“Bad Reviews” Blackmail Extortion Scam is Targeting Photographers
Looking at a few sources casually online, I see that there are about 150,000 photographers working in the U.S. We tend to work independently, or as very small companies. We are not big companies with big legal departments. We depend very much on our ongoing reputations. Sometimes, this makes us targets.
The general public is usually not aware that there are quite a few scams that are perpetuated against photographers (here are a few if you are interested). This week, I find myself on the receiving end of a really nasty one.
There is a new one happening to a great many photographers right now. It is a combination of scam and blackmail.
- INITIAL EMAIL: Status Check.
Is this photographer established enough to be worth the trouble?
- SECOND EMAIL: The Threat.
This could be a bogus complaint or not. It declares intentions to attack the photographer’s online reputation.
- THIRD EMAIL: “Protection” (Extortion).
An offering of “legal” services to protect an online reputation.
What makes this so sneaky? Though these all arrive in roughly the same month or so, each one comes from what seems to be a different person, and a different email address.
A few weeks ago, I got the following, very ordinary-looking email from a Mark Schwarz:
Mark Schwarz email@example.com
We have a newborn on the way and we are looking to book a session. What is the studio
address? What are your fees? What is the length of a session? When can we meet?
Thank you. Mark Schwarz
I responded in my usual way, pointing out what my normal specialties are as a
photographer, and describing my services.
No response. This happens, so I didn’t think much about it.
Next: This email:
I am submitting some scathing reviews about your business. I am using social media
such as Google+, YouTube, ripoffreport, and Yelp, You will be coverd in the next week
or so. Your name and company name with words ripoff, bad quality, and scam next to it is
what I’m working on. I do not want money. I want to hurt your photo business to weed out
As you can see, this is just a bald, bare, mean threat.
I am a member of several professional photography groups, including Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and The National Association of Professional Child Photographers (NAPCP). It is through these groups that I found I am not alone as a target of this scam. Many other photographers have received the same emails, and many have even received bad reviews from people they have never even photographed. I did a little research.
First, I searched for “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Lo and behold, up came many blogs and reports about exactly what I am writing here, usually included with the Mark Schwarz email, plus one more, which looks a lot like this:
Subject: Investigation – Photography business and your reputation.
My name is Jennifer McMahon. I am a private investigator and forensic IT investigator. In the event that anytime in the future writes or threatens to write negative comments about your business, these are my services:
1) Reputation Management: I am able to post your testimonials in many key areas to be found quickly by search engines. Thereby pushing any negative comments further down search engine results so as not to be immediately visible to prospective clients.
2) Private Investigator: I am able to positively identify the personal name and/or business name and address of anyone who writes or threatens to write any negative comments about your company online. I am able to supply the person’s name, address, phone number, IP address, and email. Using specialized contacts, I have a 100% success rate. This service is very popular in the photography field. *Best to contact me as soon as possible if you have seen negative comments or have received a threat of negative comments.
3) Further options are available upon consultation.
Please keep my contact information in the event you need my services. This is a one time email only. Thank you.
I may or may not have received this last email already. It looks enough like unsoliciated spam, that I might have deleted it. On the other hand, I might receive it still this afternoon.
UPDATE: I received the following email from email@example.com three days later:
Subject: Investigation – Photography business and reputation management.
I’ve read online that many people in the photography field are receiving
threats to their online reputation by a competitor. If you have already
received such threats (or should you receive these type of threats in
the future), please keep me in mind. I can positively identify the
culprit and provide their physical and website addresses.
I work as a private investigator and I also do reputation management
(pushing negative comments further down search result indexes). I am
very experienced with cases like yours. If I cannot help you, you don’t
pay me. Please let me know if interested. My rates are very reasonable.
A bad online reputation is like a stain that won’t go away. Sadly, we
are judged by what Google says we are. If I see any reviews about your
company, I will contact you again. I am here if you need me. Thank you.
The photography community is aware of this scam, and we are banding together to get the word out so that no one’s business and reputation are hurt. Here’s what the photography community is saying:
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE A TARGET
- Don’t respond to the emails
- Set up a Google Alert for your business name
- Try to educate potential readers of the bad reviews by responding to them at the review sites
- Contact the Federal Trade Commission via its toll free hotline: 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357)
- Contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IC3)
OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO ARE BEING TARGETED