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These days, anyone can become the victim of a scams or fraud – including photographers. New scams are being invented all the time, especially online, where anonymity is the norm. But there are 4 scams that target the photography world specifically, so I thought I would describe how they work, and what you can do to avoid falling for them.
1) The E-Bay Return Scam
How it works:
Some dishonest person has a camera (or lens, strobe unit, laptop, etc.) that, for whatever reason, is broken. Maybe they used it for a while before it broke. Maybe they found it broken in a garage sale. They go to auction websites like E-Bay and classified sites like Craigslist and search for the exact same item, and buy it using a payment service like PayPal.
As soon as the package arrives, the buyer alerts the seller that the item is broken, and they are sending it back and expect a full refund. They put the broken camera (or lens, strobe unit, laptop, etc.) into the box and send it back.
You receive the item and realize that this is not the same one you sent, so you refuse to refund the money. But, the buyer complains to PayPal, shows proof that they returned the item, paints you as the dishonest party, and PayPal refunds their money.
How to protect yourself:
Make sure you have documented proof that the item you sent out is not the same one that was returned. Take photos of the serial numbers and include them in the post itself. This will not only prove the original number, but also deter any potential crooks from trying to pull the scam on you.
2) The Fake Photo Assignment Scam
How it works:
A hard-working honest independent freelance photographer gets an email via their website offering them the chance to shoot an assignment. It could be a wedding shoot, or a portrait session, and it might involve some travel – of which all expenses will be covered. Awesome! Usually, the person is working on behalf of someone else, in a different state or country – they will present themselves as a coordinator for someone who is usually too important or busy to do this themselves.
They will offer to pay you up front, via cashier’s check. (First red flag just went up, right?) When the check arrives – it is larger than the amount you agreed upon. So the honest photographer will contact the person, and they’ll suddenly realize that they accidentally sent you the amount of money for the florist, or the venue, or some other service needed for the shoot. (Second red flag!)
They’ll then ask you, if it isn’t too much trouble, to just send the overpayment to the florist/venue/other party. (Red flag #3!) This is the old (and widely known) fake cashier’s check scam. When you deposit this check, your bank will initially accept it as good. So many people will go ahead and forward the difference as instructed. A week later, the cashier’s check comes back as fake, and they remove that amount from your bank account.
The florist/venue/other party was actually them, and they disappear with your money.
How to protect yourself:
Before you book an assignment from an unknown person, try to get as many details as possible. Exactly where will the shoot take place, and when? If they give you this information, call to verify. If they avoid supplying this info – then something is fishy.
Before you accept an assignment, it’s a good idea to ask for a 50% payment up front, and leave yourself plenty of time for the payment to clear through all the banks (not just yours). If possible, don’t accept any cashier’s checks – and NEVER EVER agree to send the overpayment to someone else.
3) The Fake (or Bad) Photo Contest
How it works:
A photographer enters a photo contest that sounds like it comes from a very legitimate organization. There is usually a cash prize for first place, and even some money for second place. The biggest benefit, though, is that all the winners get published in a book that is sold in book stores all over the world! A photographer just starting out could use this type of exposure, so they send in their images and hope for the best.
Soon after, they receive a notice that they won 2nd or 3rd place, and their photo(s) will be featured in the book! Excellent! The notice also says that they would like to include the photographer’s biography in the book — for an additional fee of about $40. And, of course, they will want to order a copy of the book – which could cost as much as $100.
The photographer orders the book and waits. And waits. Eventually the book arrives, and this is when the photographer realizes that he/she did indeed win a 2nd or 3rd place — along with 100 or so other people. Basically, everyone who enters is a “winner.”
This type of activity is not illegal – it’s actually a clever (and sneaky) way to sell books. You are not required to buy the book, but they prey on a photographer’s vanity and pride to sell books to a captive audience.
What about those cash prizes they talk about? They may actually be making a real payment to the only person to win a first place in the book, but instead of cash, second place winners may end up receiving a commemorative coin in the mail that they claim is worth the amount of money originally stated previously.
Another variation of this focuses on parents, who can pay a $20 fee and enter a photo of their baby into a contest where winners will be published in a book of “America’s Most Beautiful Babies.” All entrants are “winners” and almost all of the entrants end up buying the book. One such contest boasts 2.8 million baby photos entered since they started in 2006. That means they’ve pulled in $56 million dollars in entry fees alone!
Still another variation happens when the company finds one of your photos online, and alerts you via email that your image has been selected to be included in a high-quality book. If you respond, they’ll ask for a high-resolution version of the image so it can be reproduced properly. Then they make a sales pitch, where you can buy this book.
When the book comes, and you look closely, you may see that the page has been glued in place – and the only version of this book with your photo is the one you purchased.
Again, what these companies are doing here is not illegal – but in my opinion, it’s very sketchy and deceptive. For this reason, I have decided not to mention the names of these organizations.
How to protect yourself:
The Internet is your friend here. Make sure you research the background of any organization holding a photo contest. Is the organization a recognized advocate for the industry, with a history of promoting photographers and excellent photography, and therefore worthy of respect within the industry? Or are they a private company the doesn’t care much about quality? Look for the contest’s previous winners, and objectively ask yourself – Will your career as a photographer get a boost by being listed among them?
If they require an entry fee and then ask for your bank account information instead of paying by credit card – think twice about entering. Paying via credit card can always be reversed, and companies with credit card merchant accounts are held to certain standards of conduct – or else they lose their ability process credit card payments.
Also, read the fine print and make sure you agree to everything. Be especially careful about (and on the lookout for) entering into any “rights-grabbing contests.” The simple act of entering these kinds of contests gives the contest organizers the right to do anything they want with your images – including re-selling them, re-publishing them, or using them in advertising campaigns for free. “Rights-grabbing contests” are usually created solely for the purpose of collecting a cheap library of images to use for other means, and not for promoting excellence in photography.
And think about this: If they want to use your photography in a book, shouldn’t they be paying you, not the other way around?
4) The Unethical Camera Store Scam
How it works:
Everyone loves a bargain, especially photographers. Looking to cut costs, the photographer decides to use the Internet to shop around for the lowest possible price on a camera or lens or some type of photo product. Most prices are within a few dollars of each other – until suddenly a super crazy low price is quoted (either on a website, or from a store selling through eBay.) The photographer has never heard of this particular store, but their website appears professional looking and legit, and it has a street address (usually in Brooklyn, NY) published on their website (therefore it must be a real store) – so they decide to snap up this great deal.
What happens next will be a series of attempts to get more money out of you – starting with a message to “call the store to confirm your order.” This tactic puts you on the phone with an expert high-pressure salesperson who precedes to work on you for every little thing imaginable. The price quoted is for the camera only – not the battery, battery charger, the camera strap, the body/lens cover, the manual, software installers, or even the box itself, they’ll claim. You will need to pay extra for those things — even though they are supplied with the camera from the manufacturer.
Or, they’ll claim that the lens you bought comes with a plastic lens (a lie), and to upgrade to the version with a glass lens, it’ll be $250 more.
Or you’ll find yourself in the middle of a bait-and-switch situation, where they try to sell you on something else instead of what you really wanted in the first place.
You should also expect hefty delivery charges. And when you open the box, don’t be surprised if some inferior product is inside – hoping you won’t notice (or won’t be bothered with the hassle of returning it.) Should you decide to return the item, you should expect to pay a “restocking fee” that can go as high as 25% of the purchase price.
Remember – you get what you pay for. Trying to go for the too-good-to-be-true very may result in paying-through-the-nose in the long run.
How to protect yourself:
Only deal with camera retailers who are known and trusted. Take recommendations from other photographers. Adorama, B&H Photo, Samy’s Camera, Amazon.com, and Calumet are examples of trustworthy retailers that I’ve personally done business with.
You can also use ResellerRatings.com to help do some background research on a retailer. A word of warning on ResellerRatings, though – people love to bitch and moan about everything and anything – so you have to take things with a grain of salt. Even really great stores sometimes have less than perfect scores here. What you should be looking for are stores that have ratings of 1 out of 10 or below.
Consider entering their street address into Google street view and see what shows up. If you’re looking at an abandoned alleyway, or a third-party PO box rental store, or someone’s residential home – take that as a warning.
Also remember that some of these companies will change their names frequently in an attempt to run from the bad reviews. If a company doesn’t have many reviews to their name, let that serve as a warning as well. Check out this amusing resource of camera retailer storefronts in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and other locations from Don Wiss.
Do you have any tales to tell, or words of warning, about scams and frauds aimed at photographers? If so, please contribute to this story by adding your comments below.