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Watch Out: There’s a ‘Bad Reviews’ Scam Targeting Photographers

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badreviews

Scams targeting photographers are nothing new. There’s one that we’ve seen for a few years in which the “client” asks if they can send you a check for more than they owe you so you can pay some other vendor for them (they then bounce the check and you end up having paid the vendor scammer your money). Another one out there tries to sell you an interesting or desirable domain name. There are other more local ones (fake Craigslist ads or eBay sales for instance).

Other scams are more subtle — the only clue is the phrasing, or wording in the message. (This is one of the reasons many photographers use a contact form on their website — to help us determine which are real inquiries, and which are spam or scams.)

This one here is a good example. There’s only a few subtle clues that this is spam (I clicked the spam button to report this as spam and make that yellow warning come up).

scam

We have a newborn on the way and we are looking to book a session. What is the studio address? What is the length of a session? When can we meet? Thank you, Mark Schwartz.

Recently a number of local photographers have been on the receiving end of a new kind of scam — one that’s kind of mind-boggling in it’s complexity.

The basics in this particular example are as follows:

  1. There’s an initial email inquiring about your services
  2. A second seemingly unrelated email offering “reputation management services” either from “Gina” who claims to be in “Utah” or from “Jennifer” who is a lawyer. This email offers you a chance to hire them to handle any “bad reviews” that pop up online, and they encourage you to keep their contact info on hand “for future needs”.
  3. After this, a series of supposedly angry “clients” send emails about how horrible the service was and the experience is with your company.
  4. Bad reviews about your business begin popping up on various legitimate (and not so legit) review sites online.

Shortly after receiving that first email above from “[email protected],” I received the following, each nested together as one ongoing conversation thanks to Gmail’s inbox organization system. I captured screen shots each time a new one arrived (click to enlarge).

photographer-extortion3

photographer-extortion

photographer-extortion4

One local photographer who received the first two emails in the series went on to discover a trail of fake “bad reviews,” tracked down one person who reviewed her business, and discovered that “Jennifer B” had reviewed 147 other photographers across the country. All with identically worded, scathing reviews of a very personal nature.

Why Is This Worth Sharing?

This needs to be shared because, simply put, the “reviews” industry is not as transparent, legitimate and straightforward as one might think, and it can be ridiculously hard to remove fake reviews. (Been there, tried to do that).

While I cherish the reviews my clients take the time to write about their experience with us, I’m also incredibly frustrated with the “business” of reviews, largely because the average consumer out there has no idea just how false, misleading, wrong and abused the majority of review sites are. I certainly had no idea about the what happens “behind the scenes” with business reviews.

Review sites are a booming business for the review site owners, and now it appears they’re of interest for criminals too. They’re also something that is incredibly time consuming, frustrating and stressful for most small businesses because of the sheer amount of abuse we receive personally and professionally through these sites from both with legitimate clients and fake clients.

yelp

It’s not unheard of for our competition to resort to posting fake reviews in order to try and gain an edge. Buying reviews is incredibly easy to do and it’s also not unheard of for customers to make false claims or post bad reviews for reasons completely unrelated to the service they receive, and as we’re now seeing.

Removing, modifying or altering unreasonable or fake reviews is almost impossible — it is the Internet, after all. Some review sites even advertise that they never remove a review, for any reason, even false ones. Others will only remove poor reviews if the business pays for the removal. Yelp is one review site that is involved in several court cases to determine what kind of role the it should have in managing this issue.

What You Can Do

  • Don’t respond to the emails!
  • Set up a Google Alert for your business name
  • Watch your business on a few different review sites and attempt to respond to the false reviews with a link to this post to educate potential readers, or by submitting “proof” to the review website.
  • Contact the Federal Trade Commission via its toll free hotline: 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357) or the FTC online complaint form.
  • Contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Fraud Complaint Center
  • Non-emergency number for your local police department to make them aware of the fraud (larger cities will have a cyber crimes task force or department).

For more information, or to report a scam, check out The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). The IC3 is a partnership between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Another great resource to learn about and test your ability to understand if something is a scam or not is Looks Too Good to Be True. This site was developed and is maintained by a joint federal law enforcement and industry task force. Funding for the site has been provided by the United States Postal Inspection Service and the FBI.

And for more information about how this is being handled by search engines, this Forbes article is quite interesting.


About the author: Kat Forder is a photographer based in Baltimore, Maryland, who serves clients from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. She is both a storyteller and a child at heart. You can connect with her through her website and Twitter. This article originally appeared here.


Image credits: Header graphic based on photo by hobvias sudoneighm

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