The Rise of Impostor Entrepreneurs
For every aspiring entrepreneur in the world, there’s a scam artist who’s tried to rip them off. If you need proof, just search this website. You’ll find warnings of startup scams, venture capital scams, credit card scams, travel scams and SEO scams. Unfortunately, there’s a new one, and it’s especially insidious, because you might never know you were taken. It won’t cost you money, but it can sink your credibility. The best way to explain it is to give you a recent example from my own industry.
Last month, the Huffington Post exposed a “fake financial expert" who was quoted in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, and Business Insider, among other noted online outlets, before being outed. Her "name" was Patricia Russell, and her photo, as it turns out, was a stock image. Her entire biography, which claimed she was a licensed, certified financial planner, was a lie. Whoever wrote under her name responded to journalists’ requests for personal-finance quotes from an expert.
Why would someone go through the trouble of creating a fake person just to get quoted by national media on innocuous topics like saving for retirement and creating a household budget? There doesn’t seem to be a payoff, but of course there always is. As the Huffington Post piece laid out, Russell tirelessly promoted credit-repair companies. While this is a legitimate industry, credit-repair scams are a serious problem, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The non-existent Patricia Russell tried very hard to promote those companies that paid for the privilege of being mentioned online with a link to their services. The goal was simple: Lure unsuspecting Americans into believing Russell was an objective expert pointing them to highly rated services.
Sadly, Patricia Russell isn’t alone. Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed another fake expert named Drew Cloud. So the obvious question is: OK, this stinks, but how does it affect me? I can think of three important ways….
1. Destroying your credibility.
Entrepreneurs face enough skepticism as it is. Your business model is doubted, funding is tight and prospects are hard to close. It’s bad enough when entrepreneurs accidentally associate with,say, shady influencers. It’s much worse when clients and leads learn you worked with someone who doesn’t exist. They’ll rightly wonder, “If they’re this gullible, can I even trust these people to run their business?”
2. Making life tougher all around.
Startups have always depended on relationships, but in the Internet era, it’s ramped way up. Affiliate marketing is now a necessity, not a luxury. I think it’s a safe bet to assume Patricia Russell and Drew Cloud aren’t the only non-existent experts floating around out there. That means entrepreneurs have to work hard to vet anyone they work with, not only to ensure they’re ethical but that they’re real. That’s more time away from the core business.
3. Worrying about regulation.
You know how this goes: One bad actor is a problem, two is a trend and three is a government regulation. Some scams attract politicians because they capture the imagination, and what’s more enticing than people who don’t exist duping the public? Just as certain is that any government action on this topic will probably burden small businesses more than it helps the general public, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to cut off these bad actors before they wreak havoc.
That means you owe it not just to your own business but to all your peers to tread carefully when you affiliate with anyone. We all get inundated with unsolicited emails offering us the world. Many fall under the category of affiliate marketing. Before you partner with any of them, spend five-to-10 minutes and thoroughly authenticate them online. That’s all Huffington Post had to do to expose Patricia Russell. However, you don’t want to catch someone after they’ve traded on your good name.
Yes, I know it’s a pain, but here’s a prediction: It won’t be long until you hear about many more Patricia Russells popping up in other industries. Don't let it be yours.