The curious case of the handlebar bag scam
When Route Werks launched its debut product in October 2020, there was plenty of reason for optimism. Cycling was booming. Handlebar bags were popping up on bikes of all flavours. In the pandemic, there was opportunity.
The small Rhode Island team had spent a couple of years developing a handlebar bag – a clever design that overcame most of the compromises of other brands – and unveiled it on Kickstarter.
Within just six hours, it had hit its funding goal. By the end of the crowdfunding campaign, 1,850 people had pledged a total of roughly US$315,000.
In the spectrum of big Kickstarter splashes, it wasn’t quite a SpeedX or a Babymaker or a Knog Oi, but nonetheless, for a tiny company and a debut product, it was a stunning performance. Route Werks had clearly tapped into something.
Then things got weird.
Out of nowhere, “we started getting direct messages, text messages, emails, comments on Facebook, on Kickstarter … people saying, ‘hey, I’m finding this. This looks fishy. Do you know about it?’” Justin Sirotin, one of the founders of Route Werks, tells me.
Across the internet, a number of sites that were not affiliated with the company were apparently selling Route Werks handlebar bags – before the company itself had even begun its production run.
The scam goes like this. A malevolent third party steals the assets from the Route Werks Kickstarter page and website, creates a dummy page masquerading as the genuine deal, and tricks people into buying a bar bag – usually at a dramatically reduced price. This all happens without the customers’ knowledge that they aren’t actually supporting a small design firm behind the product they think they’re buying.
Bizarrely, the buyer doesn’t leave 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 isn’t out of benevolence: it fulfils their 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, the Route Werks scam was common enough that multiple people fell into the trap from a number of sites using the same methodology. (CyclingTips contacted PayPal for comment on whether this type of scam is something it regularly encounters and the likelihood of consumers receiving their money back. At time of publication, we have received no response.)
According to Sirotin, those at Route Werks had no idea they were a pawn in a bar-bag catfishing scheme until someone in the Kickstarter community alerted them to the fact.
“We weren’t even aware of [it] until there were maybe three or four of the [fraud sites] already online. We’re not out there searching for our own goods,” Sirotin tells me from Rhode Island one night. “You get tunnel vision … Step one, build a great product. Step two, make sure you’ve communicated that product to as many people as possible. Step three, don’t screw it up.
“You’re never looking over there, watching out for something like this. Never in a million years.”
Over the last four months, it’s been what Sirotin describes as a game of “whack-a-mole” as Route Werks tries to squash the scam, while simultaneously working to bring its legitimate product to life. “The challenge for us is there’s really no legal process to take them down; there’s almost nothing we can do,” Sirotin explains. “We can flag the ad on Facebook, but they’re not technically violating any Facebook rules – there’s nothing in Facebook that says you can’t advertise something that’s not yours.
“So you put in what’s called a DMCA form – which is a form basically saying that you’re violating our intellectual property rights and our copyright. We put that out, and we send them emails. And that takes about a week to get them to turn off that particular iteration of the site.
“And then a new one pops up.” Sirotin scratches his chin thoughtfully, a little wearily.
“Our lawyer says ‘you’re just going to play whack-a-mole forever,’” Sirotin adds. “You just have to keep trying to take them down until they get tired of you and move on to somebody else. It’s been three, four months that we’ve been at this.”
An unknown number of buyers have paid anywhere from US$19 to US$49 for what they thought was going to be a Route Werks handlebar bag – MSRP US$179 – and received something very different.
From Sydney to LA, white plastic satchels have landed in letterboxes, and been eagerly unpacked. The contents tumble out. It’s usually the same cheap bag, or something like it, with few of the features of the real deal. Predictably, reactions have ranged from bemusement to outright anger.
Route Werks then find themselves receiving negative feedback from dissatisfied customers for a product they never sold, through an illegitimate sales channel that was there one day and gone the next.
As frustrating as the whole situation may be, Sirotin can see a silver lining (if he squints).
If Route Werks’ Kickstarter campaign hadn’t been so successful, the company wouldn’t have been targeted. If the company’s bar-bag wasn’t as compelling, it wouldn’t have found thousands of legitimate buyers, let alone an unknown number of fake ones. There wouldn’t be a financial rationalisation for the scammer to create the scam.
“Our bag is compelling enough for whoever it is behind this that they’re able to make money pretending to sell our bag,” Sirotin says. “The only reason you would continue to spend the money on [Facebook] ads is if you’re getting a return on investment, and on postage, and on the bar bag – the cost of goods on that alone is probably seven or eight dollars. We think it’s the same guy each time, because it’s almost always the same bag.
“So they’ve got to make enough to buy the bag, ship the bag, clear the ads, and pay the overheads, and they’re still at it. Somebody’s still making money.”
That leaves Route Werks in a tricky spot. Is the scam actually providing a boost in brand-awareness, or is it causing untold brand damage? How do you fight something that you’ve never anticipated, from a faceless enemy without a name or address, operating from behind a computer screen, through a VPN?
There’s the financial and business ramifications for the brand, but there’s the emotional toll of the whole ordeal, too. “The trust that you have in the world gets compromised really quickly when somebody with no identity steals all your stuff,” Sirotin reflects. “I don’t even know where to start.”
Sirotin has spent 25 years as an industrial designer, and he says that his company has invested 4,600 hours in the development of the handlebar bag that is its first cycling offering. The day that we talk, the first box of consumer bags has landed on his doorstep – a moment that we discuss as the satisfying culmination of a very long journey. He’s proud of the bag, and he’s ready to take the fight to the established brands in the category.
He also understands the rules of this particular game. Route Werks, he says, needs “to bring more clever ideas to this category faster than someone else can knock them off … If we can do that, well, we’ll be around for a very long time. And if we can’t, somebody else will still exist,” he muses, philosophically.
“To me, that feels OK. I’m up for that challenge. That’s a reasonable rule set to enter into. But the scam sites to me are cheating. They didn’t do any work. They just grabbed our images and our video and our stuff, and they pretended to sell it,” Sirotin says. “And then they gave people something else, that they bought off the shelf from the OEM market in China. That’s a much harder thing for me to get my head around how you compete against.”
There’s no neatly satisfying conclusion to the Route Werks scam saga, because it’s still going on, and there’s no sign of it abating.
But there is one thing to look forward to. After months of work and years of development set against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the genuine Route Werks handlebar bags are finally starting to make their way into the world. Sirotin and his team wait for the first reviews, some good news, and some external validation for all of their hard work.
Until then, they’ve got little choice but to keep playing whack-a-mole.
James Huang has a sample in hand – keep an eye out for a review on CyclingTips.