There is a new bad reviews blackmail extortion scam that has been targeting many of my colleagues including myself. UPDATE (: The scam is not just targeting newborn photographers, but any photographers (wedding, portrait, maternity, etc) from North America and Australia (so far…) and photography prop vendors who are visible in the internet searches.
SETTING UP THE SCAM
In December, I received a new client inquiry from Mark Schwarz ( email@example.com ). It was different from the normal inquiries in that this person pasted an image of his inquiry (instead of typing out in text) with bold red font. I ignored it and did not respond.
In January, I received another new client inquiry from Jennifer McMahon Lawyer ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) asking for my website address so I responded.
In early February, Jennifer replied introducing herself as a private investigator and forensic IT investigator offering her services in the event that I receive negative comments about my business.
One week later I got a complaint from Mohammed Abdullah ( email@example.com ). I found it humorous that this person did not bother to research what kind of photographer I am—I photograph newborns, babies and women who are pregnant! I do not photograph men (unless they happen to be the father holding the baby or the husband of my maternity client).
A neat feature of Gmail is that it groups all replies with the original message, creating a single conversation thread. Replies to emails are displayed in order making it easy to understand the context of the message, as if you are in a natural conversation. Even though I spoke with “three” different people with different email address, Gmail groups them together as if they are related to each other (maybe they are the same person or people using the same computer?) I present the conversation thread as it appears in my Gmail below:
The great thing about being connected with many newborn photographers nationally and internationally is that information is shared quickly and you find out that you are not alone. In fact, a detailed description of how this scam works is described on “BAD REVIEWS” EXTORTION, THREATS, ETC. published on February 12 on realphotographers.com. In my case, it appears that the scammers either forgot to send me the email from the friendly and helpful geriatric nurse in Utah or skipped it and sent me my first complaining “client”.
UPDATE (Feb 23): I have not received the latest email from Mohammed Abdullah ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) but my colleagues have.
“I am submitting some scathing reviews about your business as the quality is terrible and I think I am doing everyone a favor putting you out of business. I am using social media such as Google+, YouTube, ripoffreport and Yelp. Today I am working on an American photographer, Harper Noel. You don’t respect or appreciate your customers. I’m going to be writing about this online until it seems you are completely out of business. Your name and company name with words ripoff, bad quality, and scam next to it is what I’m working on. You are the 3rd in the queue starting Wednesday. I do not want money. I want to kill your photo business.”
Please note that this scam doesn’t always get set up this way: 1. Phishing 2. Online reputation management spam 3. Threat. Colleagues have reported getting the threat first without the set-up, so the scam works like this: 1. Threat of bad reviews 2. Bad fake reviews show up 3. Pay to have them removed. It’s the latest scam process that has me now think that the scammers might be hired help. Who would be hiring cheap labors to post bad reviews of an entire industry? Hmmm….
Kat Forder, my colleague at Baltimore, Maryland has more information on the latest update: http://www.katforder.com/2015/02/23/bad-review-photographer-scam-update/
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
At this point, I will adopt a wait-and-see approach as to how this scam develops. I am waiting for an email that presents me my options and the price of the reputation management services, which would establish this scam as blackmail. Blackmail involves a threat to do something that would cause a person to suffer embarrassment (like write bad reviews) unless a person meets certain demands (like paying up so they won’t write bad reviews) and is considered a crime regardless whether the information (the bad reviews) is true or false. The central element of the crime is the blackmailer’s intent to obtain money (or property or services) from the victim with threats of revealing the information.
I will, of course, not pay so I expect that bad reviews will appear on sites like Google+, Yelp, Youtube and ripoffreport.com, complaintsboard and iformative.com shortly.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE A VICTIM
1) Report the scam to the appropriate authorities. For us Canadians, that is the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) at http://www.antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca/english/reportit-howtoreportfraud.html . CAFC is Canada’s central repository for data, intelligence and resource material as it relates to fraud and is managed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. For Americans, report the internet crime to the FBI at http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx and the Federal Trade Center at https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#crnt&panel1-1 (or their hotline: 1-877-382-4357).
2) Reviews sites often allow the company who has been named in the review to respond. Respond to fake bad reviews immediately as you would with real bad reviews.
Personally, I would respond to EVERY fake bad reviews with “This is a false review from someone trying to extort money from me for reputation management. This person has not been my customer.” and include a link to my blog post here. And if I have the time to do more digging, I would also link the reviewer’s profile as proof of scam (e.g. over at Merareview, Iamsillybilly has reviewed 15 photographers from two different continents in a span of four weeks). That’s how I would handle damage control. You are welcome to borrow my response or do it your way. See links below for resources on how to handle fake reviews.
3) Get the review site to remove the fake bad reviews but know that this may not be possible or may take a long time.
RESOURCES FOR REPUTATION DAMAGE CONTROL
2) Check Social Mention regularly to monitor online reviews on social media.
3) Read these awesome pages on how to handle fake reviews:
* How to deal with false pissedconsumer reviews: http://www.vorys.com/publications-1195.html
For your interest, find out what the web universe (attorneys, Yelp, Google, governments, media, etc) is doing to combat false reviews:
Thank you to the following for spreading awareness. Collectively we can stand together and fight this!
* Real Business Photographer: http://realbusinessphotographer.com/bad-reviews-photographers/
* Kat Forder, colleague from Baltimore, Maryland: http://www.katforder.com/2015/02/16/bad-review-scam-targeting-photographers/
* Profession Photographers of America: http://www.ppa.com/ppa-today-blog/copyright-alert/scam-alert-beware-of-emails-bu.php
* Shutters Inc Podcast: http://www.shuttersincpodcast.com/2015/03/01/shutters-inc-episode-287/
* Julio Vilar, colleague from New York on NBC News: http://www.nbcnewyork.com/video/#!/on-air/as-seen-on/Warning-About-Photographer-Review-Threats/298217401
If anyone has anything to add regarding to the development of this scam, I would love to hear from them!
I will continue to update this page as the scam develops so come back often! Keep informed and be safe out there.