Preliminary note: this is an ongoing story, so I'll probably update and correct this post when I get more information.
Update (2015/02/24): Following Philips' letter that Software Enterprise allegedly received, Zambilight has been renamed Zambi. I probably won't change the name everywhere, but you get the idea.
With more and more updates going on, maintaining an index of all updates sounds like a good idea.
Today's post won't be about coding, but just a story of a scam that managed to raise more than $150,000 on Indiegogo.
That project's name is Zambilight. The premise is quite interesting: a complete kit that uses stickable LEDs controlled by a Raspberry Pi to add to your TV Ambilight-like back-lighting. The idea is not new, has been subject of multiple tutorials, forum threads, videos on Youtube, etc. Zambilight is not even the first one to offer a complete, easy to assemble kit.
The difference is that they're an Indiegogo project, have been featured on Indiegogo's newsletter, and have an attractive price. Actually, the price offered to early-bird backers is lower than it would cost one person to buy each parts separately. At that time, I thought that maybe with bulk prices, plus a rebate to incent first people to back their project, it would be possible to reach such prices. For the record, "Super Early Birds" were offered the kit for a mere $49 while it was announced that the product would be sold $100 after the campaign.
I jumped in, backing for a "Duo Zambilight Kit" ($100), when the 100 super early bird kits were already sold out, on September 6th. I wasn't very careful, didn't do a full background check, as I thought that Indiegogo + featured in official newsletter + Paypal + 100s of backers were good enough signs.
Quickly after backing, I starter to have my doubts and to ask questions.
Someone on Reddit claimed [his] LED backlight TV blog post [was] being ripped off by a guy on Indiegogo, which was true: the Indiegogo project page was using his pictures without his consent, and Software Enterprise (the name used on Indiegogo by Zambilight's "creator", should have been another clue) was quickly asked to remove them and replace them with his own pictures and videos, which he did.
Software Enterprise did other scam attempts before this one:
- Make your iPhone or iPad app for 25 dollar, which is a blatant rip-off of an online course on Udemy: iOS 8 and Swift - How to Make a "Freaking" iPhone App (compare the paragraphs "An app that..." and "What makes you a good teacher?" on both pages).
Your own personalised Minifig USB Keychain, which description is shamelessly copying parts of existing similar services' description (use Google). For example, the UK company MinifigsMe. The Youtube account that posted the Minifig USB keychain video is also named "Minifig Me", and also posted videos about Zambilight.
Update (2015/02/23): Caroline, from MinifigsMe, friendly replied to my email and confirmed that MinifigsMe is neither related to Software Enterprise nor Zambilight, and that their copy has been used on the Indiegogo Minifig USB Keychain campaign without their permission. Their official Youtube account is called Minifigs Me.
A third one which was basically shut down by Indiegogo, as it was trying to sell an existing product that anyone can buy on the Internet: iPhone Projector and battery case in one. Here is an article talking about it, and the product sold on Amazon. This one is the proof that Indiegogo was aware of Softare Enterprise's doings, but didn't care enough to take the backers' questions about Zambilight more seriously.
The deeper I got digging, asking questions, the shadier their technical descriptions of the product, and solutions to apparent problems got. I'll take for example the way they were claiming it should work with a TV's internal tuner. It took me about 10 days to get them admit that it was based on the TV having a SCART Video output, which is really not a granted thing, especially outside of Europe.
When I got too annoying, they offered me, and a few other questioning people, to become beta-testers, promising us we'd get a kit before anyone else, test it, and provide feedback. No need to say now that we've never seen those beta kits either. One backer (apparently German), Contributor GB, is claiming they got their own beta unit, but always failed to provide any picture or video, which makes me believe they're part of the scam. When Software Enterprise announced shipping would start, we even got the promise that our "beta kit" would ship with our normal perks. What a joke!
When I started to dig and question their organization, timeline, how they were planning to send dozens of units whereas they hadn't even ordered the different components from their suppliers, what was the state of the custom case that would hold the Raspberry Pi, I never got any convincing answer.
I could go on and on about the updates becoming more and more flimsy, spaced in time, and always promising more pictures "next week", "next Friday", etc.
No need to say, I didn't have much trust left in Software Enterprise, but I still had a little hope that they were just a couple of unexperienced people doing this in their garage after day work, and that although their communication was reall bad, something would come out of this. At that point, I would even accept to receive the base components, no documentation, no software, and do the rest myself.
Then they announced, around mid-December, that units would start shipping soon, a bit late, but not that bad, honestly, so we got to another round of waiting.
We were announced that the first batch had shipped at the end of January, but days after, Software Enterprise failed to give us any list of people they shipped their kit to, and more than a week after that, nobody was able to tell us they received their unit, and provide us pictures. Nobody but one. A backer named Dennis Bakker on Indiegogo's website affirmed he received and installed his Zambilight kit, on February 5th. Hope was somehow reborn! But once more, this person failed providing any picture of his kit, which makes him one more person I'm suspecting to be part of the scam (or maybe one more fake account created by Software Enterprise).
17 days ago
to randy Alexander
Received my ambilight system this afternoon.
I almost lost my confidence in crowdfunding because i’m waiting for ages on my Trackr bravo, i was happy to receive the ambilight system. I will install it tomorrow and leave some reactions.
Sorry for my bad english
Then Software Enterprise announced that by February 13th, all September backers would get their units shipped, and even added later that they would post pictures of the shipped units (that was their last message on Indiegogo's comment page). One backer who paid for the "reseller kit" (10 units) even got a parcel tracking number! He was the only one because, you know, tracking option is expensive... l4v4l4amp3 (that's his pseudonym on Indiegogo) kept us informed about the evolution he could see on the tracking page, and had the surprise not to find any package home after it was stated "delivered" by the shipping company... Luckily for us, l4v4l4mp3 didn't give up that easily and started investigating, asking questions to the post office, and around, in order to find the lost package. What a surprise when he finally got hold of it, and found inside... a pack of Pampers diapers!
Here's one theory that's running between backers: l4v4l4mp3 should never have found that package, which would then have been returned to sender. And we would still be waiting...
Now we're done believing (took us some time, right?!), and backers are starting to back off, asking for a refund, either directly, or via Paypal, or their credit card company. So far, it seems to go well, Paypal seems to be settling claims by refunding backers (I didn't get mine yet, but I'll update as soon as I do). When I opened my refund request on Paypal, it even claimed that the seller was not "able to communicate at the moment", and that my request immediately escalated into a claim, that Paypal will look into. I think they blocked his account and are now taking things into hand.
Vous avez signalé un litige plus de (note from the author: the number of days was actually missing in the email) après la date limite d'ouverture, de sorte qu'il a été automatiquement clos. Bien que le litige soit clos, nous vous encourageons à communiquer avec le vendeur pour résoudre le problème.
Si ce délai est dépassé, vous pouvez contacter la Direction Générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes (DGCCRF).
Which loosely translates:
You have filed a claim more than (note from the author: the number of days was actually missing in the email) after the limit date. In consequence, your claim was automatically closed. However, we strongly invite you to try to come to an agreement with the seller.
You can also contact the DGCCRF (French General Directorate for competition policy, consumer affairs and fraud control).
I'll try to get a refund directly from Software Enterprise, but I don't have much hope...
Update (2015/02/26): I got my money back! It came from a different Paypal account than the one I paid to, but it does not show as a commercial transaction. The only clue I can see is that no fee was cut from the received amount. (Payments for purchase usually take out a fee from the recipient.)
I contacted Paypal to confirm this, I'll probably know better within 48 hours.
Some people even go directly to Software Enterprise to ask for a refund, and it seems he's refunding them quite quickly. That might be a ruse to keep other people believing that the project is legit, and that they will get something some day.
Update (2015/02/25): SE is apparently issuing a refund to any person who asks. I'm yet to get my money back, but form what I've read, backers (those who paid using Paypal, as well as those who used a credit card) who ask for a refund get their money back in a few days. This seems to be good news, but I'd like to remind everybody to stay careful. The refunds are apparently sent from a different Paypal account than the one we paid to in the first place, because it is allegedly blocked.
By sending us money that way, instead of issuing an "official" refund of the original transaction, it feels like there's still a door open for SE to open a claim on this payment he made, and to ask a refund on a fallacious reason. Especially if he sent money as a "purchase", then he is eligible for "Paypal Purchase Protection" for 180 days, during which he can claim his money back, because he didn't received the purchased item. We all know there's no item involved, but seen from Paypal, it would look like a buyer (him) who can't give any proof of the item he bought, versus a seller (the refunded backer), who cannot prove the item was properly delivered (obviously). Knowing that Paypal usually protects the buyer first, I would not bet on the backer keeping his refund money.
In the same way I would not accept a refund by check on the condition that I wait 6 months to cash it, I will not accept a Paypal payment that looks like a commercial transaction, and I recommend everybody out there to do the same (I will not force anybody, it's up to you, but I think I made my point).
Note that people who are still under Paypal Purchase Protection have their claim examined by Paypal, and normally get their money back the proper way.
Now the last news we got from Software Enterprise does not come directly from him. Apparently, some backers are still in contact with him by email, and he is saying they received a letter from Philips, asking them not to use the name "Zambilight", because of similarities, in both the product's purpose, and its name, with Philips' trademarked Ambilight. The information was apparently also relayed by a Dutch website, claiming they have Philips' letter in their possession (but not releasing it publicly).
This is not really a surprise here, it's even a concern I had back in October, and asked about:
You say “create a name”, but aren’t you afraid of lawsuits with a name such as Zambilight? Philips’ “Ambilight” is a trademark, and it seems highly unlikely they wouldn’t react to a product named Zambilight. (Although, I’m talking out of my ass, because I know nothing about trademark laws. :D )
And their answer at that time was:
Before choosing the name we have contacted The Benelux Office for Intellectual Property (BOIP) is the official office for the registration of trademarks.
I personally believe that telling us they're having problems with Philips now is just a way to keep backers on the fence, waiting longer, and get more of them past Paypal's time limit for opening a claim.
The certificates seem legit:
- Ambilight on the United States Patent and Trademark Office's website
- Ambilight on the Word Intellectual Property Organization's website
It still does not explain why Software Enterprise is not using Indiegogo's update system to inform all his backers, neither why he told us all September backers' units were shipped, and the only package that was delivered contained a pack of Pampers...
Maybe Philips' letter is real, but maybe they're just reacting to scam allegations and are trying to protect their brand from the bad publicity Zambilight could do.
I also would like to understand why Philips' letter is redacted. It's important for backers to know when it was received, at the very least. If it's all real, and Philips gave them 10 days to change their name, then I guess it can't be very old...
Update (2015/02/25): The Indiegogo campaign is still running, and collecting funds (three payments happened in the last 48 hours). To see that, although SE claims they asked Indiegogo to interrupt the "InDemand" campaign (it's a campaign that succeeded and then never ends) is a proof of either one of two things:
- Either SE lied once more. (Well, why not?)
- Or Indiegogo is really not willing to put an end to that farce, and will continue to milk it as long as possible...
So what's next? Well, a few backers took the things into hand, created a Facebook group: Zambilight News on Facebook, they are investigating based on the few hints we have. We have a good idea of Software Enterprise's real name, as it's provided by Paypal on payment (nothing says it's his real identity, but I believe Paypal's checks are quite thorough), we have addresses, company names that might help us bring the thing to the police (a few people apparently already did, in their respective countries). It's quite disturbing to see that the person we believe to be behind all this, posted on his Facebook account, back in August 2014, "Got a great idea for a next project. Moneymaker. :)" Sure it was, as it managed to raise more than $150k...
Update (2015/02/22): Software Enterprise's Facebook account is likely to be a fake, maybe a lure to send us on a wrong track, to a fake name. User l4v4l4mp3 contacted me to explain that the posts regarding Zambilight had been created only a few days ago, then their dates were changed (see the little clock icon next to publication date in the screenshot below?) to match the beginning of Zambilight's campaign. That might just be an attempt to orient us towards a fake name. Also, it is easy to find a Facebook's account unique numeric id, I checked the nearest ids, and only found accounts created around Feb. 18th 2015.
Update (2015/02/23): I wondered for a long time why Software Enterprise was not using Indiegogo's official way to provide updates to a project, and the reason suddenly appeared quite obvious to me: as long as he's only posting in the comment section, all people who forgot about Zambilight, or are not checking the comments page won't be worried and come to ask their money back, that's it!
Update (2015/02/25): Backers are continuing their investigation, and managed to uncover a few disturbing things. Using available information and tools creatively, a few backers are linking our Software Enterprise's identity to others we can find on the Internet. Conclusions are:
- SE owns more than one e-Commerce businesses:
- one of them sells baby supplies (including Pampers branded items)
- another one sells electronic, appliance, TV/Hifi goods.
- SE plays poker online, on multiple sites (which is fine by me, as long as it's not with our money).
- He owns multiple domains that all seem related to various kinds of business.
- He's been promoting his various Indiegogo campaings on forums, trying to get unrelated people to "share". Not a uncommon practice, but the way he did it does not seem very ethic.
- Most shocking of all: SE was sentenced in 2008 to 100h of community service for "abuse of trust", selling "goods from dubious Internet stores", then not delivering anything (rings a bell?). Note that I'm quoting a Belgian news website written in Dutch, that I put through Google Translate. He used multiple user names on auction websites, that match the company names gathered somewhere else.
Now obviously, people have been able to link all this using names, addresses, company names, domain names, email addresses... I know them myself, or have access to them, but will not share them publicly. If you wish to know more and have a good reason to, feel free to contact me. If you like investigating, you'll manage to find all this by yourself anyway, using the information I'm providing.
Many backers also contacted Indiegogo's support obviously, as we would like to get some help from the people who handled and endorsed it, but it looks like, once more, Indiegogo does not really care about their users security, but more about the small percentage they get from any money that's put into an Indiegogo project. At the moment, the Zambilight project is still up, and still collecting money, filling Software Enterprise and Indiegogo's pockets with money, every time a new backer gets fooled...
The lesson I'll take from all that is that Indiegogo is clearly not a safe platform for people willing to back interesting crowd-funding projects. And knowing that, I think that people who have interesting and real ideas should also avoid the platform, and grant their backers the safety they deserve, by using safer popular platforms, such as KickStarter.
If you want to know more about this, or have precise questions, feel free to contact me and I'll try to reply as precisely as I can. There's also a lot of personal information that I did not disclose publicly, like names, addresses, that I could give to the right people.
Feel free to use this article in any way you like (share it, pass it to the media, link to it...). All I'm asking is that you provide a link to the original article, here.