Online scams are nothing new. These days, as schemes get more and more elaborate, it seems that anyone can fall victim, and photographers are no exception.
In recent weeks, several of our members received emails containing what looked like an interesting assignment. The sender, purportedly an editor named “Jack Moss” from anothermag.com, found the photographers on Wonderful Machine and asked them to produce a fashion shoot. But some details did not quite add up and, one after the other, the photographers started forwarding these emails to us.
We are sharing all the details here to help photographers stay alert and protect themselves against similar scams in the future. This is what the inital email sent to the photographers looked like, provided by Francis Hills:
The scam email sent to Francis Hills. The scammer sent this email to at least four WM member photographers.
“I’m Jack, a beauty, fashion and lifestyle writer and editor at anothermag.com, a subsidiary of Dazed media and Dazed digital,” read the initial email. “I saw your profile on wonderfulmachine.com which led me to some of your work online and after going through your portfolio, I would like to learn more about your services.”
Jack, not exactly the world’s foremost expert on comma usage, was inviting his prospects to “concept, shoot, and produce 36 images, featuring 3 models.” The scammer also mentioned that “you will be required to work with a company recommended hair/makeup artist and a wardrobe stylist, and bring a smart, fun approach and distinct style.” Here’s part of the PDF he sent to the photographers:
Part of the fake job description PDF sent by the scammer to photographers.
The scammer offered $3,500 in photographer compensation — $1,500 upfront and $2,000 after the shoot — while earmarking $9,500 for the total shoot budget (to include talent fees). The client would supply the wardrobe. Additionally, the photographer would hold the full image rights and said images would be posted as editorial content on AnOther Mag’s website for a year.
Seems legit, right? Well, as we started reading carefully, several red flags appeared:
- The email came from a Gmail address. If it were a real assignment, it would likely come from a Dazed or AnOther Mag email address.
- The real Jack Moss is not only a Digital Features Editor for AnOther Magazine, he holds the same role for Another Man Magazine. The email signature for the fake Jack Moss did not mention this.
- The project description, which was attached to the email, was not on Dazed or AnOther Mag letterhead. In fact, the PDF itself is quite plain, which usually isn’t the case when a real client comes calling.
- There were several typos and syntax errors in both the email and the project description. A fair number of scammers are not from the U.S. and therefore struggle with English. Adam Lerner, one of the targeted photographers, mentioned that things felt “off” the whole time. To cover his bases, he set up a chat with the client to discuss the assignment and received a call out of East Hampton, New York from the number 631-731-6280.
- During the talk, Adam noted, “he had answers to all my questions despite being completely flat in his demeanor. No enthusiasm. And a very thick accent that sounded West African. I didn’t really get too bothered by that because people in fashion tend to be from everywhere, but I also wasn’t completely re-assured to the legitimacy of this shoot after the call.” So, while the accent and grammatical errors might not be enough on their own to prove things aren’t up to snuff, they can add up to a scam if combined with other red flags, like the ones discussed here.
In the 12 years Wonderful Machine has been in business, this is the 4th or 5th time this has happened. After doing some research, we learned that fake assignments are some of the most common scams used against creatives. In this case — as with most others — our members were cautious and did not choose to accept the offer. What would happen if they took the gig?
If accounts of previous such scams can serve as an indication, the photographer would most likely receive a check from the “client.” This check would include the payment for their fee, as well as for the talent. The sender would then ask the photographer to deposit the check into their account and promptly send a payment to the talent agency (or another service needed to prepare for the shoot). If the photographer followed these directions, their bank would initially accept the original check, after which the photographer would dutifully send their check to the talent agency. So far, so good.
Except the agency would not be legitimate — it would be associated with the scammer. In the meantime, the photographer’s bank would discover the cashier check was also fake and it would bounce. By that time, the money has already been sent, and the editor is nowhere in sight. Goodbye fee! Goodbye contract! Goodbye gig! Here’s what that check would look like, via Jon Morgan:
As you can see, the scammer sent Jon $7,500 to cover his upfront fee ($1,500) and the talent compensation ($6,000). The final $2,000 would be given to Jon after the work was done, bringing the total to the $9,500 mentioned in the brief.
How to protect yourself
It’s only natural for freelance photographers who are trying to market their business to share information about themselves and their work with as many people as possible. This, of course, includes strangers.
The internet provides countless legitimate business opportunities, but it’s important to be aware of the risks. Here are some precautions that can help photographers protect themselves against scams:
- When considering assignments from people with whom you have never worked before, ask a lot of questions. Where is the shoot taking place? When? Who else is working on it? If you do not receive sufficient information, it should raise a flag. And if you do? Verify that information using Google and LinkedIn.
- Be skeptical of the example images used in mood boads. Akilah Townsend, another photographer who got an email from “Jack,” figured out it was a scam in part because “the images he used weren’t tasteful, in my opinion. They didn’t look like what AnOther Mag would produce.” While subpar imagery might not be strong enough evidence on its own, it definitely counts as a red flag. Akilah continued to follow up, noting the gmail address was weird and doing some research online to get to the bottom of things.
- She said the final nail in the coffin was when the scammer “signed an email with a different editor’s name” — Akilah googled that name and found out that person, Ethan D’spain, was at a different magazine. “My agent asked who the other person was and [“Jack”] claimed it was his friend helping with the project,” Akilah said. “Too many fishy things.” Here’s that second email the scammer sent to Akilah and her agent, Candace. Note the misspelling of “D’spain:”
A follow up email sent to Akilah by the scammer, who mistakenly signed off with a different name than he originally used.
- If the potential scammer is using the name of a real creative, email that person to confirm it’s not them. For example, Francis Hills reached out to the actual Jack Moss, who quickly replied by saying he did not send the initial email.
- Read everything carefully, paying attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation.
- If something looks weird, paste fragments into Google and see whether anyone else has received a similar message. Scammers are too busy to write unique letters to each individual they are attempting to scam. Yes, they do copy and paste — especially if English is not their first language! So, check if anybody shared anything on a blog or some online forum. Are there any company reviews coming up?
- Call the phone numbers they provide and try to talk to people. If the phone number doesn’t seem right, call the main phone number for that company and ask for that person. If they do not answer, or insist on communicating via e-mail only, it definitely is a warning sign as well. You can also vet names and numbers by visiting Unknown Phoneor ICANN lookup.
- If you suspect you are a target, ignore the e-mail and do not engage the individual. Instead, report the case to the Federal Trade Commission by calling their hotline 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357) or filing an online complaint on their website. You can also visit the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Fraud Complaint Center.
Last but not least, share your story – write on your blog, post on social media, talk to other photographers. There is no better way to combat scammers than to publicize what they do and make other people aware of their tricks. The reason we were able to publish this piece is because of how proactive our members were in getting this scam on our radar.
To that end, thank you to Francis Hills, Adam Lerner, Jon Morgan, and Akilah Townsend for telling us about this scam and how they figured out it wasn’t a real shoot. While it’s always a letdown to realize a potential job is actually a scam, it sure beats having your bank account information fall into the wrong hands!
To learn more about photographer scams, read:
- PND’s Scam Alert: Phishing Scheme Targets Freelance Photographers and Update on a Photo Scam: Photographer Lucky to Get Money Back After Fake Fader Assignment
- Photoshelter’s 4 Scams that Target Photographers
- Petapixels’ Photographers, Beware These Fake Gig Scam Emails
- APhotoEditor’s Scam Alert: Fake Magazine Shoot (Departures, W, Others)
Think you’ve been a victim of a scam? Please contact Wonderful Machine by emailing us or calling us at 610 260 0200.
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