Scammer Time

Screen capture of text message exchange with "Hiro Cane," a scam artist trying to lure me into a con.

Screen capture of text message exchange with “Hiro Cane,” a scam artist trying to lure me into a con.

“Hello, I’m Hiro Cane. How are you ? I’ll like to know your free available date in August for my family reunion (5 hours photo coverage). Also i want family portraits done for all the families coming together for the reunion. Do you accept credit card payment ?”

When the above text message dropped into my in box a couple of weeks ago, I was genuinely excited. Out of the blue, here was someone wanting to hire me to shoot a family reunion. It looked like a good opportunity to expand my client base. Rather than reply to the text, I tried to call the associated number. That’s when things started going sideways. Instead of getting the client or his voicemail greeting, I got an automated message stating that the phone number was set up to send and receive text messages, only. “Hmm, that’s odd.”

Unable to reach the client by phone, I replied to the text by thanking him for contacting me and asking for a phone number I could call to speak with him about the event. A short time later, I received a second text in which the person explained that he is hearing impaired. He asked me to send him my email address so we could move the conversation off text. Alarms were starting to go off in my head. It was suspicious that he didn’t want to talk, even through a friend or family member as an intermediary. I was also still interested in doing the shoot so, after weighing my options, I decided to send him a very simple text with just my email address.

“Thank you for giving me your email. I want you to check if you have available weekends between August 6th-28th. If you have a date open i want you to work on the estimate cost for the 5 hours photo coverage from 11am-4pm, and 6-16×20 prints family photo portraits because  we have 6 families coming together for the reunion event. The event will be held locally here in the state about an hour or two drive from your location, i will cover the travel expenses. I got your information on the internet and i hope you can handle this event. I’ll be making 60% down payment in advance with my credit card to book the date also i will forward you the event venue once the event planner book the hall. I will be looking forward to read from you with the estimate ASAP.”

Less than an hour later, I received the above email. I’ll be honest, the details he offered had dollar signs dancing in my head. The scope of the shoot, travel expenses, the potential for print orders and licensing fees added up to at least a mid-four figure quote. However, it was the lack of detail in some areas that gave me pause. It was odd that he didn’t want to meet or speak with me, directly. He wouldn’t provide a specific date or location for the event. He didn’t ask to see samples of my work nor did he reference having already seen (and liked) my work.

I replied by email, offering two weekends in August when I would be available to do the shoot. I also asked him to give me the name and location of the venue where the reunion would be held. With that information, I could contact the venue to confirm that this client had been in contact or possibly even held some dates.

“The event is going to be both indoor and outdoor. And i will need an unlimited candid shot that will be in a DVD or USB with the right to prints anytime. The 16×20 will be a group photo for individual family. So can you get back to me with the total estimation and the type of credit card you accept.”

When I received the above message, I was convinced this person was a con artist. The urgency with which he wanted to receive my quote and make a large advance deposit was simply unnatural. Let’s be honest, no legitimate client is that eager to part with their hard-earned money. That little voice in my head was warning me, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.”

My next step was critical: how do I reply to make it clear that I won’ t move forward without some form of personal interaction and do so without offending a potential client? After some careful thought, I replied by email asking for his full contact information and stating that I would need to speak with him or his representative to be sure I fully understood his expectations and needs, before I could prepare a quote.

Crickets.

In the two weeks since that initial text and email exchange, there has been no further contact from this “client.” I have, however, received email and text messages from other supposed clients making the same or similar requests. There is no doubt in my mind that these are fraudulent and that I’ve been targeted for a scam. I was curious about one thing, how would the scam have played out?

Recently, I did a simple Google search for “photography scam” and the results were illuminating. The top link was to a news article on the Popular Photography website titled, Beware the Family Reunion Scam That’s Currently Targeting Photographers. Well, that sounds familiar. Another link was to a 2011 article on the PhotoShelter blog, 4 Scams That Target Photographers. The second confidence scheme described on that page is, The Fake Photo Assignment Scam. Here’s how it works.

A “client” contacts a photographer asking about availability to shoot a wedding or other family event. Over the course of several messages – all communication is by email or text – agreement is reached on the total cost of the shoot and the amount of the deposit. When the con artist is ready to pay the deposit, he asks if payment to another “vendor” for the event (e.g. the venue or caterer) can be made through the photographer. The “client” offers to add the other vendor’s fee to the advance payment and asks the photographer to forward that amount to the vendor’s account. If the photographer agrees to be the middle man for this transaction, the scam is set.

The advance payment from the “client” ultimately bounces due to insufficient funds. Unfortunately, several days will pass before the initial payment is rejected by a financial institution. In the meantime, the photographer will have used his own funds to pay the advance to the other “vendor.” In fact, the account for the second vendor belongs to the con artist, who collects the photographer’s money and disappears long before the victim is notified the con artist’s initial payment has been rejected.

Confidence schemes are a disgusting business. They play on a person’s genuine desire to be helpful and to see the best in others. While I was struggling with how to respond to the text and email messages from my scammer, I felt guilty for suspecting the person on the other end of the exchange. “What if this guy’s legit? How am I making him feel by treating him with caution? I’m providing terrible customer service.” These were my thoughts.

It’s a struggle at times to know how to respond to client requests. As service providers, we want to be known for delivering excellence. As business people, we need to employ smart practices that protect us from financial ruin. In the end, I took a stand in favor of a widely accepted best practice – to ensure that my quote would be an accurate reflection of the necessary time and services, I insisted upon having a conversation with the client or his representative. If the client decided to walk, I could live with that.

As professionals, there are certain standards we have an ethical obligation to meet. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our clients to demand a certain degree of personal interaction. This is essential on several levels. Personal interaction allows both parties to decide if they are a good fit for each other. If there’s going to be a disconnect, especially if on a personal level, it’s best to figure that out before the shoot. Whether an in-person meeting (best), a Skype session (good) or a phone conversation (acceptable), personal interaction is the best way for the photographer to fully understand the client’s needs and expectations. It is also an opportunity for the photographer to establish his expectations of the client.

At the very core of a successful provider-client relationship, is mutual respect, and an understanding and acceptance of expectations. And yes, this includes the provider’s expectations of the client. From payment methods, deliverables and deadlines to levels of participation and feedback, it is important for the client to understand and accept that the success or failure of this partnership depends, in part, on commitments they are prepared to make. A client is free to insist on minimal interaction and communication leading up to their event. As a professional, you are also free to say to that client, “Thank you for your interest but I think you would be better served by working with a different photographer.”

As for the scammers and con artists out there, especially the scum who target photographers, I know there is nothing I can say to dissuade them from continuing to target me or my hard-working and well-intentioned colleagues. By sharing the details of this recent experience, I hope to help other photographers to recognize a scam before it has progressed to the point where the photographer has been victimized. If you’ve been the target or the victim of a confidence scheme, please share the basic elements of that con with your peers. If we don’t support each other, who else will?

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | July 2015

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