Australian satirist, comedian, writer, and artist Bryan Dawe found himself in the middle of a scam that sounds too terrible to be true. In spring last year, he stumbled upon a Facebook post from a “photographer” who was collecting money for her “broken camera.” Dawe wanted to land a hand, organizing a fundraiser for the woman who posed as the photographer who had her camera destroyed.
The whole thing turned out to be a scam. And it escalated so badly that Dawe was forced to close all his social media accounts and he has been receiving extortion threats from the scammers ever since.
The story begins in May 2021 when Dawe saw the Facebook post by “Sarah Murtaja.” Whoever was behind the account claimed that her camera had been destroyed by an Israeli bombardment of Gaza. She reportedly needed $2,800 to replace it with a new one.
Furthermore, the post contained a photo of a smashed Canon 5D III along with some photos from the war zone. “Israel prevented the introduction of financial aid into Gaza, where I created a donation campaign through PayPal,” the post claimed. “I hope for the good people to donate even a little bit.”
Touched by the story and the photos from Gaza, Dawe wanted to help. “Her photos displayed a human side of Gaza and Palestine missing from the normal media portrayal of death and destruction,” the satirist told The Age. “The photos told another more heartening narrative of young kids trying to survive and live their lives among the chaos of an ongoing war.”
As a means of landing a hand, Dawe got in touch with “Sarah” with an offer for a collaboration. He added his digital art to photos she claimed to be hers so he could make prints and gift cards. Hundreds of them were created and sold through a Melbourne art shop as limited edition prints. As The Sidney Morning Herald writes, each of them had the signatures of Dawe and “Sarah,” which soon made everything even more complicated.
Fast forward to the end of his campaign, Dawe collected around $3,000. Reportedly, some people didn’t even buy the prints and cards, they simply donated money for the cause. But when he was supposed to transfer the funds: he read in an article that PayPal didn’t operate in Gaza. He said that this was the moment when “a very loud bell rang.”
Discovering the scam
The first thing Dawe did was performing a reverse Google search of “Sarah’s” photos. As you can probably guess, they all belonged to someone else. It was reportedly either Palestinian newspapers or international photography agencies.
Next, he did the right thing. He contacted the customers who had bought his cards and posters, offering refunds to them. He also reportedly found the publications whose images had been stolen and notified them about it. All of this could have been so messed up considering that he unknowingly took someone else’s images, merged them with his art, and sold them. Thankfully, it seems that photographers and agencies were reasonable about it.
Of course, the payment never went through: but this is when the scammers hit.
The extortion and its aftermath
According to The Sidney Morning Herald, the scammers threatened to own a deepfake sex video that allegedly featured Dawe. As you can probably imagine, they used it to extort him.
On 26 May, he reportedly got this message:
“Tell Bryan if he doesn’t contact him today, he will create a sponsored ad, and send pictures and videos to all Bryan’s friends. I advise you to mediate to solve this problem, what do you think?”
In December 2021, Dawe was forced to close all social media accounts. Since he resides in Morocco, he only uses encrypted message apps to communicate with friends and family back home. “I don’t trust anything anymore,” he says. “I take the Edward Snowden approach towards everything now.”
But there is more. Even though he has closed all of his social media accounts, he says that scammers still use his name and image in suspicious Facebook posts. He believes that it’s the same scammers who are extorting him , but their posts remain online. This time it’s not about broken cameras, but they promote a “charity for Indigenous elders.”
Dawe and his friends have reportedly contacted Facebook multiple times regarding the fraudulent posts. However, they still remain online as the satirist claims.
Meta said that they couldn’t comment on the case until they had a URL of the fake accounts. A spokeswoman for the company reportedly insisted that Meta was “committed to safeguarding the integrity of our services”.
“We strongly encourage people to report suspected fake accounts and scam posts, so we can review and take the appropriate action,” the spokeswoman said. However, according to Dawe – the “appropriate action” never came. “It’s breathtaking,” he concludes. “They’re prepared to take the money, but when something happens to go wrong, Meta is not prepared to take any responsibility.”