June 2021 is Pride Month for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community. This year’s official theme is “The fight continues..”
Those who are heterosexual and cisgender (a shorthand way of saying you identify as, or know that you were created to be, the same gender you were assigned at birth), can show support by being allies to those who are LGBTQ. Here are just a few ways to show your support:
Recognize that in some parts of the world, and even in many communities in their own country, our LGBTQ friends and family members do not get to take their safety for granted as often as we do.
The first paragraph past the introduction of this article was intended to be a fun, lighthearted “here are some businesses you can support, since they support gay rights” list. When a search was performed for travel companies, the first results that came up were not a list of airlines with the most LGBTQ employees or extensive histories of donating to gay rights groups. The first results were links to gay owned travel companies, followed immediately by pages offering safety information for LGBTQ people who may wish to travel.
The travel website https://www.asherfergusson.com, offers a list of the 150 worst…and safest countries for LGBTQ people to visit. Published in 2021, the article warns against travel to Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Jamaica, Myanmar, and Barbados among others.
In the United States, nbc news was reporting that one in five hate crimes were anti-LGBTQ attacks as recently as 2018.
LGBTQ rights may have taken great strides in recent years, and society may have grown increasingly inclusive, but things are not completely equal yet.
Educate yourself on current threats to LGBTQ rights and take action when you can.
Another way to join the continuing fight is to keep aware of threats to LGBTQ rights throughout the country. The LGBTQ rights group The Human Rights Campaign offers a color coded map of the United States detailing which states have signed anti-LGBTQ bills into law, and which have introduced anti-LGBTQ bills. According to the map on June 2, 2021, threats to LGBTQ rights exist in forty-one states. Keep up to date and begin your research here: https://www.hrc.org/resources/state-maps/anti-lgbtq-bills-in-2021
When something comes up in your state, city, or county, take action. Attend meetings, marches, and information sessions. Vote for the bills and the candidates that support LGBTQ rights.
Respect individual comfort levels when curious about intimate details
Curiosity about people who differ from us in any way is normal and healthy. There is nothing wrong with wondering about things like surgeries and hormone therapies for transgender men and women, or how the private life of someone of a different orientation than you might unfold. But remember that just because someone is “out” about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, and/or transgender, that does not mean the person cares to divulge details about their medical history or intimate relationships.
We cisgender people are open about our gender identities. We present ourselves as we feel appropriate for our gender, refer to ourselves with the appropriate pronouns, and openly use bathrooms and other public spaces assigned to our gender. And heterosexual people never have to hide it that we’re attracted to members of the opposite sex. Yet our attitudes toward discussing body parts, intimate acts, and our medical history and needs varies from the person who will tell you all of that as casually as they’ll tell you if they prefer coffee or tea, to the person who keeps all of that strictly to themselves, and everywhere in between. Those in the LGBTQ community are no different. If you truly must know something, do some independent research.
Don’t engage in…or tolerate…snowflake behavior from the left or the right
Your LGBTQ family members and friends need you to understand that they may not feel…or be…safe going into neighborhoods where homophobic attacks have recently taken place, vote for candidates who will protect their rights, and respect their individuality when it comes to learning more about their lives. They don’t need you to scream at every other straight person who chuckled at a joke that played off a silly gay stereotype, or lecture everyone who purchases a Pride themed item that other peoples’ sexuality is not a marketing tool.
Demanding that all LGBTQ people adhere to the latest form of politically correct speech and behavior to avoid “participating in others’ oppression” is also unsupportive and unhelpful….to the LGBTQ individual and to everyone else.
This does not mean you should tolerate or ignore homophobia or transphobia. Just make sure to fight against policies and behaviors that truly impact others’ well-being rather than appointing yourself thought or speech police for everyone else.
The question “When’s my pride month?” is childish and self-centered. LGBTQ Pride month stems from the Stonewall riots, a time when patrons at a gay bar fought back against regular police raids on gay bars. This was just the last straw in a pattern of police and other attacks on people simply for being of a different orientation than the majority or being transgender. Instead of whining that you don’t have a pride month for being heterosexual and cisgender, try being thankful you don’t need one..…and thinking about those who do instead of yourself.
If you are a member of a group who experienced prejudice and discrimination for some other reason, you probably do have a pride movement. If you don’t, and it upsets you, start one. You can do all that and still allow your LGBTQ friends and family members to have their Pride month.
Join in the celebrations for Pride 2021
As of the writing of this article, on June 2, 2021, there have not been any Pride 2021 parades publicized for Utica. But for those who can travel to the city, Pride will be returning to Manhattan this month. Visit the official website at https://www.nycpride.org/events to keep up to date on the parade and other Pride month events. Those who cannot make it into the city may want to consider a small purchase or donation.
You may also want to attend a smaller local event. Wisk Baking Company (formerly Bite Bakery) has announced a drag Pride Brunch, scheduled for June 27,2021. Tickets are $40 per person and include a full breakfast and unlimited beverages. Visit them on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/wiskbakingcompanyutica for details and updates.
Wisk Bakery is also selling rainbow cake slices in honor of Pride month.
Artist Cafe Utica would like to wish all of our readers in the LGBTQ community a Happy Pride 2021. We stand with you this month and always.
An “internet troll” can be defined as a person who posts intentionally upsetting content online with the goal of causing some type of trouble. In some cases, the troll simply enjoys manipulating people into getting upset or angry. Other trolls are seeking attention, and think diverting it from the person who would naturally be the center of attention on the page or the post is the way to get it. Still others hope to shock people, and may use crude, rude, or disgusting remarks or messages to do so. Some trolling is done by people who intend serious harm, such as ruining a friendship, relationship, or career.
Many use “trolling” to describe every type of online joking around, kidding, smarting off, or being silly. A YouTuber wears a wedding dress, or their robe, or silly makeup to the store just to see if they can make other customers and their viewers laugh, and people refer to it as “trolling” video. Or someone pretends to be in love with someone else with the target’s full knowledge and consent, or spends half the video pretending they’re on a beach vacation when they’re really laying out at their neighbor’s pool, and it’s called “trolling.” But this is more plain, old-fashioned joking, goofing off, and acting silly. True “trolling” is done with some type of selfish intent.
Nearly anyone with an online presence is going to have to deal with internet trolls at some point. Artists are especially vulnerable, as we workshop, present, share, and market so much of our work online.
Some may claim this article is unnecessary. “I just delete and block,” they will proudly proclaim. “End of story.” Of course, “delete and block” is going to be your first move when dealing with any type of internet troll. But too often, it is not the end of the story. The damaging content may be seen by fans, potential collaborators, personal friends, family, or the supervsior at your day job or very needed side gig before you even know it’s there. Content you delete and block may have already been copied and shared, or saved on somebody’s hard drive for sharing in the future. And even if the content is completely gone, trolls are perfectly capable of creating “sock puppets,” or new accounts made for the purpose of continuing their online harassment, mocking, and other crude behavior.
Here are just a few examples of “trolling” behavior, and what you can do in addition to “delete and block” to protect your online presence.
Bad reviews that don’t make sense
Everyone who does not like your work is not trolling. We are not entitled to have everyone like us, or to only hear praise.Some people are honestly not going to like your singing, playing, writing, teaching, or comedy, and they may give you an unflattering review. This is very different than bad reviews from trolls. Trolls tend to write bad reviews that attack the artist’s character or perceived character, appearance, or other detail unrelated to their work. When they do focus on the work, they usually go for sweeping generalizations such as “truly the worst guitar player of the century” when the guitar player has only released a single song so far, or insults that lack content such as“it’s not worth the money, and it’s free.”
While asking people to write good reviews for you is dishonest, there is nothing wrong with encouraging those who would already write you a good review to do so, in order to increase your webpage or product’s rating. Avoid responding directly to the troll, unless the person has posted factual errors that may impact your business. For example, if your art form is cake and pastry decorating, and you work at a restaurant, a troll might comment, “This place failed the health inspection last year” or “The meatloaf made me sick.” In those cases, responding with a simple photo of the certificate from the health inspector, or the menu showing that your restaurant does not even serve meatloaf, is all you need to do.
Personal attacks on your professional page or links from your professional page
This one can be particularly disappointing to see. You post a video of you playing your new song in a Facebook group, with a link to your Instagram, and someone comments on the Facebook group post only to inform you that they hate your Instagram page because they saw that picture of you playing at your church last year, and they hate that particular church. Or you open up comments on your band’s page, and instead of talking about your work, the latest comments are all weird remarks from someone claiming to have worked with someone in the band at Taco Bell ten years ago, and finding them egotistical.
Your first instinct is probably to defend yourself, or your bandmate, and perhaps gently remind everyone that this is your band’s page, not a religious discussion or workplace memories page. If you truly feel you must respond, do it only once. Correct the misinformation and/or the misuse of your page or link with a single comment. If the person stops they got the attention they wanted and things will settle down. If the person continues, or if others join in, this does not mean everyone is against you. A group of internet trolls just decided to use you for a little online attention for themselves. If you are online in a place that allows you to delete others’ comments, quietly delete all trolling ones. If you can’t delete others’ comments, delete your post, then re-post your content or link. This will put whatever got ruined back up, without the trolling comments. If they come back, repeat the process until they catch on that you’re not a good source of attention for them.
Free unsolicited advice that’s worth every penny you paid for it
You post in a musicians’ group asking if anyone knows of a good makeup brand that will withstand the stage lights for some upcoming performances, and someone responds not with answers like “Tarte Shape Tape” or “Jeffree Star Magic Star Powder,” but with an online lecture about how shallow you are for caring so much about your appearance.. When you point out that this isn’t what you asked about, the response is something huffy and self-righteous, along the lines of “constructive criticism not welcome, duly noted.”
In this case, a slightly snarky comeback is warranted. But don’t engage the person in an argument, or try to defend yourself. They’re seeking attention for making someone else look helpless, fragile, or stupid, and if you come across as distraught, you’re just “feeding the troll.”
“I’m really glad you were able to overcome this issue. That’s great for you. I’m really happy for you. But I need to do it this way,” turns any future comments into nothing more than evidence they don’t catch on when they’re being mocked. Once you’ve said that, carry on as though they aren’t even there.
Bizarre or disgusting posts, comments, or other online behavior
Barging into Zoom groups and shouting racial slurs or bullying the legitimate attendants of the meeting, posting nonsensical rants on Facebook groups, posting swear words or references to sexual activity in space set aside to be safe for work, or posting content intended to turn readers’ or listeners’ stomachs is an especially jarring form of trolling.
When faced with this type of behavior online, once the content is deleted and the trolls blocked, there are only two other things you can do. The behavior of complete strangers is not your fault, but fans will probably appreciate a quick “sorry you had to see/hear that” type apology anyway. The only other action you can take is to restrict page access. Set your Zoom meeting so that everyone must be vetted and given a link before logging in. Make comments require approval before being posted to your standalone page. Delete posts and re-post another copy of the ruined content to your facebook pages.
Whatever type of troll you get, never take what they say seriously. You’re dealing with someone who has the entire internet at their disposal, with its endless possibilities for learning, socializing, or even just relaxing and watching or listening to something soothing or funny. Yet all they can think of to do is hassle strangers.
Artists who perform or present their work, or provide lessons or tutoring in private homes expect to be thoroughly screened. We know the client is going to carefully examine our portfolio and social media activity, make sure they know our government name and not just our band or stage name, and even reach out to past clients and other professional contacts for references if we are a stranger to them. Even if the event is held in public, or in today’s environment, online, we would not be insulted if a potential client spent some time reading our social media posts and asking around to make sure we’re not likely to take payment for the music lesson and then never log into the Zoom call, or agree to headline their company’ first post-pandemic party later this year, and then not show up.
But in our excitement to find a paying gig, we often forget that we need to screen clients too.
Take some time to make sure the potential client understands your work and what you offer.
Misunderstandings do happen. Someone might play a single video clip of you doing a ballad and not realize that most of your music is metal. Or they might see “writer” on your LinkedIn page and contact you before reading on and realizing that you do not offer homework help or resume writing services. You don’t need to send everyone a quiz, but don’t be afraid to ask them if they’ve read your website or seen several clips of your band playing.
Keep a paragraph, FAQ list, or even a page on your artist’s website that makes it clear you’re an independent artist and not looking to be someone’s employee. Check and make sure everyone who hires you has read it.
In simplest terms, employees fill out a W-4 tax form and get a W-2 at the end of the year. Independent artists get form 1099. If you get “W” forms, taxes get taken out of your paycheck. If you get a 1099, you are responsible for deducting taxes from anything you make above a certain amount, currently $400. Beyond taxes, clarity on this can prevent a lot of misunderstandings. If you’re an independent artist, you’re there to provide the service you agreed to provide. If you’re an employee, the person who hired you can change your work and ask you to do additional tasks.
Avoid people who seem to think the current public health crisis is a joke or a hoax and refuse to follow precautions.
Crowds should not be forming in person at this time. Audience members should ideally be at the event via Zoom, or if that’s not possible, kept at least six feet apart. Masks should be required. Items should not be passed around among strangers. We all want to pack in to a cozy local cafe or bar, hear our favorite local bands, and cheer and laugh and talk as much as we want, with nothing across our face. But doing that right now is dangerous. It’s better to move the concert or the exhibit or reading to Zoom for now so we can all do what we want later, when the virus is under control, than to go ahead and do what we want right now and create a super spreader event. Anyone who cannot see that does not deserve your work.
Be cautious with potential clients who resist putting things in writing.
Clients who insist they “call you so we can talk about it,” or want you to “come in and discuss this in person” are probably not trying to be your friend, or behave warmly toward you. They’re trying to avoid getting anything written down, so you can’t hold them to what they say. If they insist on talking on the phone, via video call, or in person instead of using the written word, insist they confirm things in writing anyway.
Even the most technically inept person can open an email or DM from you that says, “My band is to join your Zoom meeting at 7 p.m. on Friday night and perfrom three songs of our choosing for your virtual open house event,” or “You have asked me to write a 900 word article about internet safety for your company blog, using your safety director as an expert source,” hit reply, and type “Yes.” If the person refuses to do this, or ignores written confirmation of a project they described over the phone or in person, do not begin the project.
Collect professional opinions on the potential client.
Everyone has people who think they’re the greatest and people who do not care for them, for reasons that have nothing to do with the way they would behave as a client. Contacting the person they play golf with every weekend, or invite over for dinner once a month is of course going to result in a glowing testimonial. And if they just broke up with someone following a series of public fights over social media, that person is going to describe all their flaws for you. But if you keep hearing the same thing from people who have worked with them in the past, you can expect that same thing to happen to you. If their cousin just loves them, but every band who ever played in this person’s bar before the pandemic never got paid, you probably won’t get paid for participating in the online event they organized either. You don’t need to conduct a full background check. Just reach out to a few people who have worked with this person in the past.
Remember that online business reviews are not always genuine.
One way to collect opinions on a potential client is to read reviews of their business. This can be helpful, especially if you are seriously pressed for time, and need to go down this list in half an hour, not two or three days. They certainly can be a good place to start, and provide a glimpse into the business, but online reviews are not always real reviews.
Before I narrowed my independent/freelance writing focus to writing for and about Utica artists, I attempted to build a career as a general freelance writer. I was a freelance news reporter/feature writer, and I was a freelance busines writer, working with a content mill based in Texas to write marketing materials for businesses across the state. Most of the work was what you would expect to be offered; email marketing campaigns designed for people who had visited a company’s website, evergreen content on the dangers posed by electrical problems for an electrician. But one assignment stood out. I was given a first name, the number of stars they wanted, and the key words they wanted in a glowing review for their webage. So “Lauren” and “Annie” from Dallas and Houston, who loved the business and couldn’t believe how “efficient” and “friendly” the service was did not exist. Those words were written by “Jess” from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, living three hours from Reno, Nevada, at the time, and earning $30.00 for her efforts. This was many years ago. I would turn down dishonest work like this today. But it is still out there.
Trust your own judgment and instincts.
Every safety article seems to end with this guideline, but most talk about a “gut feeling” or “inner voice” that should never be ignored. If you have deep feelings of forboding about a client, of course you shouldn’t ignore that, but trusting your judgment and instincts means more than just heeding your bad feelings. Think the situation through. Is the person asking you to go someplace it might be dangerous for you to go? Are they asking you to meet strangers alone? Was there something about the project or gig, or about the way they behaved on the phone or during the Facetime chat that bothered you? Sit back and ask yourself what it was and what that might mean. If you’re afraid you might be overreacting or misreading the situation, talk it out with someone whose judgment you trust.
Coping with the fight against Covid-19 wears us all down. In addition to the public health crisis, those in the arts must deal with cancelled and postponed performances, moving from in-person staging to online video feeds, and reduced sales of books, albums, and videos as those who ordinarily would buy from us struggle to even pay their bills. And then we have our own struggles with finances to contend with.
All of this added stress leaves even the most worldly, wise, and aware among us more susceptible to scams. We are particularly vulnerable to scams that prey on our desire to get rid of Covid-19 and return to our normal lives, and those that take advantage of the loneliness we feel. Scammers are well aware of this, and plan their scams accordingly. Keep your guard up against these latest Covid-19 related hoaxes.
Get the Covid-19 vaccine early scam
We all understand the importance of vaccinating the most vulnerable members of our population first. Those in the healthcare field should be vaccinated first, as they are the most likely to be exposed to Covid-19. Since the most severe, and often the deadliest, clusters have been in nursing homes and other assisted living environments, residents and staff should of course be vaccinated before less vulnerable populations. But we all wish the whole process could speed up a bit, and everyone could get vaccinated right away.
Scammers play on this wish by offering you the opportunity to get the vaccine early, for a fee. You may see an ad on social media claiming a private company or group has the vaccine for sale. Or you may get a text, call, email, or other message offering you the opportunity to receive the vaccine ahead of schedule, or to be put on a list to receive it ahead of schedule, for a small fee.
Never respond to any of these offers. There is no way to get the vaccine early, no matter how much money you pay or who you pay it to. True, accurate and free information about the Covid-19 vaccine in our community and who will be vaccinated next can be found through state and local departments of public health.
The “grandparents” scam
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has been warning of this scam for several years, but it is increasingly popular among scammers today, as Covid-19 prevention efforts lead to longer and longer periods of solitude for people who normally see adult children and grandchildren regularly. The scam can be run on anyone who shares information about their family and friends on social media, but it is called the “grandparents” scam because the most common targets are grandparents, with the scammer posing as one of their grandchildren.
To run this hoax, the scammer first scours Facebook, Instagram, and other social media accounts looking for phone numbers and the names of grandchildren. Next, the scammer phones the target pretending to be the grandchild. They may use software that makes it look like the call is coming from the grandchild’s phone, or pretend to be borrowing someone else’s phone because theirs is lost or damaged. The scammer, posing as the grandchild, claims to be in some kind of trouble. They may say they are in jail, lost, or in need of money to pay a bill or a fine. If the grandparent notices that the person on the phone’s voice does not sound like the grandchild they claim to be, a bad connection, illness, stress, or background noise is blamed. The scammer may also call claiming to be the grandchild’s lawyer or other authority figure, making the request on their behalf.
Once the grandparent agrees to send the money to help, they are instructed to purchase a gift card and call back with the code, wire money, send money via an online app, share account information, or send cash in the mail. This money goes to the scammer, with the real grandchild completely unaware the call was ever made, and the grandparent tricked out of their money.
Anyone who receives a call from a grandchild or other loved one asking for money should immediately hang up and contact the person through a known and trusted method. Should the phone call turn out to be genuine, the real loved one will understand.
Help getting your second stimulus payment scam
Many of us could really use that $600 currently scheduled to arrive in our checking or savings accounts, but not everyone has gotten their payment yet. Those who have fallen behind on bills are especially anxious, but even those of us who have been able to manage financially are feeling the strain of increasing grocery bills as children and spouses who used to be out of the house all day are now eating all their lunches and snacks at home, higher electric bills as everyone is working from home all day, and other unanticipated expenses related to preventing the spread of Covid-19.
This anxiety leaves us open to scammers posing as government agents offering to help get our stimulus payment to us right away, for a small processing fee. The scammer calls, emails, texts, or messages the target on social media, posing as someone from the government and making the offer. Once the person is convinced they are speaking to someone from the government, the scammer then asks for the potential victim’s banking information in order to process the payment.
In reality, tax information already on file with the IRS is used to process and deposit the stimulus payments, and there is never a fee. Hang up on, or delete and block, anyone who claims you need to pay to process your stimulus payment.
Most of us see ourselves as too smart, sophisticated, or careful to fall for scams like these. But anyone can have a moment of weakness brought on by stress, fatigue, or illness. Most scammers practice their scams the way we practice writing or singing or playing the guitar, and are experts at playing on our vulnerabilities and emotions. And even if you are one who can see through any scammer that comes your way, keep these scams in mind to help protect loved ones who may be more vulnerable.
Feelings of isolation are increasing these days. Limiting the number of people we’re in close contact with, and sticking to the same tight circle feels a bit better than isolating ourselves completely, but we still miss those friends who make the circle too big, our regular offline meetings and gatherings, favorite public events, and our old offline hangouts. Performing and literary artists in particular are feeling the strain of cancelled plays, concerts, readings and open mics. Even if you’re busy writing new songs or poems, and happy just to spend time with your spouse or partner, or love being home with your kids all day, you probably wish you could spend more of that time together at your favorite hangout.
Joining groups online, or joining small offline groups that take all necessary precautions is one way to alleviate some of that feeling of being shut away. Some groups even promise to alleviate some of the financial worries of the time, offering jobs or business opportunities. But not all groups are safe to join. Cults and cult-like groups make the news when things take a horrific turn, but financial, psychological, and relationship damage can occur in any group that employs cult-like tactics.
Devotion to a Person
Whether you joined an online musicians’ networking group or an offline support group for single parents, signed up for a business opportunity, or took a job with a small business, be wary of any group that demands allegiance and devotion to an individual, family, or small group. It is not “team building” when a boss expects you to shun everyone who crosses them, take up their personal causes that have nothing to do with the work, or jump and do things for them beyond what you would do for anyone else. Pastors should never give the impression that their opinions, thoughts, feelings, or impressions that have nothing to do with the Bible are the word of God. Leaders of networking and support groups should never demand excessive online chatting, correspondence, or personal details.
This is commonly known as an “us versus them” atmosphere, and can be one of the most alluring features of a cult-like group. Being part of the group, seeing yourself as accepted, and feeling like you belong someplace is great. There are some elements of “us” and “them” in any group you join for any reason. Your pastor at your perfectly safe church probably talks about what you as a congregation can do. When you work for a company, you hope they’re chosen by advertisers, clients, and customers over others in the field. But when people in groups you do not belong to become enemies without doing anything to someone else, or by doing something that merely displeases one person, that is a red flag.
Attempting to Control Your Information
Before the days of twenty-four hour news cycles, and the ability to look things up, order books, or instantly stream films came along, cult-like groups directly controlled what their members learned or heard. Today, they are well aware that keeping people away from information is nearly impossible, so they try to discredit any information that paints them in a bad light or provides an alternate point of view, and encourage members to reject that information. Multi-level marketing groups, most of which use cult-like tactics to lure people in and keep them, are famous for this feature. Any video, article, or other report from someone who tried to make money selling for them and earned nothing but a host of problems is brushed aside as the whining of someone who just didn’t work hard enough.
Off-kilter Reward and Punishment System
The presence of rewards and punishments alone does not indicate a cult. Every time you get a paying gig or assignment, or it’s payday at your second career or day job, you get a reward for your behavior. You play the music, write the article, work your shift, or get your tasks done, and you get money. If you don’t do the work, you get punished, in the form of being fired, lacking funds, and getting a bad reputation. Reward and punishment becomes a red flag for a cult-like group if the rewards and punishments are based on loyalty to the leader or the group, rather than for what you actually contribute. Not being asked to be a mentor or moderator in your online support group because you rarely contribute anything when someone else has a problem is understandable. Not being asked because you don’t navigate over to the leader’s private page for personal chats is suspicious.
Interference in Healthy Relationships
This is another cult-like trait common in multi-level marketing companies. Anyone who tells you that your new “business” is not a franchise of a cosmetics company, just you hiring yourself out as a commission only sales person to a major corporation, is to be mocked. People who tell you that you will likely lose, not earn, money with this type of work are to be pushed aside. You will be told they do not have your best interests at heart, do not support you, and do not truly love or like you. It does not matter if the person is the love of your life, an adopted sibling to you, or the supervisor you’ve enjoyed working under for several years. If they don’t tell you what the multi-level marketing company wants to hear, the multi-level marketing company wants them gone, or at least pushed aside. All dangerous groups are not as blatant as this, but any business, group, or organization that encourages you to treat those who love you poorly in any way is not a place you want to stay.
These are not the only five features of a cult or cult-like group, just the ones you are most likely to notice first. Look for a pattern of these traits in any group you join for any reason, and leave as soon as you see it emerge. It is better to suffer a few moments of embarrassment, or even give up a side income or activity, than to immerse yourself in psychological or financial danger.
Previously, Artist Cafe Utica reported on the warning signs a friend might be communicating with a romance scammer (catfish) online. These include excessive or unwarranted secrecy, changes in mood, changes in interests, financial changes, and more. (See “Ten Signs a Friend or Family Member is Involved in a Romance Scam” for details).
Noticing a cluster of signs that could indicate the prescence of a romance scammer, or catfish, in their lives is troubling. But there are ways to reach out.
Start a general conversation about relationships and/or meeting people online first.
Begin by sharing as much as you are comfortable with about your own life or that of someone you both know. This doesn’t mean start gossiping or spreading rumors. Mention a new restaurant a coworker told you she and her husband like to order from, or talk about a drive you took with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and let the conversation flow naturally. Gently note when they seem secretive or hesitate to tell you anything.
“When I mentioned that he paid for the dinner and I paid for the drinks, you didn’t say anything about the guy you’re talking to. Does he seem like an extravagent spender?” is more likely to generate further conversation than, “Why’d you look away when I mentioned money? Are you hiding something?”
The goal is to get the person to open up a little, and talk a bit about the relationship they may be forming online. Scolding, mocking, or belittling them is not going to help you reach that goal.
Do your best to have a face to face conversation.
If it is safe to do so, put on a mask, make sure your friend or relative has a mask, and have the conversation in person. If someone in either of your houses is in quarantine, or someone is frail, sick, or otherwise unable to risk any exposure to anyone outside their own household, or if your friend is far away, meet via Zoom or Skype. Text chatting is great in many situations, but you may miss facial expressions or body language that hold important cues.
If a face to face call or visit isn’t possible, try talking on the phone to allow yourself to pick up voice cues. When text chat is your only option, choose a time when both of you can sit and chat uninterrupted.
When the time comes to bring up the subject of catfishing/romance scamming directly, target your approach to the individual.
You know your friend or family member. Some people are more receptive to the direct approach. They’ll listen better if you flat out say, “That sounds like a catfish.” Other people need to discuss the issue in general and come to their own conclusion. Still others need to be guided gently. Do what you know will get a thoughtful response out of your friend, not what you saw someone do on MTV’s “Catfish” or “Dr. Phil” or anywhere else that addresses the issue.
Don’t give up if your friend seems a bit different, or reacts differently than you had hoped.
Romance scammers brainwash their victims. Your friend is under the influence of someone who has carefully isolated them, if only mentally, and fed them the narrative they want them to believe. The one you’re concerned for may lash out, dismiss your concerns, or behave as though you’re being silly, because the scammer has them convinced the two of them have a special bond others would not understand. Keep talking to them. Your words may not seem to have an impact now, but the person may remember them later.
Use your best judgment when deciding whether or not to get others involved.
Just like your approach, this depends on the friend or family member, your relationship with them, and the relationship between them and anyone you want to bring in to help. You also want to make sure anyone you involve is going to help the situation, not make it worse. We all have those friends or relatives we love, but know better than to call on in a crisis.
Speak up immediately and do all you can to stop them if your loved one is planning to send money, send expensive gifts, accept a shipment, or ship packages for their new online love.
This is a classic characteristic of an overseas, organized scam ring. Getting people to give them money or pricey items, or accept or help send boxes full of stolen goods or other illegal materials is the only true goal of the scam. Even if your friend has verified that the person is indeed in the United States, or the country they claim to be in, they could still be running a money or illegal goods scam.
Never encourage confronting or hunting down a suspected scammer.
MTV’s “Catfish” does a good service in making its audience aware of the red flags of romance scams, and in taking away some of the shame of being targeted by a scammer. But it does an even bigger disservice to its audience by sending the message that the “catfish” or scammer, is always just a socially awkward person who needs a second chance, or a lovable but slightly narcissistic prankster who needs to learn a little respect for other people. In most cases, this is far from the truth.
The scammers who get caught on “Catfish” are surrounded by a camera crew and security team, and they know it. They are fully aware that they will be seen on national television. It is in their interest to come across as harmless, awkward, and just in need of a few new friends and new interests. Nobody knows what that person is going to do once they’re no longer being watched, or if they’re telling the truth in the follow up. And nobody could predict what that person might do if their target and a friend, or even their target, a friend, Nev Schulman, and one other person showed up alone, as it appears on screen.
There is no way to know what you might be walking into or who you might be meeting. Never go after a suspected scammer.
No matter what, stick with your friend.
Writing the person off may be tempting, especially if they are especially secretive, argumentative, condescending, or otherwise unwilling to listen to anyone who reaches out to them. Remain their friend anyway. Once they emerge from the cloud of the scam, they will need the people who cared enough to speak out in the first place.
Many of us are raised to believe work is not supposed to be enjoyable. You go to work because you need money, and that’s it. Any unpleasantness is just part of the job, and you have to put up with it.
We do have to find work, do our work, and pay our expenses, and it’s not always going to be fulfilling, interesting, or pleasant on any level. Sometimes you do just have to take a crappy job and keep that crappy job if you want to continue to play your music under functioning lights or take a hot shower before you settle down to paint or write your novel.
But there are instances where an unpleasant workplace crosses the line into bullying…..
The key difference between an unpleasant but normal work environment and workplace bullying is that in workplace bullying, certain people are targeted with behavior that seeks to harm them in some way.
The guy who never talks to anyone, and snaps at everyone who greets him is not a workplace bully. The one who takes over the break room and makes it miserable for select people he targets is a bully. A supervisor who goes around yelling all the time is certainly not a good boss, but unless people in the office are genuinely afraid, they’re just a bad boss, not a bully. The supervisor who yells at certain people, or whose behavior is so extreme it frightens people, has crossed the line.
Examples of workplace bullying behavior include verbal degradation and humiliation, exclusion from meetings or events that impact the target’s work or career, excessive monitoring and micromanaging, inequitable treatment, sabotaging another’s work, gossiping with the intent to ruin another professionally, invalid criticism or blaming, and deliberating creating confusion or difficulties completing work.
This sounds like an overly broad list that can include everything unpleasant a person can do, but again, there are distinctive features. The key is if the behavior causes the target extra difficulties in completing their work, and/or impacts their professional or personal reputation in a harmful way. If I’m excluded from the company picnic because my coworkers simply do not like me personally, and nothing that might impact my work ever goes on, that is certainly cold, but it is not bullying. However, if the company picnic is the place where new projects are discussed, and I don’t get the chance to present mine, that is bullying behavior.
Sometimes, seemingly “nice” behavior can be a feature of workplace bullying, if it is used to manipulate situations to harm others.
Constantly complimenting one employee or contractor or treating them well while belitting or embarrassing another is an example of workplace bullying. Workplace bullies may also foster competition that is out of line with the work environment.
Supervisors, managers, or owners are often the bullies, as they can use their power in the company to get away with it. But workplace bullies can be co-workers, contractors, or even those below you.
Anyone who engages in bullying behavior is a bully, regardless of their position in or relationship to the company. Lower level workplace bullies may be easier to fire, but some workplace bullies use other sources of power to get away with bullying. If a business really needs someone with teaching experience, and I’m the only person with teaching experience willing to work there, I have found a source of power. They know it would be difficult to replace me, so I can “get away” with things that might not otherwise be tolerated. Bullies often use this insight about their skills and their workplace to get away with bullying. If your supervisor is afraid of you, but they’re also afraid to fire you because they know they’re not likely to find someone else with your skills, you are a bully.
Every job you ever work is not going to be enjoyable. That is just a fact of life. But you should be able to do the work you were hired to do without someone else deliberately making it more difficult.
As artists, we have to put ourselves out there in some form. We get up on stage to perform or read our work. Most of us at least have a social media page for our band or an Amazon page for our novels, even if we aren’t into online chatting or posting photos of our lives. Obviously, I think this is great. I wouldn’t own and run a website if I did not enjoy being online. But there are dangers to an increased public presence, including an increased risk of identity theft.
“Traditional” Identity Theft
When we think of identity theft, we picture somebody stealing our credit card number and running up bills we could never pay for things we would never want, and never see. The person who dresses exclusively from thrift stores opens their credit card bill to find a charge from Prada or Gucci. You don’t drive, but somebody paid for a car to be detailed with your credit card. This can certainly happen, but it is not normally the first sign. Credit card thieves typically make a few test purchases before going on their sprees. These purchases can be as small as a drugstore lipstick or chapstick or single soda or candy bar. The goal is to see if the thief has stolen a card with some available cash or credit on it, and determine if they will get away with using it. Once that first small purchase goes through, they’ll move on to bigger hauls.
One of the first signs of this type of identity theft is the appearance of those small charges on your credit card or bank statement. Check the dates on cash withdrawals. You might be in the habit of withdrawing forty dollars for spending money from time to time, but look those charges over anyway to make sure one was not done while you were at work or out of town.
Should you notice anything unusual, no matter how small, take the time to look into it, and if you are sure you did not make the charge, report it to your bank immediately.
In some cases, the identity thief does not steal your name or financial information, they just use some of your contact information to avoid dealing with their own issues. I always think of this as scapegoating, because it puts the blame for their poor choices on to you.
When I got my first job after college, I was able to afford the first phone in my own name. That was the only good thing about this job. I spent most of my time off passing out my resume anywhere that might hire me for something better. And the calls came pouring in. If only they had been calls from people with job offers.
The calls were from credit card companies demanding payments. They came from dentist offices chiding me for missing my child’s appointment. The graduate school I attended online wanted me to get in touch with my adviser about my academic performance. Student billing also needed to reach me about my charges. These were all legitimate requests. You should do your school work, pay your bills, and care for your children. But I wasn’t in graduate school at the time. I didn’t have a credit card that had a balance on it, never mind a late fee. And I have never been the parent or guardian of any child. Callers kept referring to me as “Tamara” and when I could manage to convince them I was not Tamara Clark (not her real last name), they behaved as though I were screening calls for her. For several months, my phone rang anywhere from two to eight times per day with calls for Tamara, and I was scolded for shielding her at least three times a week. It quickly became clear that whoever “Tamara” was, she continued to use her old phone number, now my phone number, for things she didn’t care to deal with.
While changing your number is the surest way to end the calls, that may not be possible for everyone. I had too many resumes out with that number on them, and needed to answer my phone in case a potential employer called. Others may have family members or friends who would have difficulty contacting them with a new number, or have that number on file with too many important accounts or places to make changing it practical.
If you suspect that someone has been using your number to avoid calls, the only thing that will stop their creditors and other contacts from calling you is to speak up. If you get a credit card company employee who keeps insisting you’re screening, ask to speak to their supervisor. Keep asking until someone allows you to explain the situation and believes you. I was fortunate to finally get a call from someone who took my word, apologized, and made a notation on Tamara’s file. The calls slowly subsided after that.
Using your materials to catfish (romance scam) others
“Catfishing” is a scam that occurs when one or more people pretend to be someone else, or a fictionalized version of themselves, in order to trick others into a relationship with them online. This is usually a romantic relationship, but there are catfish who pretend to be employers or friends as well.
The signs you might be talking to a scammer are well documented, but the direct target is not usually the catfish’s only victim. These scams rely largely on stolen photos, poems, and life stories. If you have a public profile for your music, acting, or writing career, that page is open for scammers to steal from.
There is little you can do about this, and you will likely never know it has even happened. You may come across pages for yourself that you never set up. You might get an odd message from some stranger who thinks they’ve been talking to you. Maybe someone will insist they saw you on a website you never joined. Or your pictures, stories, or name might be used for years without a single detail making its way back to you.
If you do find fake pages, or catch someone stealing your poetry or lyrics, you can report the page to the site owners and ask that it be taken down. If your material is copyrighted or registered under your name in any way, you may be able to take legal action. But if a scammer has just modeled a character they play after you, all you can do is add a note on your own page explaining the situation.
For each type of identity theft, act as quickly as possible. Do all you can to protect yourself. You may have to cancel or put a hold on a card, shut down a website you worked hard to build and maintain, or go through the trouble of writing and posting several disclaimers, but it is worth it to protect your professional and personal reputation and your finances.
Recent news reports have focused on the potential dangers of using Uber, particularly the danger of sexual assault. Critics assert that Uber does not do enough to screen drivers, exposing customers to people with histories of violent crime. Uber countered that these incidents occurred before the background check system they currently use. Others further argue that the same danger is present when using a cab or shuttle service, noting that Uber’s app actually makes it safer than traditional public transportation.
Uber is a necessary service for those of us who either cannot afford a car or cannot drive. It’s the perfect solution when you depend on the bus, but it’s late and you don’t want to wait for one alone, or you have an appointment and would have to sit in the lobby for forty-five minutes because the next bus would make you late. Uber is an even greater blessing for those who have difficulty making it to a bus stop.
Most people know how Uber works, but just in case you haven’t used it yet, it’s an opportunity for individuals to turn their cars into efficient cabs. In order to use Uber, you first sign up for a rider account on www.uber.com. Then you download the Uber app on your phone and sign in. Anytime you need to go anywhere, just tap the app. It will open to a map and the question “Where to?” Tap that question, fill in the place you need to go, and let the app find you your ride. It will show you a picture of the driver and the car, the car’s make and model, the license plate number, and the estimated time of arrival, usually less than ten minutes.
Uber is tracking you through your phone, and the driver through their device every minute you are in the car. This is an important safety feature, and the detail that makes using an Uber more like taking a cab than simply climbing into a car with a stranger. But it is still important to take safety precautions when you use Uber.
Wait for your ride in a safe place.
The Uber website suggests calling for your ride inside and waiting there until the app alerts you that the driver is about to arrive.
Sometimes, waiting inside is not practical. You may be leaving a crowded doctor’s office waiting room that needs the chairs for people coming in to wait for their appointments, or a shopping mall that makes it difficult to see a car pulling up from inside. If you have to wait outside, wait in a public, well-lighted area, and stay as close to an unlocked door back into the building as possible.
When your driver is due to arrive at a public pick up spot, a little light icon on your screen will tell you to hold up your phone so your driver can match the color on the screen with the color they are given to identify you. This ensures that the correct person gets in their car.
Check the license plate rather than simply matching the driver’s photo or the make and color of the car.
The driver’s photo should be only your first clue. There are several people whose photos tend not to look much like them. Pictures taken in odd lighting, or the driver twitching or flinching while being photographed could have distorted the image a bit. A car’s make isn’t up for interpretation. It’s either a Honda or a Dodge or it isn’t. But there are a lot of people with the same car, and the shade one person describes as “dark red” might be “burgundy” to another person’s eyes. Make sure to read the license plate number on your phone’s screen and match it to the number on the car before you approach the door.
As you walk up the car, wait for the driver to say your name before you get in.
This is a final safety step for both you and the driver. You are getting into the car with them, and they are letting someone into the car. They do not know you any more than you know them. Confirming your name is a way to let everyone know that both people are who they are supposed to be.
Watch where you’re going as you ride.
The driver is getting paid to drive you someplace, and they have a gps system with minute by minute instructions as to where to turn, and when to drop you off. You should not have to give directions or tell them to stop the car. It is still important to remain alert as to where you are going and what is going on in and around the vehicle. It’s perfectly fine to chat with the driver if both of you wish to talk, but avoid putting on headphones or falling asleep. Keep your phone out, with your Uber app open.
Know where the emergency button is on your app
Look for a little blue shield on your screen. This icon is where you will tap if you need to summon the police to track the car down at any point. You do not need to push it to activate it ahead of time. Just know where it is and keep your phone in your hand with the app open so you can push it if you need it.
Sit in the back seat and be prepared to handle your seatbelt and belongings yourself.
If you are the only passenger, or one of two, sit in the back seat of the driver’s car. This keeps some distance between you and the driver during the ride, and makes it much more difficult for the driver to touch you. Fasten your own seat belt. If the driver’s seat belt does not work well, they might offer to help you. Tell them you are fine. Never let a stranger lean over you with their arm and hand in reach of your neck. Keep your bags, keys, phone, and other personal belongings with you, not in the front seat of the car next to the driver.
Keep vigilant for red flags in the driver’s behavior
You are going to like some Uber drivers and not care for others. Some may be sullen, or overly chatty, or maybe you just don’t want to hear about last night’s football game or fishing, or parent-teacher night at a school three towns away, and that’s all they want to talk about. That is just a normal part of meeting new people. But if the driver seems hostile or angry, or if the person appears to be disregarding the instructions on the app, starts telling you they’re going someplace else, or brings up a topic that is disturbing or scary rather than just uninteresting, speak up.
Tell the person you forgot something, cancel the ride, wait a bit, and call another driver if they make you feel frightened or uneasy at any point. You are allowed to stop the ride and get out of the person’s car at any time. If the driver refuses to stop and let you out of the car, summon the police.
Artists often know what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet. This leads many of us to want to help others as often as we can.
Many scammers play on this tendency to help others by pretending to be, or represent, someone in need. I call these types of scammers “heartstrings scammers,” because they tug on the heartstrings to complete their cons. The most widely publicized instances of this type of scam are the ones in which the scammer fakes a serious medical condition or emergency situation.
In 2016, news media outlets around the country reported on the case of Brandi Lee Weaver-Gates, a student and beauty pageant winner who pocketed around $30,000 by pretending to have cancer. In 2018, the story of a couple stealing money they raised for a man with no place to live after the man gave the woman his last $20 was later revealed to be a money making scam created by the three of them.
These cases are the ones that shock, but the same scam can be run on a much smaller scale using local groups on social networking sites.
One common scam typically begins with a post on “helping hands” or “pay it forward” groups. Members are shown a picture of a cute baby, dog, cat, or family. The accompanying post explains that the entire family, or someone in the family, needs something important. Claiming to be out of formula for a baby with no funds available to purchase more is common. Others say they cannot feed their family if they lose their job, and the employer is asking them to purchase clothing, tools, or other equipment they cannot afford.
The story they use to get the help is invented or greatly exaggerated. Nobody is in need. Once the scammer has the items, they quickly join a classifieds or other buy and sell group and sell whatever they received from the helping hands group for cash.
Heartstrings scams designed to earn the scammer items to flip for cash are effective because the situations they use are so serious. Most of us would rather be scammed out of the cost of a few cans of baby formula than think there might be a starving baby we could have helped, or lose the money we spent buying a tool or item of clothing than think someone lost the job he or she needed to feed their family.
This scam is usually discovered when someone recognizes an item they gave thinking they were helping someone on a sale page. But at that point, there is nothing they can do. You can’t prove that the five cans of formula or work boots you met someone in a parking lot and handed to them are the exact same items listed on the page.
Keep an eye on related groups or comments on a page
Preventing these scams can be a challenge. The first time the person posts online looking for help, you will just have to risk the scam if you feel called to help. Honestly, I am one of those people who would rather be scammed out of some money than see someone starve or go dirty or without heat or other basic necessities.
One way to prevent falling for this scam further is to keep an eye on related groups. If you’re in Utica, New York and you think someone is on a pay it forward type group running this scam, keep an eye on yard sale and other classifieds groups for the Utica area as well. If you think the scam is being run on a helping hands group in Las Vegas, join the Las Vegas classifieds or yard sale groups too. If you think someone is scamming people into sending them egift cards, watch the gift card exchange groups that pop up in your suggestions. If the plea is posted on a site without groups, keep an eye on the comment section. While you can’t automatically believe every comment you see posted online, watch out if there is a pattern of people who do not know each other reporting that they helped the person, then saw the stuff for sale.
Look for repeated posts seeking pricey items
The first time I rang up baby formula as a cashier at Walmart, I went over my transaction twice, thinking I had accidentally hit a button twice and doubled the customer’s total. I hadn’t. The price of baby formula is startlingly high, and both easy to obtain by claiming to have a baby in need, and easy to sell at a lower price. Cell phones and purses are other items people often flip for cash.
There are those who are in legitimate need of these items. Never decline to help someone in need. But if you see the same people posting that they need a phone or a purse for work or more baby formula than they could ever use to feed the number of children they have, they are probably selling the items for cash.
Be wary of the person who offers a long, complicated story when it’s time to meet to get the item.
A few years ago, when I lived in a small town on the other side of the country, I watched one of these heartstrings scams fall apart online. A young couple who I will call Allie and Bo were known for seeking help from people around town. They would often post in “pay it forward” groups that they were in need, or walk into stores and claim they were down to the last of the funds they needed to feed their children. Items donated to help the family were predictably seen on sale pages soon after they received them, but there was little anyone could do once they handed something over.
The scam fell apart when they decided to borrow a tactic from romance scammers and catfish anyone who responded to their request for help. Posts appeared claiming that a woman was a single mother, new to town, and in need of formula and other supplies for her baby. The “single mother” only responded to people who had not previously helped the couple. When “she” did, she told the person who agreed to meet her in public to help her a long, detailed story describing her inability to show up to pick up the items, but promising that her “brother” would be there and would take them to her. It didn’t take long to figure out that Allie had written the ad, with Bo showing up to play the part of the “brother” of the fictional woman.
Insisting upon meeting in public is just common sense, and people do have children and jobs and other obligations, but if the person has asked people to meet them in order to bring them something they cannot survive without, and then refuses to meet people…..ask yourself why.
Don’t be afraid to ask around
Self-appointed keyboard warriors who publicly declare every fundraiser, crowd funding, or investment opportunity they see a scam only help themselves to more attention. But there is nothing wrong with privately and politely asking friends, family members, and others about a campaign or cause they support.