The unusual case of handlebar bag fraud
When Route Werks launched its debut product in October 2020, there was reason to be optimistic. Cycling was booming. Handlebar bags appeared on bikes of all flavors. There was an opportunity in the pandemic.
The small team from Rhode Island had spent a few years creating a handlebar bag – a clever design that had overcome most of the compromises made by other brands – and featured it on Kickstarter.
It had reached its funding goal in just six hours. By the end of the crowdfunding campaign, 1,850 people had committed a total of around 315,000 US dollars.
In the spectrum of the big Kickstarter splashes, it wasn't a SpeedX or Babymaker or Knog Oi, but for a small business and a debut product, it was a jaw-dropping feat nonetheless. Route Werks had clearly tapped something.
Then it got weird.
The Route factory bag has, among other things, attachment points for a computer, lights and a bell.
Out of nowhere "we got direct messages, text messages, emails, comments on Facebook, on Kickstarter … people who said," Hey, I think that. That looks lazy. Do you know about it? “Justin Sirotin, one of the founders of Route Werks, tells me.
On the Internet, it appeared that some websites that were not affiliated with the company were selling Route Werks handlebar bags – even before the company had even started production.
The scam goes like this. A malicious third party steals the assets from the Route Werks Kickstarter page and website, creates a dummy page masquerading as a real deal, and gets people to buy a bar bag – usually at a drastically reduced price. All of this happens without the customers knowing that they are not supporting a small design company behind the product they think they are buying.
Oddly enough, the buyer doesn't go empty-handed because the scammer then actually sends them a much cheaper and nastier alternative handlebar bag – complete with tracking details and proof of delivery.
This is not out of goodwill: it fulfills its contractual obligations and removes the ammunition for buyers to dispute the transaction with PayPal or their bank.
As a post on the PayPal community forums shows, Route Werks scams were so common that several people from a number of websites were trapped using the same method. (CyclingTips reached out to PayPal to see if this type of scam is a regular occurrence and the likelihood of consumers getting their money back. At the time of writing, we did not receive a response.)
One of them is not like the other.
According to Sirotin, Route Werks employees had no idea they were a farmer in a bar bag catfishing program until someone in the Kickstarter community pointed it out to them.
"We didn't realize it until maybe three or four of the (scam sites) were already online. We're not out there looking for our own goods," Sirotin told me one night from Rhode Island. "You get tunnel vision … step one : Build a great product. Make sure you've shared this product with as many people as possible in step 2. Step three, don't screw it up.
"You never look over there and pay attention to something like that. Never in a million years."
The real bag has a well thought-out internal organization …… while the scammers are sending something that is nowhere near as well thought out. (Picture: included)
For the past four months, Sirotin has been calling the game a "slap in the mouth" as Route Werks sought to quell the scam while working to bring its legitimate product to life. "The challenge for us is that there really is no legal process to get rid of it. There is almost nothing we can do," explains Sirotin. "We can flag the ad on Facebook, but technically it doesn't violate Facebook rules. There's nothing on Facebook that says you can't promote something that's not yours. "
"So you put in what is called a DMCA form. This form basically says that you are violating our intellectual property rights and our copyright. We delete that and send you emails. And it takes about a week for you to get that specific one Disable iteration of the site.
"And then a new one shows up." Sirotin scratches his chin thoughtfully and a little tired.
"Our lawyer says, 'They'll just play hit after hit forever," adds Sirotin. "All you have to do is keep trying to knock them down until they get tired of you and move on to someone else. It's been three or four months, since we've been at it. "
An ongoing table of the various scam sites that have surfaced and been bruised.
An unknown number of buyers have paid between $ 19 and $ 49 for a Route Werks handlebar bag – MSRP $ 179 – and received something entirely different.
From Sydney to LA, white plastic bags have landed in mailboxes and been eagerly unpacked. The content falls out. It's usually the same cheap bag or something like that, with few real deal features. Predictably, responses ranged from confusion to outright anger.
Route Werks then receives negative feedback from dissatisfied customers for a product they never sold through an illegitimate sales channel that was there one day and was gone the next.
Image: delivered.Image: delivered.
As frustrating as the whole situation may be, Sirotin can see a silver lining (when it blinks).
If Route Werks' Kickstarter campaign hadn't been so successful, the company would not have been targeted. If the company's bar-bag hadn't been so compelling, it wouldn't have found thousands of legitimate buyers, let alone an unknown number of fake buyers. There would be no financial rationalization for the scammer to create the scam.
"Our bag is convincing enough for anyone who is behind it that they can make money by pretending to sell our bag," says Sirotin. “The only reason you would keep spending the money on (Facebook) ads is because you get a return on investment, postage and a cash bag – the cost of goods for that alone is likely to be seven or eight dollars. We think it's the same guy every time because it's almost always the same bag.
"So they have to make enough to buy the bag, ship the bag, delete the ads, and pay the overheads, and they're still at it. Someone is still making money."
The “Smart multifunction handlebar bag” is no longer listed in this AliExpress store.… But another web store is still selling it for only $ 19.99. But what you get, or whether you get anything at all, is completely unknown.
That leaves Route Werks in a difficult place. Is the fraud actually increasing brand awareness or causing immeasurable brand damage? How do you fight something you never expected from a faceless enemy with no name or address who operates behind a computer screen over a VPN?
There's the financial and business implications for the brand, but there's also the emotional toll of the whole ordeal. "The trust you have in the world can be damaged very quickly if someone without an identity steals all of your belongings," says Sirotin. "I don't even know where to start."
Sirotin, who spent 25 years as an industrial designer, says his company invested 4,600 hours developing the handlebar bag, which is the first ever bicycle offering. The day we chat, the first box of consumer bags landed on his doorstep – a moment we discuss as the satisfying climax of a very long journey. He's proud of the bag and ready to take on the established brands in this category.
The Route Werks team sweat the details on their handlebar bag and solved many of the problems that existed elsewhere.
He also understands the rules of this particular game. Route Werks, he says, "needs to get smarter ideas into this category faster than anyone else can shake them off … If we can do that, we'll be around for a very long time." And if we can't, there will be someone else, ”he muses philosophically.
“It feels fine to me. I am ready for this challenge. This is a reasonable set of rules. But the scam sites cheat for me. You didn't do any work. They just packed our pictures, our video and our things and pretended to sell it, ”says Sirotin. “And then they gave people something else that they bought off the shelf from the OEM market in China. It's a lot harder for me to get involved in how you compete against each other. "
There's no truely satisfying conclusion to Route Werks' scam saga as it is still ongoing and there are no signs of its waning.
But there is one thing to look forward to. After months of work and years of development against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the real Route Werks handlebar bags are finally beginning to find their way into the world. Sirotin and his team are waiting for the first reviews, some good news, and outside approval for all of their hard work.
Until then, they have no choice but to keep playing hit after hit.
The Route Werks handlebar bag is currently closed due to pre-orders. However, to be notified when they're back in stock, log into RouteWerks.us.
James Huang has a sample in hand – keep an eye out for a CyclingTips review.