How Credit Card Scam Targeting Wedding Photographers Work and How To Protect Yourself

Aug 2, 2015

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

How Credit Card Scam Targeting Wedding Photographers Work and How To Protect Yourself

Aug 2, 2015

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

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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

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The initial email has some immediate problems that should raise eyebrows:

  1. Odd introduction.
  2. Undetermined wedding day that’s very soon.
  3. West Virginia area code.

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“Matt’s” response sounded the alarm:

  1. Odd capitalisation.
  2. Good hearing from me.
  3. The fact that a couple relinquished control over location and photographer to the bride’s brother is unthinkable.
  4. Use of “accurate cost”. They probably meant the total price including sales tax.
  5. The event is in Hamilton after the initial message named the location as Toronto. They’re an hour apart. Two if there’s traffic.
  6. The non sequitur about recuperating from lung cancer somehow requiring a credit card payment!
  7. Recovering from lung cancer in intensive care!!
  8. Emailing back and forth from intensive care!!!

Credit Card Scam Targeting Wedding Photographers: Example 2 – Text Message

The first three messages are in reverse order. Read from top to bottom. Notice how he introduces himself as “Robbert”, but his email address is brianrobertts@outlook.com. The grammar and punctuations are getting out of hand: is he asking questions or making statements? He’s also out of province, not out of state. Lastly, text messages aren’t the ideal medium for conducting multi-thousand dollar transactions.
The first three messages are in reverse order. Read from top to bottom. Notice how he introduces himself as “Robbert”, but his email address is brianrobertts@outlook.com. The grammar and punctuations are getting out of hand: is he asking questions or making statements? He’s also out of province, not out of state. Lastly, text messages aren’t the ideal medium for conducting multi-thousand dollar transactions.
Robertts, that must be the traditional spelling. And will he look for a cyber cafe? Do those still exist in Ohio? He’s asking a Toronto wedding photographer to take a four hour trip to Ottawa to provide 3 to 4 hours of service
Robertts, that must be the traditional spelling. And will he look for a cyber cafe? Do those still exist in Ohio? He’s asking a Toronto wedding photographer to take a four hour trip to Ottawa to provide 3 to 4 hours of service

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 FacebookTwitter and Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

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14 responses to “How Credit Card Scam Targeting Wedding Photographers Work and How To Protect Yourself”

  1. Rona E Philpott Avatar
    Rona E Philpott

    I have received a few of these – about 4-5 by email, and one by text message just this week. As soon as I see that they have poor spelling/grammar, and ask if I take major credit cards before anything else I know they are scammers. I have played along a couple of times, and then called them on it – I always ask for all the details, and get such vague information. I give a HUGE outrageous amount, and they always say such a great deal!! LOL! Offer to meet, and it gets refused, then they ask me for a “favor” if I could pay another vendor, and I would be compensated for it – another LOL! I was able to block the text number, and the email addresses. I am sure I will get more!!

  2. Michael Goolsby Avatar
    Michael Goolsby

    These scams are so obvious, do they really require analysis?

    1. Tammy Treit Avatar
      Tammy Treit

      It wasn’t obvious at first in my case. There were red flags but this article was very helpful in confirming my suspicions.

  3. Wally Kilburg Avatar
    Wally Kilburg

    It’s for ANY services, not just weddings. They have been active in my area since around May.

  4. Barbara Radisavljevic Avatar
    Barbara Radisavljevic

    These scams are directed at almost all businesses. I’ve had them targeting me as a bookseller and even when we listed a house for rent. Who sends an agent to put a deposit on an expensive house in California, sight unseen, from London, for someone who lives in yet another country?

  5. LuAnn Hunt Avatar
    LuAnn Hunt

    Interesting, I have recently had almost exactly the same emails, and the broken English was present as I look back at the three or four emails I’ve gotten from them I really began at my suspicions. I will be putting an end to this transaction with this person immediately. Thank you for posting this information, it was very helpful.

  6. ashley Avatar
    ashley

    THanks for writing this! Totally got an email today. this was a great resource to help me spot it.

  7. Uriah Werner Avatar
    Uriah Werner

    This just happened to me today via a google voice number that I tried to call. I’m a photographer but also have owned a credit card processing company (All About Merchants) for over 8 years and see these kind of scams a lot. It’s weird they are targeting wedding photographers but they are. Thanks for a GREAT article! This will help some other friends of mine in the wedding industry.

  8. Scott Sawyer Avatar
    Scott Sawyer

    This also happened with a person trying to book our band for a wedding. All of the same descriptors. He used the phone number: (586) 991-9716, donaldtompson@yahoo.com, and the name Donald Tompson [sic].

  9. Tammy Treit Avatar
    Tammy Treit

    DJ here and we’ve received requests that follow this pattern. The first time I gave the guy the benefit of the doubt. My gut said something was weird (who texts a company phone number as a first contact??) but I decided to stay professional and see what happened. I refused to do anything without an in person meeting and they stopped texting me. As it became clear that something was wrong I began to think it was someone setting us up to try to rob us. The details that felt off to me were their eagerness to pay any amount, their inability to answer any questions about the venue beyond giving an address, and the texting as an initial point of contact. When something seems off trust your gut!

  10. Dave Waldman Avatar
    Dave Waldman

    I’m a videographer, and I’ve gotten several of these; most recently 30 minutes ago. When I told him I didn’t take credit cards, he actually asked me to set up an account, saying that he would pay all of my fees! I, like you, couldn’t figure out how the scam worked and was curious, so I appreciate your theories.

  11. Devius Meechie Thomas Avatar
    Devius Meechie Thomas

    Aaaaaaaannd this just happened to me, odd text about booking me for a wedding in two weeks, i noticed right away the grammar was poor and assumed it was someone from out of the country. They did not want to have a consultation meeting blaming it on getting treatment, refused to tell me the bride and grooms name, told me the wedding was at the Gateway Center, no city nor address, said a “friend” referred me, then asked my name, and I said if your “friend” referred you to me ,then you should definitely know my name, I figured something was very very fishy

  12. LaLa Swann Avatar
    LaLa Swann

    I received the same type of request today for my fitness training services. I get these a lot. The one today was typical: No punctuation, wording was off, an eagerness to pay with credit card for training their 5 children ranging 15-22 yrs old, both boys and girls. His email address said Jim Scott but he must’ve forgotten his “name” because he said his name was Jerry in the actual message. Lol.

  13. Ellen, NYC Avatar
    Ellen, NYC

    Thank you for posting this! It just happened to me, though I did disengage before it led anywhere dangerous (simply by telling the “groom” that he should call me on the phone if he wanted to proceed – of course he never called). He provided an actual date and location for his wedding – when I called the venue to check whether they had his date, they confirmed my suspicion. But I could not figure out how the scam worked…and I think your theories are excellent ones!