Avoiding Scams and Crooks
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people on the internet who will scam writers for money.
The best way to protect yourself is to be informed, and there are some great sites online that help with just that.
Writer's Beware is a group of conscientious writers who collect information about writing-related services and report on those that are disreputable or harmful to writers. One must-read is their Thumbs-Down Agent List.
The AbsoluteWrite Forum is also a good place to go for information. You can search for an agent to see if they've ever been reported for wrong-doing, or ask questions.
To avoid being scammed, the most important rule to remember is never pay a literary agent. Real agents don't directly charge for their services. Instead, they take a commission (usually 15%) of whatever you make. So they don't get paid, until you get paid. No matter how much the "literary agent" tells you that it will be money well spent because he will make you famous and wealthy beyond your dreams, don't believe him. If the agent says you'll get the money back right after publication, don't believe that either.
Another rule is that if the literary agent has to advertise (either online or in print) they are more than likely a scam. Real agents have so many submissions already they do not need to pay for advertising.
Some Typical Scams
Charging a "reading fee" - This is when the agent tells you they would like to read your manuscript, but will have to charge a "small" fee to cover their time reading it. Reputable agents do NOT charge reading fees.
Editing Services - Some of these scammer agents will tell you your book has a lot of promise and they would happily take you on as a client, but there are just a few little edits that should be made first. It just so happens that they have their own editing staff or can refer you to an editor. Of course, this service is not free. The scam is that they have no intention of selling your book, they are only after the editing fees.
Recently, some legitimate agents have started to offer editing services as well. Probably because it is getting harder and harder to make a buck just as an agent. Unfortunately, this is making it really difficult to spot the fakes. One thing the real agents are doing when they offer editing services is to openly state that editing clients can never become agenting clients, and agenting clients can never be charged for editing. This makes it clear that they are not offering fake editing just to make you think you have a chance at representation.
Impersonating known agents. - There have been cases of scammers using the names of known agents in the industry, contacting authors and pretending to be those agents. If an "agent" ever initiates contact with you online, you should be skeptical. If you've never queried an agent, yet that agent sends you an email and says they want to represent you because they saw you on Twitter, Facebook or some other website, it's probably a scam. The first thing you should check is there email address. Does it match the email address listed on their official agency website? It better. Is it an agency address (ending with the agency name) or is it a gmail address or other public email service? If it's not an official address, contact the agency and let them know.
One last precaution. It's not a scam, but you should be on the lookout for inexperienced agents. There are some agents who have no experience at agenting, but actually have the best of intentions. Unfortunately, it's easy for an inexperienced agent to make a mistake that ruins a book's chances of ever being published. So, always make sure an agent has a few real sales under her belt before you query her. New agents working for, and being guided by, established agents are an exception, because they'll be backed by a seasoned agent.
QueryTracker makes an effort to never list any agent that is a known scammer, or hasn't had enough qualifying sales to be considered experienced.