My wife and I loved the UK TV series, “Hu$tle”. For a number of years, kicking back with Thai food and wine was our version of “Netflix and chill” on Friday nights, as “Mickey Bricks”, “Three Socks”, Albert and the rest of the gang would pull off these insanely funny and clever cons on unsuspecting yet carefully chosen marks. We’d joke about how clever Mickey and the gang were to always have a backup plan to the backup plan; every con they pulled seemed air tight in the end. I never thought the day would come when I’d star in an impromptu episode of Hu$tle as the carefully chosen mark. Here’s how it went down.
Usually once or twice a week, I receive a message or two through my website’s contact page from someone sharing a kind word about my work or interested in pricing a print. In the last year or so, I’ve also started getting a somewhat steady stream of inquiries for photo gigs. Weddings (thanks, but no thanks), automotive, architecture, real estate, conceptual, editorial, and so on. Though I’ve accepted a number of these gigs – all of which turned out to be legit – I’m always cautious about any commitments made online. Even in online transactions I initiate, I’m careful about validating the identity of the person I’m dealing with and pulling the plug on any deal that seems like it’s not legit (side note: eBay is more or less a game of whack-a-mole with scam buyers and sellers at every turn these days, but that’s a story for another blog post).
In spite of my diligence, however, anyone can get caught slippin’, and there’s always a predator ready to help separate you from your cash. About a week ago, I received an email through my website from a guy who called himself Daniel Mitri. He said he had a photo gig for Complex Magazine that he wanted to chat with me about, and asked that I reach out to him for details if I was interested. Nothing unusual there; the last editorial job I did started the same way. So, I replied and said I was interested, and asked him to send along more details. Here’s what he sent:
Thanks for the reply and the interest to work with us on this project. Your works are quite aesthetic and I would love to work with you on this gig. There are few details you need to know: Wardrobe will be picked by our stylist based on urban trends for the Summer season. We want you to use an outdoor and urban location but not necessarily metropolitan. We’re not expecting your images to be exactly like what’s in the sample images but at the same time we really want something creative and artistic.You will have to do little retouching if pictures can be taken with natural lighting. Final images will be 30 individual photos; 15 (640 x 480px) and 15 (800 x 600px), to be delivered via file share or Dropbox. Images will on be used as an editorial content on Complex.com for 12 months. An agency will provide a male and a female fashion model, makeup and hair stylists. The budget for the project is $6300 (photographer gets $2200 and $4100 for the talents). You will be paid $700 upfront plus the talents budget while your balance payment will be paid after sending us proof that the job has been done; usually watermarked images. Photographers we hire usually take on the responsibilities of coordinating the shoot, selecting location, and disbursing fees. An advance payment of $4800 will be issued prior to the shoot; this covers your $700 upfront and fee for talents’ fee payable to their manager.The shoot will take place in your city. you will have to agree to the shoot before the company’s contract for you can be sent over. If you’re comfortable with the above,
Kindly confirm the information below:
Full Name on Check:
Residential Address in full:
Phone number ( Mobile Only ):
Full Name on Contract:
Note, the date for the shoot will be decided after you have agreed with our terms.
It sounded fairly solid, so I did a quick Google search and found that a Daniel Mitri was indeed a writer for Complex based out of Toronto. I replied that it sounded good, and I was game. Here’s what he replied:
Thanks for agreeing to do the shoot; I look forward to having a wonderful working relationship with you. The agency providing models, Hair stylist, and MUA is Jorde and Queck and I will want you to discuss possible dates with the agent (Jorde D Garfias) while I work on getting your advance budget and the contract; you can email Jorde at firstname.lastname@example.org“
Still sounded fine to me. I shot “Jorde” a note tossing out a few dates for the shoot, and he replied in agreement with the dates and included a signed contract, complete with Complex Magazine letterhead and language that appeared to cover any complications due to the agency not meeting its’ end of the bargain (i.e. the models not showing up after they get paid, etc.). I let Daniel know that Jorde and I were in touch, and he replied that he’d get a check sent out to me for upfront payment as well as money to pay the MUA and models. Within a day, I had the check in hand, but something started to smell a little funny. Daniel wanted confirmation that I’d received the check. He wanted confirmation that I’d deposited the check. He wanted confirmation that the funds would be accessible to arrange payment to the agency to cover the stylist, MUA and models. He kept asking me what the status was. So began a barrage of text messages pressuring me to move really fast to get payment to this “agency” – until I ended up telling Daniel to either calm down or take his money back. Since photography is not my primary source of income, I’m rarely in such a rush for a deal. Still, I had a chat with my wife about it, and she asked me, “Are you sure this isn’t Hu$tle?”
After a two day bank hold, the funds from the check deposit were available in my account, and I asked “Jorde” for instructions on how I’d get the payment to him. He sent me information for a Chase Bank in Georgia, and I let Daniel know that I’d likely write and deliver a check to that Chase Bank for the appropriate amount for Jorde. Almost immediately, Daniel replied that I should just do an electronic wire transfer. At that point, it was clear that something shady was going on. But it appeared I had $5000 new dollars in my account from the check he sent me. What should I do? I called my bank, got transferred to the Fraud Prevention Department, and told them my story. They quickly investigated the check that I had deposited with them earlier in the week, and determined that it was a fraudulent check that would have surely bounced within the next few days. They told me how scammers work the system loophole where the release of funds from a check often happens faster than the actual back end verification with the bank where the check was originally written. Knowing that banks essentially operate on trust when releasing funds, a con artist can get away with writing bad checks by encouraging wire transfers to third parties. Had I made the electronic wire transfer, I would have been completely liable to my bank to cover the $4800. My bank cancelled the check, advised that I cut off all communication with the scammer, and the crisis was averted.
After ending the call, I decided I’d try to search Facebook for the names Daniel Mitri and Jorde Garfias, and I located a somewhat obscure post from another photographer also describing a near miss with this scam associated with “Daniel Mitri”.
Ironically, one of the grifters from my favorite BBC con show was a precocious scammer named Danny. Danny wasn’t nearly as thorough and meticulous as Mickey, and you could always tell in the execution of the con. At this very moment, as I sit at the bank writing my formal attestation and simultaneously writing this post, I am STILL receiving text messages and phone calls from my “Danny” asking if I’d made it to the bank and when I’ll get the transfer done. The annoying thing about this is that it wasn’t the usual, random cold call scam; “Danny” had done enough research to know that I was a photographer. Coupled with the fact that I’d never done a fashion photo shoot (and thus wasn’t experienced with the logistics), the stage was set for a fool and his money to soon part. Just thought I’d share this story for any other photographers who might be targeted. The con, as they say, is on.
(A similar story appeared on Petapixel in October 2017)