Perspectives: Scammers in the translation industry

I have been running a small translation company in Hungary since 1998, and I have been experiencing a sudden surge in the number of scammers trying to deceive me in the past two or three years. Last summer, I inadvertantly assigned a 5,000-word Slovak into English translation project to a new translator who delivered a machine translation, and put us in a very difficult situation. We managed to have the source text retranslated by a professional translator before the deadline, but things could have gone terribly wrong if our deadline had been tighter or if we had paid the original translator before ascertaining the quality of their output first.

There are various types of scammers active on an international level in the translation industry. This article aims to ring the alarm bell by directing attention toward scammers and describe the practice of the two most common types with the objective of warning fellow translation company owners and managers of this danger and possibly contributing to their ability to fend off scammer attacks in an efficient manner.

The first type of scammer (and this is the one that has been around for at least a decade) pretends to be a client. They insist on paying the service provider by check, and upon completion of the translation project, they send a check issued for a much larger amount than what would be due. When the check is already on its way to the translation company, the scammer informs the service provider that it has been issued for the incorrect amount by error, and requests urgent reimbursement. So the recipient of the check transfers the difference to the sender. However, the check turns out to be bad and doesn’t clear.

The second type of scammer, which started wreaking havoc in the translation industry more recently, pretends to be a freelance translator. They submit their application to numerous translation agencies and they accept projects from the ones that believed they are actual translators. They agree to payment upon delivery or shortly after delivery — by PayPal or Moneybookers on most occasions. They use machine translation (such as Google or Bing Translate) to render the source text into the target language, and then if they speak the given language, they edit the output of the machine translation to improve it a little. Or they simply submit it to the agency if they are unfamiliar with the target language. Then an invoice is sent to the client immediately. If the client pays the invoice right away or within a few days of receipt, then the terrible quality of the translation is revealed by client feedback only after the payment has been made, and the money will never be recovered.

What are the most common hallmarks of the typical application message of a scammer of the latter type? Well, here they are, without aiming to provide an exhaustive list. If at least two or three of these features are exhibited by the application message you receive, you should be extra careful with the applicant as they are most probably a scammer looking for an easy gain.

The subject line of the application message contains several language combinations where the applicant indicates that they are able to translate both ways. In many cases, the subject line specifies one or two exotic languages (such as Indonesian or Thai) and English, or one or two Scandinavian languages (typically Danish is one of them) and German and/or English. This should immediately arouse suspicion.

The name of the applicant is not a typical name of the country where the target language is spoken. Most prevalent are English names even for Scandinavian or German translators.

The application message in the message body is written in bad English, typically with bad style or bad grammar, even when the sender claims to be a native English speaker. The sender often appears almost semi-illiterate based on the number of orthographical and stylistic mistakes contained in their sentences.

The sender’s email address contains numbers or extra letters in addition to the name of the sender. Their email address typically only differs slightly from the email address of the professional translator from whom the attached CV has been stolen.

A free email address is used by the sender, such as Hotmail or Yahoo, although it must be mentioned that this feature alone should not arouse suspicion as most professional freelance translators use free email addresses. However, scammers never use a paid email address as they frequently change their email address.

There is often a CV attached to the application message. This CV has typically been stolen from a professional freelance translator, so it looks real and is perfect in every way. CVs can easily be obtained in various ways as it is in the interest of their owners to disseminate them to prospective, potential clients. However, CVs sent out by scammers often contain fewer language combinations than specified in the subject line or message body of their application email message.

The way the sender addresses the prospective client is either too endearing or outright grammatically incorrect. These include addresses like “Dear,” “Hello Dear,” and “Dear Sir/Madame.” The last one betrays that the sender has no idea what the difference between Madam and Madame is.

 The way the sender finishes the application message can be rather revealing, too. These include “Cheers,” “Blessings” and a first-name signature only, without a surname, like “Thomas” instead of a full name.

 The style of the application message can be exceedingly self-eulogizing, it can be overly sentimental or exaggerating, often very long and off-point, and it often does not take into account the parameters of the recipient, so that it is clear that the sender is targeting a large number of translation companies in their campaign. Some application messages are basically a long juxtaposition of positive attributes and linguistic abilities.

 There is a succession of sentences that appears in many of these malevolent application emails, such as: “My usual rate is EUR 0.06 per source word. But I prefer to work at EUR 0.08 per source word.” The moment I encounter these two sentences, I delete the message automatically, and block the sender. The exact rates contained by these sentences vary slightly (between EUR 0.05 per word and EUR 0.10 per word).

 If they receive a response from the prospective client, they often take their time writing back, and the reply message is conspicuously short, and, again, displays some of the hallmarks of the original application message.

 Receiving applications containing very similar cover letters within a short interval (within a quarter of an hour or less) is an obvious sign that these cover letters were not written by genuine applicants or freelancers. Instead, they are most likely the serial product of a scammer who is trying to multiply their chances of achieving their goal by sending out applications in the name of several freelancers.

On the whole, it can be established that the people composing and submitting messages bearing at least two or three of the traits listed above have meager notions or absolutely no grasp at all of the way the translation industry actually works. They have probably never translated a single word for money, and they have never learned a foreign language at an advanced level. They are typically not even familiar with the basic mechanisms of the translation process, have no idea what words like proofreading mean, and are at odds with terms like target word, source word, CAT tools and other abbreviations frequently employed in the translation industry.

I even take the liberty of assuming that scammers who try to make ends meet by deceiving translation agencies have no respectable profession at all. It certainly appears to be difficult to apprehend them and bring them to justice to account for their misdeeds.

If the query is clunky enough, it is unlikely the scammer will be hired. However, a small percentage of swindlers are quite good at pretending to be real translators. They not only steal CVs from professionals but cover letters and application messages, too. The only difference consists in the one added number or extra letter in the email address from which they approach their prospective clients/victims. Therefore, when there is uncertainty regarding who is being dealt with, in order to sort out the men from the boys, it is highly advisable that employers of freelance linguists try to verify the truthfulness of such applications by requesting and contacting several references, asking for a link to the linguist’s ProZ profile and checking it out carefully, as well as engaging the person in a Skype or telephone conversation, preferably using microphones. If the target language in question is English or another language you speak, and the linguist has an accent that betrays them being not a native speaker of that alleged target language, the scam is uncovered, and the application can be discarded.

Last autumn I received an application from an alleged Italian into English translator, who even boasted of being a conference interpreter in the same language combination. Something in his application message caught my eye and aroused my suspicion. It was a grammar error in one of his English-language sentences. I called him by telephone, and a person with a very strong French accent responded. He turned out to be the sender of the message I had received a minute before, and within five seconds, I knew he was not a native speaker of English contrary to the claim in his CV and application message. He was struggling with the language as we kept talking to each other, lost for words due to lack of English proficiency and practice. What I found even more annoying was that he felt offended by my decision not to use his services, and started telling me off in no uncertain terms. After hanging up the phone, I discarded the application, of course, and moved on.

It is definitely worth having a short conversation with applicants where there is even a vague suspicion that they might be pretending to be somebody other than who they actually are. It is better to be safe than sorry even when your deadline is tight, and the job needs to be assigned right away.

Let us hope, in the interest of the global translation community, that articles like the present one and day-to-day communication between translation companies will make it easier for employers in the international translation industry to take precautions and prepare for scammer attacks in a more vigilant manner in order to filter out scammers, and assign their translation projects to real freelancers instead.