How to Spot a Photography Scam

How to Spot a Photography Scam

Scams are nothing new to photographers, but scammers are getting cleverer and more thorough. A scammer who targeted me in November was the most convincing one I’ve had yet. I’m going to share the scammer’s emails and the clues that gave him away.

I’m not a fan of email in the first place; it always feels like drudgery to me, so I usually scan things pretty quickly to decide whether to respond. Unlike more obvious scam emails pitching family reunions, this one was harder to parse. I researched the sender and found that it was a real person in a real position with the magazine mentioned in the email. This confused me because, on the second reading, the strange capitalization, punctuation, and grammar made me suspicious. 

Here is the email I received.

When you’re busy and reading quickly, it’s easy to miss some of the signs that become obvious only in hindsight. I suspect scammers know this. To make matters worse, the desire for work can make photographers even more susceptible, and scammers take note of what works and what doesn’t. In order to avoid getting taken advantage of, it’s important to pay attention to both the obvious, and the more subtle signs of a scam. Poor grammar and improper punctuation should make you hesitate and pay careful attention to the rest of the email. The generic opening, which includes nothing specific about why the magazine might have been interested in hiring me, smacks of a form email that might be sent to many people. And you should always steer clear of emails that offer to overpay you so you can pay other people. That’s a sign of classic check fraud. But those are the signs we already know to watch for. What about the more subtle clues we might not be aware of? 

I reached out to commercial and editorial photographer, Alexis Cuarezma, who is well versed in chatting with magazine editors over email, to see what red flags he could find in the email. He picked up a few things that photographers with less experience may not notice. Here are the things he pointed out:

  1. The chances of an editor using their personal Gmail on a first contact email are slim. They’re much likelier to use a work-associated email with relevant contact information in the signature line.

  2. The scammer gave too much information. According to Cuarezma: “This person wrote out every single detail without even knowing if you're available or willing to do the job. No one is going to send out such a long email and waste so much time.” 

  3. They asked for way too much information. My full name and detailed address in a cold email? Why would they need that, especially if I hadn’t even agreed to do the job?

Another thing Cuarezma pointed out was that in my research, I could have looked for the contact info to verify the proper email address was being used. It wasn’t. The sender of my email was using a generic Gmail account instead of the business email associated with his job description. So, I responded to see if I could get the scammer to give away the game in the hope of writing this article, so you could see how a scam might give itself away in real-time.

Here is our exchange.

As you can see, the scam was clearly revealed when the scammer told me that I would be overpaid in the expectation that I would pay the team from a talent agency they had already contracted. That’s the canary in the coal mine. Classic check fraud. Just to clarify, I made sure the expectation was that the money would come to me, and I was expected to pay the team. That’s when I cut off communication and reported it. I also did a quick web search to see if the wording was reported in other photography scams, and look what I found...

I hope this exchange will be helpful in catching the current round of scammers before they take advantage of any other photographers. Please share this article if you found it helpful, and make sure to comment below with any scam emails you’ve received and how you were able to spot the signs. The more we know, the better we can defend ourselves.

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william hicks's picture

Current round of scammers? I have been seeing this almost word for word posted on websites for years

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

I agree. There have been complaints and warnings about this type of scam all over the place for a number of years now. The English grammar in this one wasn't as stilted as some I've seen. Also, doesn't their claimed fee seem kinda low? I mean they're asking for someone to not only photograph this circus but also coordinate and manage it. They're not just scammers, they're cheap.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

New clients never talk about my work in an introduction. They go to the point, describing what they need and they would ask for pricing practices and make sure I am in the field of photography they need before ever mentioning my work.

Studio 403's picture

So, if you follow through, does the "scam" company send you a check"? Then I assume the check bounces? Correct?

Deleted Account's picture

That is the way it works. Money lingers in your account for a few days and you pay it out as expected. Then your deposit is reversed. Classic.

Let me add that you never want to let someone use your electronic deposit accounts, e.g. processing a credit card and advancing a person that money. The charge will eventually be declined and you will be out what you paid.

Musing Eye's picture

Ms York, I am curious about the comment of not liking email. Am I such an old fart that I'd expect such to be done in email rather than texts and DMs? I can't imaging coming to a business agreement over such media, and a voice call isn't precise either.

Musing Eye's picture

As someone who works with people in other parts of the world (not in photography) I'd warn against drawing too much of a conclusion from the language not fitting US or British English norms. Once you're familiar with, say, Indian turns of phrase, then some things that might sound "stilted" will seem rather normal... just different.

Mark Harris's picture

I had a similar mail recently, and the red flag was the wording 'we will having a conference in YOUR AREA', without specifying where, suggesting a mass mailing. Mentioning in the first mail that they would be paying in advance was also odd. And then they rather stupidly signed it with a very unusual name, which when googled came up with 'scam'. If they'd used a more common name it would have been harder to spot.

jay holovacs's picture

Also in response to your pointed question about gmail, you just got 'form letter #2'. That should tell you something.

Sometimes suspicion goes in reverse. I recently got an automatic phone call telling me they had important information about my credit card, but did not mention my name or bank name. I promptly hung up. Found out later my bank was replacing my card because of a possible security leak at a store.

Julien Jarry's picture

Thanks for sharing and glad you caught this. In my experience this is WAY to much information for being a legit first email. In my experience, as humans we talk. Folks ask if I can chat on the phone or they put out a feeler email. This dump-all-logistics type of email is clearly a scam. Be smart folks and thanks again for sharing!

Fristen Lasten's picture

Thank you Nicole!

Ignacio Balbuena's picture

I worked 3 years as cruise photographer and just the other day (after more of 1 year that I apply) I receive an email from national geographic expeditions (their cruise line) offering me a position.
As you say, the first error was the name and email address. After working so many years with different companies you noticed that they have their own business email so is weird that someone send something like that from gmail and specially mispronounce a simple name.
Second the email was like very informal with lack of the classic signature with contact links and other ways to contact him.
So I decided to play the interested card and this guy sent me a pdf with the job description, the itineraries, responsibilities, etc, and one of the points that call my attention (besides the salary <4k x 8 days>) was that if for some reason you don't want to deliver the pictures shooted for the company, you must send a note in before the cruise\expedition so you can keep it, basically is like you do the expedition for free.
After I ask him the same question (why do you use your personal email?) this guy didn't answer back of course.

Also last year when I was teaching photography in home, one of my students shows up excited because he receive an email from an exposition in a small gallery in Paris that was interested in display their pictures, ofc you need it to pay a fee of 40 euros and send the 5 best photos and he did it without telling anyone because he wanted to surprise everyone.. oh well.. he get surprise for sure :\

Bruce Williams's picture

I'm always suspicious, but a few years ago I had a live one that I let play out. My thinking was, let them FedEx me a cheque so that they are out of pocket for the courier fees. Turns out that they sent me a cheque from a Sony affiliate, so I called Sony and they said that some cheques had gone missing, and this was one of the series that was lost. I never bothered cashing the cheque, but I was glad that Sony decided to follow up with their security department. After talking with Sony's security folks I was done, but I still have a smile on my face because I cost the scammers money AND I outsmarted them.

Steve Freeman's picture

Thanks for this. Got an email last night from Nordstromfashioneditor @ gmail. The email was almost exactly the same as yours. I was super excited at first but something seemed off. The name of the person in that position looked legit but I couldn't find any real evidence of this person. Pretty sure the website link they sent was fake. Glad I found this article.

Nicole York's picture

I am, too! Sorry it was a fake, but I'm glad you caught it!