Businesses beware! There’s a scam targeting wedding photographers
It appears that there’s a credit card scam targeting wedding photographers making its way round the Internet. Over the past several months, I’ve been contacted by a number of unimaginably eager clients-to-be requesting to reserve my wedding photography services. These messages share several common elements:
- English is oddly imperfect. It features atypical typos, strange grammar mistakes and punctuations, and awkward forms of pronoun address. Considered in isolation, any one of these mistakes is forgivable, and, dare I say, expected when composing quick informal messages. In combination the mistakes raise immediate suspicion, especially considering the very WASPy sounding names of the authors.
- Phone number area code is not local. When the initial method of contact is via text message, pay attention to the area code. You can easily Google search the area code to determine its proper region. Keep in mind that phone numbers are easy to spoof and the area code is unlikely to be the true location of the scammers. Every phone number I’ve encountered in such situations has been from out of country, specifically from the American Midwest.
- Booking on the couple’s behalf. Every one of the people contacting me was claiming to be making the reservation on behalf of a relative from out of town. The people claimed to be from out of town themselves.
- Short notice weddings. Virtually every single request was for weddings scheduled two to four weeks from the date of contact. The most recent request wanted to know all the days in August that I’m available to photograph their sister’s wedding. I can’t imagine anyone planning a short notice wedding around the schedule of their wedding photographer.
- Price is not an issue. Unlike virtually all legitimate requests for information that I receive, the scammers seem to have no interest in the price of my wedding photography services. Typically, the most common questions are about availability and price. The scammers briefly touch upon the price after establishing that I’m available for the desired date. Overall, every interaction has left me with the impression that the person I am engaged with is not the least bit price conscious — as long as I accept credit card payments.
- Credit card payment only. In the initial message, the scammers probe to determine if I’m a viable target by asking whether I accept credit card payments. Furthermore, they stress the significance of paying by credit card too much. It’s a strong indicator that something strange is afoot. I have never had a legitimate client push so heavily towards one payment over others.
- Refusal to meet in person or video chat. Every attempt to meet, phone, or video chat with the person you’re in contact with or their engaged relative is turned down and the excuses are outrageous. When advised that they must sign a contract before paying, they will always ask for a digital version.
- Generic locations, wrong addresses, and poor geographic awareness. When requested, the scammers will provide you with locations that are too generic (“Toronto”), don’t physically exist because the address is very wrong, or far from your immediate area of business (Toronto to Ottawa for a four-hour wedding). If you’re still on the fence and they happen to mention a legitimate wedding venue, give that place a call and confirm whether it’s reserved for that date, time, and person.
These elements have been the common denominator in almost every single scam attempt I’ve encountered. With that said, it’s important to understand that without an actual confirmation, you can’t be certain that you are not engaging with a possible client, so it’s best to maintain a level of professionalism while disengaging from the conversation.
Credit Card Scam Targeting Wedding Photographers: Example 1 – Email
The initial email has some immediate problems that should raise eyebrows:
- Odd introduction.
- Undetermined wedding day that’s very soon.
- West Virginia area code.
“Matt’s” response sounded the alarm:
- Odd capitalisation.
- Good hearing from me.
- The fact that a couple relinquished control over location and photographer to the bride’s brother is unthinkable.
- Use of “accurate cost”. They probably meant the total price including sales tax.
- The event is in Hamilton after the initial message named the location as Toronto. They’re an hour apart. Two if there’s traffic.
- The non sequitur about recuperating from lung cancer somehow requiring a credit card payment!
- Recovering from lung cancer in intensive care!!
- Emailing back and forth from intensive care!!!
Credit Card Scam Targeting Wedding Photographers: Example 2 – Text Message
Notice how there’s always an excuse for not being able to have a verbal conversation, either because they can’t speak, as implied by the lung cancer, or that they can’t hear, as explicitly stated above. I suspect it’s because the scammers’ spoken English is considerably worse than their written English. In all honesty, if one of these scammers spoke to me with a flawless British, Australian, Kiwi, or North American accent, I would be tempted to overlook the other problems.
Where are the credit card scammers located?
I’m not certain where most of the scammers that contacted me are located. However, one of them was emailing me from Nigeria. I know this thanks to Yesware, which is an email tracker I use to determine whether clients open my messages. The system relies upon the recipient enabling image loading to work. That particular person must have forgotten to disable that feature. Tracking the other exchanges has been fruitless.
But they want to pay you! How is this a credit card scam targeting wedding photographers?
This puzzled me initially. In a fit of frustration during one text message exchange, I broke the rule about remaining professional and brazenly asked how their scam worked and what they were hoping to accomplish. I was genuinely curious! How can receiving payment in exchange for no work at all possibly be risky? Unfortunately, the scammers were of no assistance, since in response to my queries I received several repetitions of the very first message they had sent me. After being blown off, I conducted some research and found three possible theories for how their credit card scam operates.
Theory 1: pay another vendor on their behalf
The scammers want to hire you for their wedding photography using stolen credit card information, but request that you pay another vendor (DJ, florist, etc.) on their behalf because they don’t accept credit cards. The other vendor is guaranteed to be impossible to contact or meet in person, so payment is requested by way of money transfer services like Western Union or MoneyGram. (Something tells me that the DJ or florist happen to live in the same distant city where the scammer’s wedding is being held. It all makes sense now! Heading to a Western Union is definitely easier than driving to Hamilton – or Ottawa – to deliver cash or cheque to a person that doesn’t exist.) Time is of the essence, so the scammer will create some urgency about paying the other vendor immediately after you’ve processed the credit card payment. Shortly after sending the vendor their portion of the payment (i.e., your real money) the rightful credit card holder will dispute the transaction and receive a chargeback for the full amount. Meanwhile, you are now out the full amount you sent the vendor because Western Union doesn’t have a dispute process.
Theory 2: request for refunds and overpayment
This is less likely than the first theory but still very plausible. The scammers intend to pay me with stolen credit card information. Shortly after payment is received, they express regret at the transaction and request a refund using a different payment method such as Western Union. Alternatively, the scammers overpay me and request a refund for the difference, using a different payment method, of course. When the card holder discovers the fraudulent activity and disputes the charges, the initial credit card payment made to me is reversed. Since this happens after sending the scammers their “refund”, I’m out the full price of my service and have no recourse. The major flaw with this theory is the assumption that getting a refund on a wedding photography retainer is as simple as asking (it’s not) and that wedding photographers would be foolish enough to return the money using a different payment method. Another flaw is that I would foolishly accept an overpayment. Perhaps the scammers will initially pay for eight hours of service but then backtrack and say they only need six. In any case, the world isn’t short of fools, so I can foresee how this strategy can work given enough tries. Depending on where the scammers are operating from, two months of attempts to scam wedding photographers could yield the one that falls for the scam and results in a very handsome payout when compared to the average local income. As with most scams, it’s all about a high number of attempts at luring people.
Theory 3: you’re not the target
This is slightly different than the previous theories, because the wedding photographers are not the intended targets of the scam. The scammers contact wedding photographers trying to determine if the credit card information in their possession is good for high value one-off transactions. For instance, shortly after paying me $2,500 for xx-hours of service, the scammers will use the same credit card information to make a large purchase of goods that the supplier is capable of sending immediately (before the fraud is discovered) and willing to ship to an anonymous location (where the shipment can’t be tracked) in the developing country the scammers are operating from. Once the fraud is discovered, the card holder receives a chargeback and the supplier receives bubkis. Meanwhile, the goods are being relayed from one courier to the next on their way to Timbuktu where the scammers plan to receive and sell them for a healthy profit.
Protect yourself from credit card scams
We work in a business that’s hard enough as it is, so be proactive in protecting yourself by not falling for a credit card scam targeting wedding photographers. While there’s no such thing as a risk-free business, when it comes to credit card scams, there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure:
- Disengage contact with individuals who display the traits outlined at the start of this article. You must resist the lure no matter how tempting it appears. Remember: it’s tempting by design!
- Avoid manual-entry transactions. Without face-to-face contact and ability to verify credit card security features, they present a statistically higher risk of fraud.
- Never agree to pay other vendors on your client’s behalf.
- Never provide refunds on credit card payments using other payment methods.
- When all else fails, never pay anyone that you don’t know and trust using Western Union, MoneyGram, or similar services!
About The Author
Paul Kounineis a documentary wedding photographer based in Toronto. You can see more of his work on his site, visit his blog and interact with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.