) Chinese companies interested in honest trading with European customers”.

        Unfortunately, this is only one of at least four cases where dealing with Chinese companies has ended up in a scam, fraud or disappointment for me and my wife (one game, one piece of men’s clothing, and two different purchases of ladies clothing). So, you need to look after yourself. I am very sorry for the honest businessmen and women in China, but their fellow countrymen are not making them a favour.

        Stay safe and thanks for your great contribution to our hobby!

        D

        1. How far along the production chain do you go though? For example 99% of all board games are manufactured in china, same is true for a multitude of products. Is it just retailers that this policy applies to? If so that seems like a weird inconsistency in the stance. It seems like a potentially very harmful ideology.

          1. You can make it as complicated as you want, but it is simple: I have been conned at least four times by Chinese retailers. Therefore, I will not take any more chances. I am not buying from them. There is nothing harmful about it, it will save me pennies and spare me from disappointment.

            On the other hand, I do not care who do other companies source from. It is not a prejudice, it is a protective behaviour based on experience. There is no inconsistency. I do not think all Chinese companies are fraudulent, I have just been unlucky to dealing with three of the maybe reduced sample of fraudulent ones. As I said in my comment “DISHONEST and UNETHICAL practices really affect the reputation of other (many) Chinese companies interested in honest trading with European customers”. I took my risks, I ended up scalded. I learnt my lesson.

  9. Eye opening all the things that go on in the background. Hope justice is served soon. Thanks for the tips Jamey!

  10. Thank you for posting this. It is saddening to learn that there are people who behave this way, but it is the sort of thing honest people need to know is possible.

  11. Fraud has become very rampant on the Internet and it’s much easier with the ability to mass email people, post fake websites, and post websites for fake companies. They’re obviously getting more sophisticated. It has to be a burden on small companies and the work of many, many honest people.

  12. Thanks, Jamey for helping to bring what these criminals are doing to light. More eyes looking out for them will help keep them from defrauding more innocent people. I hate that people have been been stolen from. That is especially painful during hard times like these. And I know Stonemaier Games has had very significant losses from this – it all is really terrible.

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