Overpayment Scams: Beware, Photographers!

Recently, I was exposed to an overpayment photography scam. It was disturbing, and it ruined a potential friendship. I’m going to outline how it happened in this article, so that other photographers don’t get fooled by these scam artists. What they do is disgusting, and exploitative. They have no heart, and I don’t want them to hurt others who work hard to earn their money. These scammers use easily available disposable cell phone numbers, and UPI accounts, to target their victims.

How The Scam Incident Started

It all started with me needing some assistance. I had reached out to a number of photographers and assistants over the previous days, and got to know them a little. It was important to me that I get to know them, because I would be working closely with them over the next few days, and probably weeks.

I got to know people who were working at BPOs, owners of photography businesses, people who were starting off on their professional photography journeys, experienced photographers who wanted to help others and grow their own knowledge in the process, and even people who were not related to photography, but who needed the money. I appreciated the effort that everyone took to reach out.

The Scam Begins: I Get A Call From Indian Army Personnel (Supposedly)

The Indian Army scam is well known. But I didn’t know that they would target photographers with such specificity. I thought that they mostly targeted other professions. I was wrong.

I got a call late in the evening, from a person who wanted a photographer for an event – a child’s birthday party. He identified himself as someone from the Indian Army. I don’t photograph events, so I said so immediately.

He then asked if I knew anyone else. This is very normal, and of course, I said that I’d forward his number to someone who could take on his requirement. In fact, this question made me feel like it was a regular enquiry… someone who actually needed a photographer. Little did I know that this was an Indian Army Scammer. I would find out in an unexpected way.

This whole conversation happened in Hindi. Since I was deeply engaged in some editing work at the time and I don’t often speak Hindi, I was not prepared for the language switch. This meant that I bumbled and stumbled incoherently through the conversation, trying to find the words needed to communicate.

I Pass-On the (Scam) Enquiry to a Photography Contact

After hanging up, my mind went to the conversation I’d had a few days earlier, with a photographer who was trying to establish his event photography business, but who had called me in response to my ‘assistance required’ post. I did not know him, and I had not seen his work. All I knew is that he was eager to do some good work, and here was an enquiry that I could not use even if I wanted to.

It made sense to pass on the enquiry to help someone out. Big mistake!

I messaged him on WhatsApp with the number from which I’d got the enquiry phone call a few minutes earlier, and made sure to tell him that I didn’t know the person that I’d got the call from.

Later that night, while I was about to sit down for dinner, I got a message from the photographer saying that the enquiry was a scam… Initially, I thought that he just meant it as an expression, and that they were not really interested in getting work done … just fishing for a price.

His next words shook me! He said that he had lost ₹10,000 to this person.

My jaw dropped!

I was frozen. I didn’t know how this could have happened.

The Photography Scam in Action

The photographer called me a few minutes later and explained what had happened. Here is a short summary of the incident.

  • The scammer discussed their requirement with the photographer and agreed to make an advance payment.
  • The scammer claimed to have mistakenly transferred ₹12,000 instead of the ₹2,000 advance.
  • The scammer requested the return of the excess ₹10,000 and provided a QR code for the transaction on Google Pay.
  • The photographer, believing the scammer’s story and acting in haste, sent ₹10,000 back without verifying the initial transfer.
  • The photographer later realised that he had been scammed and no money had been transferred to his account initially, realising that he had lost ₹10,000.
  • In fact, he realised that it was a scam, only when the scammer said something ridiculous – that they had transferred ₹20,000 to him to ensure that the transfer is working. You may recall that an IT professional recently lost over ₹68,00,000 in this type of scam.

Points to Note About the Scam:

You may say that this is a typical scam format, and one that even the most trusting person would not fall for. On most days that would be true.

There are some tell-tale signs that this is a scam when you read about it unfolding, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s very different. Here are some points to note.

  • The scammer was on the phone the whole time, not allowing the photographer to focus on the points that they needed to.
  • The scammer was hurrying them up, saying ‘urgent’, ’emergency’, etc. Not allowing the photographer to think rationally.
  • The scammer besmirched the good name of the Indian Army to convey that they were trustworthy.
  • The scammer used me, as a photographer in the industry, to prey on another photographer.
  • The photographer did not expect this to be a scam as it was a referral from me, even though I clearly said that I didn’t know this person.
  • Overpayment Scams are not new. They can be done in person over the counter with cash, they can be done by cheque. These new scammers are now using UPI and disposable telephone numbers to do the very same on scale, with very little overhead, and little repercussion, if any.

Repercussions for Me, Personally

The incident shook me. I felt violated. My trust had been used to rob someone else. Unfortunately, this had further repercussions for me.

The photographer called back later in the night. He felt that I had been in on the scam even though I’d shared this website with him the previous day, and shown my work as a photographer.

He felt that nothing I’d told him was true, and I understand that sentiment. I had no words that I could offer to convince him otherwise.

He later said that he had sent someone to my business address, to verify my identity. This shook me a little, because I had never felt that putting my contact details on the internet would ever make me vulnerable.

Having found out that this person had sent someone to stalk me was worrying. Yet, I still understand their actions, and I know that there was no malicious intent, unlike the scammer who had malicious intent from the very start.

The photographer was a trusting individual, and had opened out his heart only to have it stabbed in return. I could hear it in his voice as I hung up with him the last time.

Ultimately, the photographer thought that I was a part of the scam, that my photography business is just a front for a scam operation, and that I don’t work at the address that I claim to be working at. I understand his distrust, but there were bigger and more personal implications for my personal safety.

Repercussions for the Industry: Be Wary

Event photographers in Chennai are being systematically targeted by scammers. It’s important that they understand the methodology of the scam, and make themselves invulnerable to it by following a few good practices.

Here are a few ways in which this photographer could have avoided the Indian Army Photography Scam:

  • Take things slow when it comes to money. Verify that you have actually received a payment.
  • If someone is speeding you up, pause. Disconnect, verify what has happened and call them back if needed.
  • Remember that the person on the phone can be anyone that they want to be. They should have to earn up your trust. Be trusting, but don’t give away your trust for nothing.
  • If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Look for vulnerabilities.

In The End, Stay Alert

It may seem easy to dismiss this as a case of someone wanting to start work in a hurry, and not seeing the very obvious red-flags. We don’t know what mindset led to them being scammed, but we should not end up blaming the victim. I have seen intelligent, world-wise people being conned in other situations too. The blame is to be placed entirely upon the malicious person who intentionally deceives and steals money from people who are most vulnerable…

They intentionally target people who need something desperately enough to believe the obvious lies. They make use of people’s vulnerabilities – trust, innocence, honesty.

I have no respect for these scammers and con-men, and I sympathise with the photographers who have been conned out of their hard-earned money. I take comfort in the fact that that it will never happen to them again, and that they will tell other photographers about it.

On my part, I write this blog post in the hope that event photographers are made aware of the methodology of these scams, and that it never happens to anyone I know. I feel violated to know that my trust was used to gain the trust of someone else, only to rob them of their money.

If you’re a photographer, or more specifically, an event photographer, have you experienced something like this? If so, leave a comment to share your experience and to warn your peers.

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