There’s a widespread scam in the travel photography community, and it’s particularly dangerous and deceptive — this is no poorly-worded email from a “Nigerian prince.” Aimed at travel photographers, this elaborate scheme is designed to lure them to Southeast Asia on the pretext of shooting a photo campaign for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Although some costs are covered by the scammers to make the target feel comfortable, other expenses like airfare and “photo permits” are not. While the scammers promise to reimburse these costs, they, of course, have no intention of doing so. At least 100 people have been affected by the scam. The following is the harrowing experience of photographer Henry Wu, as he described it to This Life of Travel.
First, Henry received an email from a woman named Wendi Murdoch, purporting to be the former wife of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. She claimed she had seen his work before, and thought he would be a perfect fit for a photo exhibit she was organizing ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. The email was followed by a scheduled phone call from a New York area code, in which Wendi complimented Henry’s work and discussed how his photography style was exactly what she was looking for in the photo series.
Once Henry and his partner Zory agreed to the project, Wendi informed them that while she would pay for their hotels in advance, the photographers would be responsible for paying airfare (to be reimbursed later). Since this wasn’t a totally unheard-of request, however, and because of the potential exposure the project would yield, they agreed and footed the $2,200 each for flights.
The first real red flags came when Wendi sent over the nondisclosure agreement — her lawyer’s name was spelled wrong — no record of him could be found on Google — and the date of the Olympics was incorrect. The wendimuroch.com domain name had also been created just a few weeks ago, but that detail was overlooked. It also struck Henry as strange that in a photo campaign for China, Wendi had chosen Jakarta, Semarang, Badung, and Penang for shooting locations.
On the day of the flight to Jakarta, Henry was told he would need to pay some photography permits (or “bribe” fees), some of which were as high as $1,100. This would become a staple of the scam.
Upon arriving, a driver picked up the photographers at the airport, and asked for the photography permit fee. Although it seemed strange that Wendi was entrusting the driver with the money, Henry handed it over anyway, but also snapped a photo of the driver and his license plate, just in case.
The next morning, Wendi called to inform the photographers that Henry’s photographing of the driver was considered racist and that the transportation company now refused to work with them, so she may need to cancel the project. While Henry was on the defensive, and eager for a solution, Wendi mentioned two more photography fees in the last two cities. To keep the project going, the photographers agreed to pay.
After a full day of shooting in Jakarta — during which they met a German photographer also on a pretend assignment for Wendi Murdoch, and who had seen similar red flags — they returned to the hotel and asked the concierge to call ahead to the other hotels on their itinerary, to ensure they had been paid for. They hadn’t. When they called Wendy to inquire, her assistant “Aaron” began ranting about how Henry was acting racist again to the driver, and threatened to tell immigration that they were in Indonesia working illegally on a tourist visa.
The next morning, the assistant called to inform the photographers that Wendi was canceling the project, but that they would be reimbursed for all their expenses and photography fees. All they had to was provide their bank account and routing number. Wary of providing such sensitive information, Henry contacted a friend of his who lived in Jakarta, who showed him a story in the Hollywood Reporter that shed some light on the scam. Apparently, hundreds had been affected by the same scheme, from filmmakers to hair stylists.
Henry contacted Nicole Katsianis, director at K2 Intelligence, who has spoken to at least 100 victims of the scam. She believes the offender is one individual, who is a master of psychological tactics and of impersonating male and female accents. Unfortunately, he is still at-large.
If you have any information about the scam, of have been affected yourself, you can reach out to Nicole here.
H/T: This Life of Travel