***UPDATE FROM JANUARY 16, 2018**
I have since heard from hundreds of other photographers that have been affected by this same scam and seen other individuals come forward sharing their story. The scam is spread very wide and is directly targeting photographers and instagrammers. Please get in touch with me if you have been contacted by this scammer or are in anyway connected to a similar incident. I have been in contact with law enforcement and would be happy to share more information and resources for anyone going through this.
Let me start by saying this is very hard for me to share and I considered keeping it to myself, but I feel compelled to tell my story in hopes I may be able to help others.
I was recently victim to a highly elaborate, international business fraud and potential kidnapping effort that seriously jeopardized my safety and the safety of my husband.
It all started nearly a week ago when I was contacted via email by an individual claiming to be Wendi Murdoch, a high profile Chinese-American business woman and art philanthropist. See email copied below.
She claimed to have received my name from Condé Nast Traveler (who I’ve worked with in the past and they actually just posted one of my photos on their IG account 2 days prior). It seemed a little to good to be true, but I figured I would at least hear them out on a phone call. I replied I’d love to hear more and her “assistant” quickly arranged a call.
Her so-called assistant sounded friendly and said Wendi was excited to talk with me. I talked with Wendi for about 10-15 minutes. Mostly small talk, how she admired my work, and that next steps for this campaign would be to send over a NDA. She said she was headed back to NY from St. Barts that night and would be able to talk with me the next day, which checked out because the real Wendi Murdoch’s last Instagram post was from St. Barts. I signed her NDA and then received a creative brief, scope of work, budget and full itinerary to travel to Indonesia and Malaysia. “Wendi” wanted to hire me to shoot a series of images highlighting Chinese heritage in SE Asia for a personal upcoming art exhibit she was funding in connection with the 2022 Beijing Olympics. She mentioned her personal relationship with China as being the reason for this art exhibit. And the job seemed like something right up my alley - a mix of fine art and travel photography.
I spoke on the phone with Wendi and her New York assistant “Aaron Gersh” several times (for a few hours at least) leading up to the project. I was promised compensation upfront and full reimbursement of all travel expenses. Things moved very quickly. Wendi was happy that my schedule as a digital nomad allowed me to be flexible and gushed about how she wanted a creative future like mine for her daughters. There was even one conversation that she put me on hold and I could hear her pretend to talk to her nanny in the background about a tutoring project for one of her daughters. The act felt so real. The characters Wendi and Aaron played were so believable, accents and all — even to a smart professional and frequent traveler.
You can see a few pages from the itinerary below:
Sure, there were a few red flags. But it all seemed too elaborate to be a scam and my mind kept making excuses because I wanted the job to be real, so badly. Before I knew it, I was on a flight to Indonesia from NYC. The day before leaving (flights already booked) the assistant contacted me about having to pay $1400 in cash upon arrival for an expedited photography permit they overlooked. 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 knew it came together last minute and had run into needing international photography permits in the past (i.e. Swaziland, Africa). The assistant apologized profusely saying this is not how they normally operate and assured me that I would be reimbursed within 24 hours via a wire transfer. I even received a fake wire transfer confirmation stating the transfer had been initiated.
I fell for it.
20+ hours of flying later I arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia at approximately 11pm local time. Our driver greeted us at arrivals holding a sign with my name on it. I took a picture of him for my own records - see below.
Per the previous discussions the driver would be presenting me with a receipt for the photography permit in exchange for the cash sum on our way to the hotel. He presented the permit receipt (see image below) and brought us to a money exchange place where we exchanged the USD into Indonesian Rupiah. This is where things started to feel really off. He took a long detour to the hotel (we were mapping it on Google Maps as well) and insisted he needed to check his car tires at a gas station on the way. At the gas station he handed off the cash in a plastic bag to someone with a backpack behind the car. He never checked his air pressure and got back into the car. We tried to make conversation and ask about the route and ETA to our hotel but he spoke very very little English.
We finally arrived safe to the hotel, which we had contacted to confirm our booking with before leaving the US. “Wendi” and her team had pre-booked all of our hotels for us. Sleepy and jet lagged we gathered our belongings and approached the front desk. Someone had entered just before us and the front desk confirmed our “friends” an online travel agency had just taken care of the room. A bit strange, but we went to the room and slept.
The next morning I woke up ready for a day of shooting. We met the driver in the lobby at 8:15am to drive to our designated areas and points of interest. I had researched the areas beforehand. They were all viable Chinese heritage spots and everything fit the story.
Aaron, Wendi’s assistant, was checking in with us constantly and making sure we felt comfortable with the company they hired on the ground for us as this was their first time working with them. He had me call him just before we left that morning with the driver. During that conversation, he told us to go back into the hotel lobby and he was going to try and arrange a nicer vehicle and guide who spoke better English. We waited around 30 minutes. Another call. This time Aaron asked if we would be comfortable taking a taxi to Jakarta Chinatown and walk around without the guide today because he wasn’t able to secure a different driver so last minute. Another red flag, but I agreed and took a taxi from the hotel into Jakarta’s Old Town and Chinatown where I spent the morning covering all the areas on the shot list.
That afternoon, we met our friend who is a local for dinner and spent the afternoon with him before he drove us back to the hotel. We showed our friend the photography permit and he thought it didn't look official, but the seal was legit. He also let us know that Chinatown in Jakarta is one of the more dangerous areas in the city and wouldn't recommend that we walk around there alone.
I spoke to Aaron again that evening - he called to confirm the day went alright and that we were back in the hotel. I let him know we were with our friend and had spent the evening with him. Aaron seemed very concerned that I may have breached the NDA and wanted to know exactly what we did with him. He was on edge that we weren’t back at the hotel and wanted me to call Wendi first thing the next morning (5:00 am) to discuss things.
We went to bed and I called Wendi at 5am the next morning per his request. She and Aaron were based in NYC and had been calling from an NYC area code so they needed me to be flexible with the time difference for calls. I spoke with Wendi and she let me know she was upset with Aaron for cancelling the driver the day before without calling her and also wanted to assure I hadn’t breached the NDA. Next, she shared how plans for the day had to change again due to some logistics with the 3rd party travel operator they were working with “PT AKSHAYA LOGISTIKA OR AKSHAYA CARS” - who was apparently run by the son of one Wendi’s close friends and business acquaintances and we had to work with them in order for her to maintain that relationship.
Instead of flying out that day, as stated in the schedule, Wendi asked if we wouldn’t mind staying in Jakarta another day and going back to Chinatown to shoot again. She talked with me on the phone for roughly 20 minutes about travel, setting up a meeting the next time I’m in New York, and other projects she had in mind. And then came the final straw: she asked if we wouldn’t mind splitting up for the day. She wanted Jake to use one of my cameras to cover one area while I covered another. First off, that didn’t feel safe at all. And I was taken off guard because why would she want someone else taking photographs for an assignment she specifically hired me for. And why would she want us to split up. It felt so weird. I replied no, my husband and I will stay together.
She seemed to understand and spent the next 5-10 minutes discussing how pleased she was to be working with me and that I had an excellent work ethic, always on time with our calls, etc. She asked to speak with my husband and shared how she was happy he could travel with me and she might even have a opportunity for him with a writing job or a creative project that would involve both of us. 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.
Aaron never called. Our worst fears were confirmed: this was all a highly elaborate scam.
Out of a last ditch effort to confront them, I tried to call. The phone number went directly to an automated British accent voicemail. They were gone. Disappeared without a trace. They never existed.
I had a photograph of the driver and I recorded our last conversation because we were on to them by then. I sat on our hotel bed. 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.
This sucks. I lost a lot of time and money and am really shook up by entire incident. At the end of the day, I’m happy to be safe. I feel violated, naive and humbled by this entire thing. It’s been a whirlwind and I can’t stop thinking about how things could have been so much worse. I feel lucky to have gotten out when we did.
I’m sharing this so that it won’t happen to you, or other freelance photographers. I urge you to question any red flag and never, under any circumstance agree to pay for something out of your own pocket. As the old saying goes, if it seems to good to be true it probably is. Make sure you vet everyone you’re dealing with and don’t make excuses for why things feel off.
Like so many of you, I have put myself and my personal brand out into the digital world, making me more at risk for these types of attacks. Please remember this if you have a public personal brand. Be smart and always trust your gut.
I have received several common scam emails for photography assignments in the past but never gave them the time of day. This one I did. It was so elaborate and complex that I couldn’t imagine someone going through this much effort. I made excuses for the red flags and pushed them off.
I hope you’ll share this with your community to help protect others. I would love to know if anyone else has had anything like this happen to them, too?
If you have any resources or information that may be helpful please feel free to share in the comments. Thank you for listening. Much love.