Nobody is safe from the scammer. Once upon a time a con artist was a smooth talker who played on trusting older ladies. He or she hung out at casinos, gas stations, bus stations. They had a story to tell and needed your help. And they were in your face, looking pitiful and in need of help.
Then along came the internet and the life of the con artist became a whole lot easier. Now the sky is the limit. They can send e-mails out all over and reach thousands of potential marks in one day.
I consider myself pretty savvy at spotting them. I delete e-mails every day from people claiming to represent some millionaire in a foreign country who wants to send me lots of money. A few years ago I took up selling Avon for the fun of it and it wasn't long before I got an e-mail from someone wanting to buy large quantities of products from me and give me a check for the total. The catch was they were in the UK and needed me to send them to an address in California where they would pick them up in the future. I didn't fall for it.
Avon reps aren't safe from con artists. And now it seems photographers aren't safe from con artists either.
I'm going to share with you the exact e-mail exchange I got from a potential con artist in the hopes that others won't fall for this. I didn't pursue this "client" after a Google search turned up the exact same story played on another photographer.
The first e-mail was simple enough:
"Hi, I'm Melissa Brown . Joe & I will be getting married in less than 2
months . We're asking for a package list which includes 6-8 hours of
shooting time amongst a few other items . Package to exclude the
Wedding engagement/ bridal sessions. Please let us know if you will be
available for Saturday, September 15th, 2012 . And get back with your
package pricing information.
It sounds just like any other inquiry I get almost every day. A bride looking to book a photographer for a wedding. So I responded with my usual prompt reply pointing her to my packages and offering to meet with her over coffee to discuss photography.
Then I get this reply and my spidey senses started to tingle:
I trust you are currently having a great weekend over there. .
> However, the Seriously In Love Package with an unlimited wedding day
> coverage for- $2,900 works fine with us at this time. I was just going
> to be sure you got this right. Ps: Wedding is September 15, 2012...And
> in New York, NY. You see, you probably wont understand how hard it is
> finding some one locally for the shooting of our wedding . They are
> either booked up or not good enough so we decided to check online a
> few websites including ppa, photolinks, etc. So we definitely hate for
> this to be a waste of time.
> I will let you know an exact address in the coming week(s) . I will
> let you know asap when something has been booked. So the tentative
> Wedding address is" The Central Park Boathouse. East 72nd St. New
> York, NY 10021. We are expecting about 100-150 guests over . Both in
> and outdoor shooting . Meaning we simply want an event coverage of our
> preparation, ceremony, and reception.
> It has been hard finding the perfect photographer for the shooting.
> But following your response to my introductory email . I'm optimistic
> about this arrangement working. We are currently in Manchester, UK for
> an important visit ahead of my seminar. So I hope to work out an
> arrangement ahead of my arrival back to the states.
> You see, I am physically impaired (Hearing). So e-mail works fine
> for now . We can work out all of the details ( via email) .A quick
> question though, Will you be emailing us something like a standard
> contract ( to be signed online ) knowing for sure you will be
> available for the 15th?Get back to me soon.
Several things about this letter had me highly suspicious. First, note the really bad English. It's worded like someone doesn't have such a firm grasp of the English language. That's not such a bad thing, really and that by itself wouldn't indicate anything fishy. I've worked with multi-cultural couples in the past and they never gave me this fishy feeling.
Second, the bride conveniently can't talk to me over the phone. She's hearing impaired, or so she says. I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of traveling across the country to a wedding without ever having at least talked to the bride over the phone.
Third, they don't have a venue booked for sure. My first step at confirming if a wedding was to actually take place by these people would be to call the venue for verification but, oops, the venue is not booked yet. Something tells me they would withhold that piece of information off as long as possible.
Fourth, they mention that all the good New York photographers are all booked. I find that a bit hard to believe. New York is the heart of photography. There are so many wonderful photographers in that city that you couldn't throw a flash card without hitting one. Surely, there's someone local who can fill that need.
And finally, the last hint that something was off was the mention that they are not in the country at this time. They are setting it up for a foreign transaction to take place. My assumption is that they are hoping to pay with a foreign check written over the amount of my charges and then ask me to forward the change to them or to another party.
So at this time a part of me is thinking -- cool, a wedding in New York would be lovely. And the other part of me is thinking -- walk away it's a trick.
So I reply once again, just to make sure I'm not turning away a potentially wonderful wedding. I give them my travel fees, ask for information on the hotel they will be staying with and asking which method of payment they would be using. in the meantime I do a quick Google search for "deaf Melissa Brown" and "hearing impaired Melissa Brown" and come up with a few hits for a writer who does book reviews and tends to review books on the topic of hearing impairment. And I'm thinking, if this is her, why is a writer having such a hard time writing the English language. I know that not every person is going to have hits on Google. And if I were to enter just "Melissa Brown" into the search engine I would get many hits because it's such a common name. The con artist is banking on that common name. So I quickly hear back from my sweet con artist.
Here is their response:
Thank you for your email. Yes, we'll send out the money for your
travels along with the deposit check. Everything sounds good to me. I
believe we are not too far as it is such a fast approaching wedding.
We are currently looking at having something like a phone consultation
at the time of our arrival back to the states to be accomplished
through a friend, family member, maid of honor, etc. This is because
of my disability problems. I hope this is all Ok with you?
I trust the amount you're requesting for your services is in total
$2,900.00. That works fine with us as long as you're able to do a
neat, creative and a perfect job for us. We're going to be needing
this solely for the memory of our children and families. Please reply
back with the requested information below . I'm going to have to make
an arrangement for at least 50% of your total payment up front ( by
check ). And the remaining funds due on the wedding day which ever
works best for you . Just let us know ...
We're hoping to find someone that has experience with different
nationalities ( skin colors) as we're having about 150 guests coming
over for the ceremony...I hope you know where am coming from? Please
get back to me with your -;
* Full names to appear on the check payment ;
* Mailing address ;
* Phone number ;
At this point in the exchange I hang up. Or rather stop responding. The English is getting more and more broken and unnatural, they are not answering my questions, and they seem eager to throw money at me without any further photography related discussions.
I do another Google search for "photography scams" and instantly find a forum where photographers are discussing this exact same scam. Sometimes the details are changed. The wedding is to take place in Cancun/California/New York and the bride is currently in the UK or some other foreign country but will be returning for the wedding.
Photographers who have gone through with the scam have received a foreign check for over the amount due to them. Then the "bride" requests that they send the change to the caterer/the DJ/the videographer/etc at a given address. The photographer's bank clears the check temporarily and gives the photographer the face amount. The photographer then sends a money order to the address requested. Seven to 10 days later, the bank returns the check and debits the photographers account for the amount of the check plus fees. Uh-oh, now the photographer is out those fees, plus the amount they just sent on to the "caterer/DJ/videographer" who is actually the con artist himself.
No thank you Ms. Brown, or whoever you are. At this point in time I am no longer available for your wedding in New York. Nice try.
Lisa On Location Photography