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My US clients often ask for a W8 or W8BEN to be filled out so that they don't have to withhold tax when they pay my invoices. I'm familiar with that process. Today I received a letter from an organization that claims to have money for me and wants a W9 from US citizens, W8 from non-US-citizens, and includes a W8BEN for me to fill out.

I've done a little due diligence on this company and they seem to be real, but I don't quite understand what the situation would be if they were not real. Armed with this form, what could someone do? If there isn't much downside I need less certainty about how real they are than if there is a significant risk.

Screenshot of form details

(For those who don't see how a random stranger offering to send you money could ever be legit, they say it is photocopying fees related to material on which I hold copyright. I own a large amount of instructional material that could very well be copied outside the USA, so the assertions in the letter are believable. Web pages exist (I know they could be fake) in which other people say they got cheques from these people. Not saying this makes them real, just saying don't immediately dismiss it as ridiculous.)

  • If they don't tell you exactly why they have money for you, I'd say you should certainly be suspicious. Not knowing those forms, I have no opinion beyond that.... but this may just be the opening salvo, to be followed with "we're having trouble submitting this and need your ssn to clear that up..." – keshlam Sep 30 '15 at 15:20
  • They do tell me, as I said in the question: "they say it is photocopying fees related to material on which I hold copyright" But anyway my point is not to ask for help related to evaluating them. It is to ask for help establishing what level I need to evaluating them against. If a filled-out W8 is benign and can't hurt me, I don't need as much investigation as I would if it's a total identity theft kit. – Kate Gregory Sep 30 '15 at 15:24
  • They want name, address, ssn, date of birth... that's enough info to be concerned about. Definitely check the organization, and contact them via independently obtained means to confirm this isn't someone pretending to be them. The fcc.gov site (and sister sites) have advice about which info to be careful with and recent known fraud patterns. – keshlam Sep 30 '15 at 15:29
  • Why does their site need to have endorsements from others saying they received money? Would you expect that from any legitimate group? – keshlam Sep 30 '15 at 15:30
  • not their site, @keshlam, I did a search on them. I have not touched their site since I don't expect to find anything objective there. Also the W8BEN does not ask for date of birth, it's for a company. The name and address of my company is already public information. – Kate Gregory Sep 30 '15 at 15:32
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Kate - you should get a EIN. It will give you a layer of anonymity. If you are getting the occasional check like this, it's a way to have a number that function like an SS number, but would not be used for credit, and far tougher to use for fraud.

By coincidence, I glanced at my twitter feed and a fellow blogger posted How (and Why) to Apply for an EIN Number which goes into a bit more detail.

  • Let's say I already have (or go and get) an EIN. At that point, if I fill out the form using company information and the EIN, am I taking a risk of any kind? – Kate Gregory Sep 30 '15 at 19:55
  • I'd hesitate to ever say never, but EIN seems to provide some security, if only for how it's used. It's freely given to anyone needing to pay you money as a 1099 income earner. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Sep 30 '15 at 23:57

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