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Photographer Falls Victim to 'International, Highly Elaborate Scam,' Potential Kidnap Plot

Photographer Falls Victim to 'International, Highly Elaborate Scam,' Potential Kidnap Plot

A photographer based between LA and NYC has fallen victim to an “international travel scam” on a huge scale, which saw her end up in Indonesia and down thousands of dollars, in what she believes may have been part of a larger kidnapping plot.

Travel photographer Carley Rudd is sharing her experience to warn others of similar dangers. This is the recent story of how she and her husband ended up at the center of what could have been a dangerous situation. Rudd admits she initially considered keeping the entire saga to herself. It’s understandable, given that she’s likely embarrassed. But this scam could fool anyone – it was a highly calculated, international operation.

Earlier this month, Rudd received an email from who she believed to be Wendi Murdoch, a high profile Chinese-American business woman and art philanthropist.

Murdoch stated Conde Nast Traveler – one of Rudd’s recent clients who, as it happens, had posted one of her images on Instagram two days prior – as the contact who passed on her details. She claimed to be interested in booking Rudd on a photography job relating to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, and suggested having a phone call to further discuss. Later speaking to both Murdoch and her assistant, Rudd was sent an NDA as the pair nonchalantly discussed Murdoch’s trip to St. Barts. That made sense, for a quick check of Murdoch’s Instagram revealed she had been posting photos there.

Rudd was soon sent “a creative brief, scope of work, budget, and full itinerary to travel” for the planned trips to Indonesia and Malaysia. Leading up to the project, Rudd reveals she spoke to both Murdoch and her assistant, who claimed his name to be “Aaron Gersh,” several times – racking up a number of hours on the phone. Personal anecdotes followed, as Murdoch spoke of her wishes for her own daughter to be able to enjoy a “creative future” similar to that of Rudd’s, as a travel photographer. During one phone call, Murdoch even interrupted the pairs' conversation to tend to her child's nanny in the background – an act Rudd says “felt so real.” Some of the itinerary pages can be seen below.

At this point, although Rudd was conscious of what the trip might entail, she says she was comforted in feeling everything was too elaborate to possibly be a scam. Then sure enough, the day before the trip, a potential red flag came. The assistant reached out, asking whether Rudd wouldn’t mind putting forward $1400 in cash once she arrived, rolling out the excuse that it was for an “expedited photography permit” they had overlooked. She felt her options were limited. Reminding herself that the trip had been last minute, and under the promise that she would be reimbursed within 24 hours, Rudd traveled from NYC to Indonesia, and paid the cash. She even received what turned out to be a fake wire transfer confirmation as “proof” the money had been sent back to her. Recalling the incident, she said: “They weren’t able to handle this from abroad and since I was the only one on the ground I would need to obtain the permit to be able to shoot in Indonesia. I was alarmed by their disorganization and the price seemed high, but I knew it came together last minute and had run into needing international photography permits in the past, for projects in Swaziland, Africa.”

Rudd took a photo of the driver who picked her up, something she says she did for her own records. What’s curious is that the driver consented to having his photograph taken. Whether he was part of the scam remains unknown, although if you read on, it seems like a possibility.

Rudd was handed a permit receipt by the driver, but it was here she says she began to feel as though something wasn’t right. Google-mapping the route to the hotel, she claims the driver took a long detour and also insisted he needed to check his tires on the way. It was at the gas station that the driver handed the bag of money to “someone with a backpack behind the car.” What’s more, the driver never checked his tire pressure.

Arriving at the hotel, Rudd and her husband, who was traveling with her, checked in without issue. The next day was when shooting was due to begin. The couple were met with a driver as promised, and Murdoch’s assistant Gersh was checking in with them regularly. She says they were offered a new driver, who spoke better English and had a nicer car. A change of plan then saw Gersh proposing the pair travel to Jakarta Chinatown, on their own, due to being unable to source a driver. Rudd complied, getting a cab into Chinatown, and began ticking off shots on the project’s hitlist.

Interestingly, the pair met with a local friend for dinner the same day, who was suspicious of their permit. However, the seal seemed legit. It was this same friend that revealed his concerns about the dangers of the Chinatown area, and advised they avoid walking there alone. Gersh got in touch again that evening, but strangely seemed startled when the couple mentioned their meeting with a local friend. He said the couple may have broken their NDA, and requested a phone call with Murdoch the next day at 5am. Rudd did as requested, speaking with Murdoch on her NYC area code number, who assured her she was in no trouble.

Murdoch revealed another alteration to the schedule, this time due to an issue with the “third party travel operator.” Instead of catching a flight for the second part of the trip that day, Murdoch allegedly requested the couple stay put and head back into Chinatown once more, buttering Rudd up with compliments of her work, as well as promises of meetings back in NYC. Suspiciously though, she requested Rudd and her husband split up for the day. “She wanted [my husband] Jake to use one of my cameras to cover one area, while I covered another. First off, that didn’t feel safe at all,” she explained, claiming she was taken off guard by Murdoch’s request to have someone else taking photographs for an assignment she specifically hired her for. “Why would she want us to split up? It felt so weird. I told her no, my husband and I will stay together.”

Murdoch seemed to appreciate their decision, even speaking with Rudd’s husband to express her delight that he could travel with her, and going as far as to suggest she might have an opportunity for him with a writing job, or a creative project that would involve both of them. “We ended the call with her saying that she would love to meet me in person in NYC. She would have her assistant call back within the hour to confirm the change in our production schedule and next steps after shooting that day.”

Except that’s when, as Rudd puts it, their worst fears were confirmed: this was all a highly elaborate scam.

In trying to contact the Murdoch and her assistant again, Rudd says she was greeted with an automated British accent voicemail. “They were gone,” she recalls, “Disappeared without a trace. They never existed.”

My heart raced and stomach sank. I was in absolute shock. The hours of conversations with Aaron and Wendi ran over and over again in my mind. We were scared for our safety and immediately changed hotels and contacted friends and family to alert them. I had been sharing our whereabouts and checking in with them since our arrival. We moved our return flight up and have since contacted law enforcement authorities here in the US.

Reflecting on the incident, Rudd says she lost a lot of time and money in the scam. Not to mention how disturbing it feels to have spent hours on the phone with a fraudulent scam artist posing as a notorious industry figure. It may seem easy to place the blame with Rudd, but anyone receiving regular phone calls from a client is likely to eventually find the act at least semi-convincing. Let’s not forget the international scale on which this was being operated; it seems the team behind this operated between the two countries, and possibly further abroad.

Rudd is going public with her story to warn other photographers, freelancers, and anyone who promotes their business within the digital world. Had she been traveling alone, this story may have had an entirely different ending.

Lead image by Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplash. All other images courtesy, and used with permission of, Carley Rudd. You can find her at her website, blog, and Instagram.

Jack Alexander's picture

A 28-year-old self-taught photographer, Jack Alexander specialises in intimate portraits with musicians, actors, and models.

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This is not the only time this has happened - I think there are several photographers who have been captured by this scam, and it appears to be the same driver. See this article for another account of the exact same thing today:

Crazy...I read the PetaPixel article this morning, and for a moment, thought this was reporting on the same story. Instead it's a different person experiencing the same scam. What a scary deal.

Wow! That article is even more interesting. Over 100 documented cases of this scam working. Also, a link to a Hollywood Reporter article that includes recordings.

What is puzzling here to me is: why? What is the goal of all of this? The damage done to the photographers is quite painful, but is not dramatic. And clearly the money which they get is rather symbolic compared to the effort made to defraud. Unless they really plan to kidnap someone, it appears to me that they do it "because they can" for the fun of it.

I don't know, if each person is coughing up $1,400 on the first permit fee and possibly more afterwards, that turns into a lot of money over time, albeit with a significant up front time investment. The other article notes that this has happened to many photographers using the same fake alias (3 alone between this article and the other, let alone the additional article on Hollywood Reporter), so I would argue that the scammer may have put a lot of time into design of the scam, but with some minor tweaks it can be applied to lots of aspiring travel photographers. Do this enough times and that can turn into a lot of money, especially for someone living in Indonesia!

Scary, although with the degree of commitment to the scam, I wouldn't feel embarrassed at all.

It’s true

Of course it's easy to say the photographer should have received a percentage up front. But this sounds like an editorial assignment and not a commercial assignment where the ad agency would front a certain percentage of the bid. Those of us that shoot editorial know many times you (as the photographer) do carry certain expenses and wait sometimes months for reimbursement. What's scary about this scam is that the person behind it clearly has knowledge of photo production. Providing a creative brief and itinerary that seems legit. Thank you to the photographer(s) for making this public. I feel for your financial loss but thankful that you were not physically harmed.

Makes me think of organ harvesters.

I travel to that area, but I am probably in the too big to kidnap category. And there are places that I won't travel. I would certainly be more worried if I was a woman traveling alone.

"too big to kidnap category" ahahaha

Listen...I feel bad that happened to her

I kinda always go back to that old school way of thinking when it comes to business. If you get contacted by someone way out of your comfort area ( you can enquire about them, visit their offices etc) I always secure partial payment up front or it's a non-starter.

Feel the same way about shooting for free with the promise of "exposure" or "future projects"...can't deposit that into the bank and last time I checked, the property taxes don't get paid that way.

I'm always suspicious of people that go to any lengths to be "friendly" etc. You don't know me like that and I'm running a business. Name rank and serial number...we'll grab beer/wings and share stories about our ex's after you pay me.

Sammers rarely learn anythign about thier targets. That was very elaborate. But she should have listened to her instincts. And I would never travel anywhere wihtout a despoit from the client first. Very bad luck but I’m glad she shared it.

Reminds me of fake agencies telling models they have to use their own photogs and pay for the pics only to never get calls about jobs. If you're offered a dream job, wake up.

When you consider the cost of living in Indonesia is so cheap and the fact you can live like a king with as little as $10 a day to pay over $1300 for a permit alone is a clear sing of a scam. That amount is enough to live in abundance for 6 to 8 months maybe even a year if you budget conservatively

Im curious as to how she was supposed to get paid for this job. Wouldnt it be normal practice to request a 50% up front payment here? Messed up either way; never trust strangers, and if something seems too good to be true, it likely is.

I have traveled traveled all over Indo, PI, Mex. To starry eyed photographers out there who are naive and think that couldn't possibly be exploited by a kind looking old man from Jakarta - you get scammed, exploited and injured by that kind old man from Jakarta. If you do decide to be a dumb ass go anyway, tape a handcuff key to your hip or ass. Wrap a razor blade in duct tape and put it in your shoe.

Here is a link combining information from several sources.