How An Elaborate International Scam Is Making The Rounds Among Instagrammers & Photographers
It all started with an email from Wendi Murdoch. She claimed that she had found us through a personal recommendation from a senior editor at Conde Naste Traveler. We had just finished talking with Conde Nast Traveler about doing some Instagram featured work on both my (https://www.instagram.com/humminglion/) and Zory’s (https://www.instagram.com/zorymory/) accounts, so the timing made sense. Flattered, I kept reading her pitch about needing some up and coming photographers to help capture the essence of China for an upcoming exhibit centered around the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.
I had a rough idea of who Wendi Murdoch was: a Chinese American art philanthropist and shrewd businesswoman who made waves with an expensive divorce from media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.
Not really knowing what to make of it, I responded that I'd be interested in the project.
About a week later, she responded and we set up a time to have a phone call.
So on a sunny Sunday afternoon, her assistant Aaron called us. I noticed that the area code was from New York. He had a thick New Yorker accent and connected us to Wendi after a momentary pause.
When she got on the line, she introduced herself with an interesting accent that was a mix of Asian, British, and East Coast drawl. (If any of you have seen Crazy Rich Asians, she sounded very similar to the character that Michelle Yeoh played.)
She complimented us on our photography and went on to talk about how our style was exactly what she wanted in her exhibit for the Beijing Olympics. She then talked about her childhood experience in China. We were completely drawn in by her storytelling about how between the hours of 10 pm to 7 am that was when the people of China whispered amongst themselves about their dreams and aspirations. It was these whispers that she wanted us to somehow capture through photography in the areas of Southeast Asia where Chinese communities had immigrated to.
She wanted to hear more about our backgrounds. My parents are from Taiwan while Zory is from Bulgaria. We both talked a bit about those cultures, of which she was able to converse intelligently and freely. For example, when I told her we had visited Taipei the year before she was able to chat knowledgeably about some of my favorite areas of town.
We ended the call with her asking us to help her research which parts of Southeast Asia would be great for the subject. In turn, she would ask her panel (comprised of senior editors from magazines such as Vogue and Cosmo) where they thought work best.
After a couple more calls negotiating budget and timelines - we agreed on a price that was higher and a timeline that was later than she initially offered. She would later use that to defend any ideas of pre-payment on her part. She also said that we would have to book our own tickets to Jakarta since she was taking care of all the internal flights via private jet and hotels. Of course we'd get totally reimbursed within 24 hours of the project conclusion..
Zory and I spent some time discussing whether or not we should be fronting such a large amount up front with a new client we had never actually met. (Last minute airline tickets were $2,200 USD each) But all I could think of was the grandeur and high profile connections that 'Wendi' would be able to open up for us if the project was successful. We also had done other projects in the past (albeit with bigger companies) where we had to front travel costs first and then be reimbursed at project conclusion, so this wasn't entirely asking too much.
So we agreed to the terms and she sent over an NDA and shooting schedule that had several red flags that we overlooked.
The NDA, for starters, listed Wendi's lawyer Mr. Hebert B. Dillof, who I couldn’t find on Google anywhere. His name was also misspelled later in the document as well as having the wrong date of the Olympics. I also did a DNS lookup on the wendimurdoch.com domain and in my haste overlooked that it had only been created a couple weeks before.
The shooting locations she picked were Jakarta, Semarang, Badung, and Penang, which were especially confusing since most of those places (minus Penang) lacked any good photographic scenery for the exhibit subject of China.
We tried getting her on the phone to discuss details but her assistant Aaron said that she'd be unavailable that day because she was spending it with her family for her birthday. It was actually Wendi Murdoch's birthday, so we wished her a great day with her family.
These small details were what they were so good at. I've heard from other people who got scammed that she would even pretend to talk to her kids or other family members while on the phone with you.
After finally booking the plane tickets and packing our bags to leave for the airport - Aaron gave us a final call to tell us apologetically that we'd have to pay some photography permit fees or 'bribe' fees to some of the local government there due to corruption. He also claimed he wasn't racist to say Indonesia was corrupt. I thought that was a peculiar thing to say but let it slide. Boy did it come up again later.
The fees were kind of high ($1,100) but he promised all expenses would be reimbursed per the contract and not to worry about it. As we were just 6 hours from the flight, it was hard to contest this.
So we went to SFO airport, hopped on an Eva Air flight and 20 odd hours later landed in Jakarta to be greeted by our non English speaking in-on-the-scam driver. He had our names on a placard and helpfully directed us to the nearest money exchange so we could give him the 'photography permit' fee. He gave us a silly looking piece of paper with an official seal on it. We had some warning bells going off in our heads but Wendi's assistant Aaron did tell us we'd be handing the money over to the driver.
When we got to the hotel, I snapped a photo of the driver and his license plate to be sure:
After checking in and seeing the hotel was paid for, we felt a bit more at ease and had a good night's rest in hopes of capturing some great photos the next day.
At 7:30 am we awoke to Wendi calling us urgently to tell us that the driver and the transportation company refusing to work with us because we had been racist by taking photos of him. Remember how Aaron had used the word 'racist' to describe the bribe just a day earlier? Anyhow, Wendi claimed that she had no idea how to fix the situation and that perhaps we should just cancel the whole project. This is at 7:30 am in the morning on the first day of the 'project'. A bit flabbergasted and still jet lagged, we went on the defensive to try to salvage the project and promise to 'fix' the misunderstanding with the driver. This was one of her key tactics that we realized later. Attack us with strange things so we have to defend our position. Then ask for money while we're in this defensive state. It totally worked. While we were apologizing for 'offending' the driver, she casually mentioned that there would be another photography fee for the last two cities. By now our warning bell system was exhausted and we just agreed to it, fully believing we'd be reimbursed after the project was finished.
So we met the driver downstairs and he's acted like nothing was wrong. We gave him the second 'permit fee' and then he dropped us off at in the middle of Chinatown. It wasn't quite photogenic but we tried to make the most of it while wandering around on our own.
As luck would have it, we ran into a German photographer at a Chinese temple who was talking to some locals about a photo project he was on. Zory, unable to hold her curiosity in, asked him for more details and he replied that it was for Wendi Murdoch! At this point, we became friends quickly and started exchanging all the oddities and details of our project.
He had apparently been in Jakarta a day or two before us and was about to cancel the project because they kept giving him the runaround everyday when it was time to move to the next city. They'd find ways to drive him to the wrong airport or make excuses to ask for more permit charges all while threatening legal action for violating the NDA and contract. Even after all this, he was not completely sure it was a scam and neither did we, but doubt was creeping in.
We got his WhatsApp number and stayed in contact while we went our separate ways for the day.
After a full day of shooting, without any help from the driver by the way, we went back to the hotel to rest, recuperate, and investigate a bit further.
When we got back to the hotel, we had the concierge call all the hotels we had reservations with to see if they had been paid for. As the concierge called each one to find out none had been paid for yet, it started to dawn on us that this might be an elaborate scam.
A couple hours later, Aaron calls to check on us and we asked him why all the other hotels aren't paid for yet. This made him lose his mind! He went on a crazy rant about how I was 'racist' again to the driver, how I'm not in touch with my Asian side, and how cynical we've been towards Wendi about getting reimbursed. He also threatens to call Immigration to tell them we are in Indonesia doing work illegaly on a tourist visa. He then says Wendi wants to cancel the project because she can't work with us.
At this point we were still on the fence if this was a scam or not. I don't know if it's because we already had so much skin in the game but we still surprisingly wanted to continue with the project!
Anyhow - we got Aaron to calm down and then said we'd talk again the morning to discuss if this project was still viable or not.
After a sleepless night, we decided we'd hear what Aaron had to say on the call and then decide from there.
8 am - Aaron calls and he says that Wendi has decided to cancel the project, but not to worry she would reimburse all the travel costs and permit fees within 24 hours. He said to make an invoice with the bank account and routing number so they could transfer the money in. We felt an instant weight off our shoulders as the past 48 hours had been outrageously stressful.
But, I just couldn't shake off the feeling that we were getting scammed and possibly in danger. So I looked on Facebook to see if I knew anyone who lived in Jakarta. Lo and behold, one of my friends had just moved from Los Angeles to Jakarta recently and was the type of guy to just 'know things'.
I pinged him on Facebook messenger to tell him I was in a weird situation here in Jakarta and if I could call him. He gave me his WhatsApp contact info and within 10 seconds of my telling him what happened, he knew what was happening to me. He gave me a link to the Hollywood Reporter where many other people ( filmmakers, military consultants, hair stylists, etc) had been scammed with the same thing. They even had recordings of the scammer and one of them matched "Wendi's" voice exactly.
Right then and there I spent the next 3 hours calling and securing all my financial accounts to make sure nothing had been stolen. I was in full paranoia that they might have bugged our hotel room, placed video cameras, and used all my info to steal my identity. Luckily, they hadn't done any of that, most likely because they were busy scamming the next photographer on the way to Jakarta.
As of today, they are still scamming photographers and bringing them to Jakarta. I spoke to Nicole Katsianas, Director at K2 Intelligence, who’s been on the case for the past year. She said she’s spoken to at least 100 people who have been scammed by this and estimates between 5-10 times that amount have been affected by this.
Our total loss was around $7,500 USD due to the airline tickets being so expensive. And no, we never got reimbursed for anything.
I managed to record one conversation between Aaron and us, about a scheduling mixup between the driver and them.
If you've been scammed by this, please reach out to me or to Nicole Katsianas at K2 Intelligence to help catch this guy. Oh and yes, it’s one Indonesian man who is apparently an expert at impersonating male/female voices and accents on command, along with having mastery of psychological tactics. The wendimurdoch.com domain was closed by the authorities, but he opened a new domain dengmurdoch.com.
We won’t let this encounter color our view of how amazing Instagram, photography, and traveling the world is though.
Stay safe and make sure to share this along your social channels to spread awareness! Lets catch this guy!