In the past week, a scam targeting Instagram influencers through a fake photography project made headlines, due to a con artist pretending to be businesswoman and movie producer Wendi Deng Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s former wife. In a dangerous and terrifying recount, the news went mainstream as a result of Shutterstock Custom contributor and travel photographer Carley Rudd of @carleyscamera sharing her story on a blog post and on a series of Instagram stories.
“The elaborateness of it all was mind-blowing. They went through the effort to create an extensive scope of work, and full itinerary and project brief, with really specific details. On top of this, the characters and stories that were created were mind-blowing.” – Carley Rudd
Behind the Scam
At Shutterstock and Shutterstock Custom, we take our relationships and contracts with our contributors seriously. We pride ourselves on providing contributors with the resources to help them succeed, while our team and platform supports their growth. However, we understand our marketplace includes photographers who, due to their freelance status, earn income from a variety of different projects around the world with clients not associated with us. Freelance photographers and Instagram influencers are being offered a multitude of projects online over email. Many of these emails come from people and clients whom they have never spoken to.
Shortly after Carley released her story, she discovered that she wasn’t the only one affected by the scam. Shutterstock Custom contributor and Vancouver-based photographer Nathaniel Atakora Martin (@nathanielatakora) was also targeted in this elaborate plot targeting photographers on Instagram.
Nathaniel Atakora Martin
“When someone who is supposedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars is emailing you, you’re kind of out of sorts in terms of how you’re supposed to be communicating with them. It’s intimidating, but you’re being flattered, and you have this opportunity in front of you that’s hard to pass up as a freelancer.” – Nathaniel Atakora Martin
Nathan’s experience being targeted for a job with this con artist was similar to Carley’s, and as a result, he ended up traveling to Jakarta, Indonesia with the intention of completing this project. Everything went smoothly when he arrived in Jakarta. His driver turned out to be the same person Carley met when she arrived in Jakarta. That comfortability quickly changed, however, due to a series of requests for more and more money from Nathan. The driver continually made requests for money to “pay off tips to photograph hard-to-reach places.” This finally reached a breaking point for Nathan.
“All I could think about was that I needed to get out of there. This guy knows I have photography equipment, he knows what room I’m staying in. Is the hotel in on this? I went full paranoia. I texted my family, and let them know what was happening. Then, I took a taxi to the airport, and left.” – Nathaniel Atakora Martin.
Nathan plans on sharing his entire experience on his own accord, so check out his page to keep up-to-date with Nathan on his travels.
Image from Indonesia by Nathan
Carley publicly shared her entire story on her blog, which you can read here. She was fortunate enough to have her partner by her side through these events in Jakarta, although they were encouraged to separate numerous times throughout her short stay. In an interview with Shutterstock, the well-traveled photographer states, “It all moved so fast. It was a matter of maybe 72 hours between the initial email and booking the flight. It was a series of highly intense phone calls, back and forth emails between what I thought was her assistant and Wendi herself.”
How to Flag Scams on Instagram and Fake Photo Projects
We asked Carley and Nathan to share a few tips on how photographers and freelancers can protect themselves from fake photography projects. Here are some key considerations to keep in mind before you accept a job.
Research the names of everyone on contracts and emails
Shutterstock Image by Rawpixel.com
Do your due diligence of researching and vetting everyone involved. That includes any lawyer or personnel listed on the contracts, the individuals you are emailing, and any and all participants listed within the email. Google them, check them out on social media, and verify that their story adds up. Find connections in common, and finally, ask for references. Pick up the phone and call the companies for verification.
Carley says: “The person that was claiming to be Wendi’s assistant, this Aaron character… I remember googling him and found nothing. That’s odd to me, especially in this day and age. He claimed that he used to be Anna Wintour’s old assistant. I spent time googling her assistants, and his name never came up. I figured Wendi may have wanted her assistants to remain anonymous online.”
Check where the email is registered
Shutterstock Image by Rawpixel.com
Watch out for any emails that look spam or have missing characters, misspelled names, and signatures that seem illegitimate. Verify where the domain is registered, and also check if any public email is listed for the person or agency emailing you. Ensure it matches.
Carley says: “I did check where the email was registered. It was registered to GoDaddy. However it was private, so I couldn’t check further than that. Make sure you check the email and that it seems legitimate.”
Ask for deposits to cover expenses
Shutterstock Image by Patrick Foto
Don’t be afraid to ask for a deposit to cover expenses. It’s within your rights if you’re putting a large sum of money up front. When you work on larger projects, this is a standard that legitimate clients should expect and, therefore, they be open to the conversation.
Nathan says: “I told the client that I usually take a 50% charge upfront to cover any expenses. That set her off. And that was the first time that part of her character was revealed. When you’re in that position on the phone, you feel intimidated and immediately start to apologize for risk of losing the job. You have to learn to say no and stand your ground. Clients should be willing to put some skin in the game.”
Talk to peers about contracts
Shutterstock Image by g-stockstudio
In the photography world, people can be wary of sharing contract information. However, if you feel like you’re possibly being scammed, talk to someone in your community who may be able to provide insight. Carley broke the news on her Instagram stories, consequently allowing space for numerous other photographers to open up about their experience and share it with their peers.
Nathan says: “I played it pretty close to the chest because it was an exciting opportunity and I didn’t want to jinx it. If you feel wary, you should definitely reach out to people for their perspective.”
Ask to get on a video call
Shutterstock Image by antoniodiaz
A video call is a great way to get a feel for if something is a legitimate job opportunity. If the project scope seems large, then you should consider this action before going forward. Similarly, if they hesitate, it could be a good indication of a fake opportunity.
Carley says: “Asking for a video call or to see them face-to-face could be a good indicator if they are a real person or not, if you have doubts.”
Work with legal contracts and retainers
Shutterstock Image by GaudiLab
Work with a lawyer to make your own contract, and offer it when large opportunities arise. If you need help finding a lawyer, consider this directory of organizations providing free or low-cost services to artists. If you can’t do this, at least do research online and create a contract that protects you. You always want to maintain control over your creative work.
Nathan says: “I’ve had clients where I’ve booked talent, booked models, booked equipment—and jobs fall through. As freelancers, we’re creating a standard of work. It’s our job to educate our clients that legal contracts and retainers are something that they need to expect.”
Don’t be afraid to say no
Shutterstock Image by Kangaru
An opportunity can be really blinding, where the glitz and glam of it all seems like it’s too good to pass up. But know your rights, and most importantly, know what you deserve. The type of clients you want will be understanding of your need for clear, concise, and accurate information. Trust, mutual respect, and accountability is a must between the both customer and the hired freelancer.
Nathan says: “I get it. It’s really hard to say no when you don’t know when the next job is going to be. But, above all, building the type of clients that you want to work with is so important.”
Thanks to Nathan and Carley for sharing their experiences with us here at Shutterstock. If you’re a contributor who has experienced a scam, we hope you feel empowered to share your story to a community that supports you.