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Phony journalist scams companies out of expensive 'review' bikes

Published May 4, 2015

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. (BRAIN) — Bicycling magazine editors and two high-end road bike suppliers are warning the industry to watch out for someone posing as a magazine editor and requesting test bikes.

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Independent Fabrication and Firefly Bicycles, the companies that fell for the scam, are asking folks to be on the look out for two expensive bikes that went missing after being shipped to a California address.

In phone calls and emails to the companies early this year, the scammer pretended to be Bicycling's article editor, Lou Mazzante, and said he needed specific bikes for an urgent magazine photo shoot.

After some back and forth to clarify details, both companies sent bikes to a photo studio address in San Clemente, Calif. After not hearing anything for a few weeks, company officials followed up with the magazine's real editors, who knew nothing of the situation.

Firefly, a 4-year-old builder in Boston, had shipped a $13,000 custom titanium and carbon road bike built up with Dura-Ace and Enve Composites parts. Independent, based in New Hampshire, had sent out a steel-framed gravel road model that had once been displayed at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. The IF bike is worth $4,000-$5,000.

The Firefly bike belonged to a customer who had recently taken delivery of the custom bike but — due to the extremely snowy winter in Massachusetts — hadn't ridden it. It fit the bill for what the ersatz editor requested, and the customer was willing to share his new bike.

"(The customer) was pretty excited that his bike was going to be featured in Bicycling," said Firefly's Kevin Wolfson. Firefly recently delivered an identical bike to the customer at no charge. Wolfson said the missing bike was not covered by insurance so the small company had to eat the cost of replacing it.

A woman at the house said investigators have spoken to her about the missing bikes and she said  she had recently been jailed on an unrelated matter that was none of BRAIN's business.

After learning that the shipment was a scam and notifying Boston and California law enforcement, Wolfson learned that the San Clemente address is that of a private house. The photo studio named in the address is a real studio, but at a different address. The Orange County Sheriff's Department so far has not made any arrests in the case.

A woman who answered the door at the house Friday told BRAIN she was a tenant there and didn't know anything about the bikes. She said investigators have spoken to her about the missing bikes and she volunteered that she had recently been jailed on an unrelated matter that was none of BRAIN's business. She wouldn't give her name.

Red flags — in hindsight

People at both bike companies are kicking themselves for falling for the scam, but they can hardly be faulted.

The scammer set up an email account with a @bicyclingmag.us address. Most Bicycling employees have @rodale.com addresses so the address looked suspicious to Wolfson. He even typed in bicyclingmag.us in a Web browser, and was forwarded immediately to the real magazine's site. The bicyclingmag.us domain has since been abandoned — Wolfson has learned that it was only live for about two months.

Wolfson had never met Mazzante, and he said the scammer seemed legitimate on the phone, if not totally professional.

The Firefly model is carbon and titanium.

"He didn't come across as scammer, but it did seem like the communication was not up to the level of professionalism I would have expected from Rodale. He was just on a tight deadline — that was part of story he told us. I called and emailed to check on details at several points and he always had an answer that was reassuring enough," Wolfson said. "In hindsight the biggest thing is it's terribly embarrassing."

Employees at IF also spoke with the scammer on the phone, going over details including the type of pedals needed on the bike, said IF's Ryan Waters.

"We had specific conversations about whether the bike should have pedals, because our display bikes don't have pedals, but he said he wanted a certain kind of pedal because that was the kind of shoe that the (photo shoot) model would be wearing. He had a whole back story to make it seem real," Waters said.

In both cases the scammer said the photo shoot model would be tall, so he requested a roughly 62cm frame.

Firefly has hired a private investigator to try to recover the stolen bike, and has been in touch with the Orange County Sheriff's Department. A spokesman for the department was not available Friday to talk to BRAIN.

Wolfson said he has learned that the San Clemente address has been used as part of similar scams, with someone posing as an editor for several non-bike magazines and having tennis racquets, clothing and guitars sent to the address.

Abuse of trust

Mazzante, who incidentally is a former managing editor at BRAIN, said that in hindsight, he's surprised it hasn't happened before.

"In retrospect there are things that should have raised red flags. We have good relationships with these guys and so there is a lot of trust," he said.

"Obviously I don't like people abusing our brand and especially my name. Companies should make sure that anything they are sending out is absolutely going to someone they know at the magazine."

Almost all Bicycling editors have @rodale.com email addresses. Bicycling's test director, Matt Phillips, said any supplier who is uncertain about a test request can contact him with a direct message to his Twitter account, @ilikesushi, or by phone or email.

Details on the stolen bikes:

  • The Firefly is a 2014 Firefly Ti-Carbon road bike, serial number FF355. The sizing is custom and roughly a 62 centimeter seat tube length. The color is silver and black. It was built with a Dura-Ace mechanical group with an Enve fork, cockpit and wheels. More information at bikeindex.org, a stolen bike registry.
  • The Independent Fabrication is a 2013 Gravel Royale, painted in Amulet Red and outfitted with Campagnolo parts. The serial number is SS#018R1250. The bike was sized for a tall rider and was equipped with disc brakes. More photos of the stolen bike are on IF's blog coverage of the 2013 NAHBS.

BRAIN's managing editor, Toby Hill, contributed reporting from San Clemente for this story.

This IF Gravel Royale is one of the missing review bikes.
Topics associated with this article: Media/Publishing

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