This scam has been going on for decades and still is, although it is much less prevalent these days. Now the Internet is used instead of a printed book; it’s cheaper for the scam artist.
Model Scouting Websites
A few of these are entirely legitimate and valuable, even if not always in the way the customer anticipates. The trouble is, there are lots of others. The largest scam in the history of the modeling industry used this approach.
The Pitch: Model “exposure” Internet sites are a new wrinkle on that old “exposure book” theme. The premise now is that a model would pay to have their pictures on the site, the site would be seen by Casting Directors and/or agencies who sit in front of their computers each day, just waiting for the next batch of hopefuls to be put on the site, and the CDs and agents would “discover” their new talent. Nobody ever explains why a fashion agency in New York might want to discover a 5’4” model in North Platte, Nebraska – but never mind that. Sound familiar?
The Reality: In fact the better of these sites actually do have some such value, at least for people that agencies are willing to search for (read: fashion models, or good commercial models in the agency’s area). As long as the cost is not too great they may be a good idea. $30-$100 a year seems reasonable, especially if there is high-quality content and a good modeling forum to add value to the purchase price. But a high percentage of their subscribers will be disappointed: no agency will call. With the best of them most people use it for what it is really good for: an opportunity to learn about the business and network with people in it. With the worst, it’s a total waste of money.
The Casting Calls Scam
The Pitch: They have hundreds of castings from producers and casting directors around the country that you can use to submit yourself for jobs. The site may want you to pay a monthly fee for access, it may be a come-on for a model listing site, or it may be used by a “model agency” that requires upfront fees or is a portfolio mill. Sites that claim to be free usually will ask you to “upgrade” to get the “full benefit” of their services – at extra cost.
The Reality: There really are two or three sites with relationships with mainstream casting directors, which get breakdowns for agencies. None of them charge models or actors for access. Some of these breakdowns are available to the public. But there are dozens of other websites who make these kinds of claims and have little of real value to offer. The “casting calls” may really be ads by model or talent agencies to recruit talent (and may not even placed by the agency itself). Jobs may be lifted from public sources such as Back Stage, The Ross Reports and legitimate, open casting websites or even craigslist. They may simply be made up. These sites tend not to ensure the reality and quality of the jobs posted, and they often are open to anyone at all to list a “casting call”.
Some online “agencies” have been using this “stolen casting calls” technique to make themselves look legitimate, so they can attract applicants that they can extract money from in a variety of ways.
The Traveling Portfolio Mill and Agency
The Pitch: we come to your city, take “professional pictures” of you, we list you on our nationwide roster of models, and then we get you modeling work.
The Reality: Nonsense! These people will take your money for those pictures, the pictures will be far from professional quality, and you will never make your money back on modeling jobs. Sometimes they do have some promotional jobs to give out, so you can make your thousand dollars or so back at $12 an hour passing out flyers. Is this what you had in mind when you set out to be a model? Here’s a hint: if they are from a long way away from you and they aren’t a famous fashion agency it’s almost certainly a scam.
The Local Portfolio Mill and Agency
The Pitch: The agency photographer is chosen because he knows how to take the kinds of pictures we need.
The Reality: That may be true, which is why it’s so hard to tell if this is real professional advice or part of a scam. Outside the major markets there may be no more than one (or perhaps there is no) photographer in the area who can reliably deliver the kinds of pictures models need. A primary job of a good agency is to find good photographers, make sure they know what is required for models, and make them available to you. If they don’t do that, you are likely to waste a lot of time and money on inappropriate pictures.
But it’s also true that scammers arrange kickback schemes and make a lot of their money getting you to shoot with their photographers. Those pictures may or may not do you much professional good. From the scammer’s standpoint it doesn’t matter, since your check cleared and he isn’t much worried about you getting modeling work. A legitimate agency is motivated to send you to photographers who can get you what you need to be successful. A scammer isn’t. It’s amazing how long things like this can stay in business. Sometimes they exist for months or even years before they disappear, only to show up in another name, or in another city.
The Catalog Scam
The Pitch: buy our clothes, have pictures taken of yourself, and you can be a model in our catalog (or calendar, or other publication). We’ll even pay you for it!
The Reality: Nobody needs that many pictures to put into their catalog, and nobody wants the kind of amateur shots you are likely to produce in their catalog. In fact, there probably isn’t going to be a catalog. You send hundreds of dollars to them, you get some cheap, cheesy clothes back in the mail, and nothing else of any value ever comes back to you. If you’re lucky (sort of) you may get some home-made “ad” that they cobbled together on their home computers that they claim you can use as a “tearsheet” – but it’s worthless in the real professional world.
The “We Don’t Trust You” Scam
The Pitch: we will get you work, but you need to leave a deposit with the agency as insurance against your performance, or for a background check
The Reality: clients do want to be sure the models they hire are reliable, and the agency has to guarantee that reliability. It’s also true that making the model invest in his career greatly increases the probability the model will follow through on his commitments.
So, as in any good scam, they use that truth to separate the model from his money. They charge an up-front “insurance fee to indemnify the agency if you don’t do a job you’ve booked”. Or they make you pay for an up-front “background check” which they claim is needed to keep “convicted felons” from being hired by their clients. Real agencies don’t do that; they may make you spend a lot of money, but it will be on things that do you good, not things that just line their pockets.
The Pay to Play Scam
The Pitch: Some promoters will advertise “opportunities” for models. Typically it is to be in a fashion show for some designer or retail store. The catch is you have to pay to audition for the show – sometimes as much as $25-$100 just to get into the audition. Then, if you are very lucky, you might get chosen and you may get paid some small amount. Or the promoter will advertise what great “exposure” you will get from their event, and pay you nothing.
The Reality: These things are almost always of little to no real value except to the “hobby model”. They are simply another way for scammers to separate you from the contents of your wallet. Some of them are also run by modeling schools, which use the “opportunity” to tell applicants that they need training which, by great good fortune, they can provide - for a price. Some are merely another form of “party promoter” exercise, where the point is to charge people tickets to see a fashion show, or to use the “fashion show” as a draw to bring patrons to a night club or restaurant. The professional press and fashion industry have little interest in such things, and they rarely to never lead to anything for a professional model.
The Name Game
The Pitch: A person claims the identity of a real, highly respected and well known personage in the industry: a famous fashion photographer or producer, for instance. This happens most frequently on the Internet, where it’s easy to create email addresses in any name you like. The scammer will ask a model for things he wants, usually revealing or fetish-oriented photos. Only rarely does this scam involve a request for money, but it can turn into stalking.
The Reality: Famous photographers and producers don’t go roaming around the Internet looking for models. Models approached by “someone famous” should ask for their office telephone number and call the office during business hours. If that request is refused it’s a virtual certainty that the person isn’t who he says he is. If he complies, the model should check on the telephone number and make sure it is listed in the name of the company he says it is.
The Vertical Integration Scam
An agency in New York has hit upon a new way of making money. They advertise that they “no longer deal directly with the public”, and that models who wish to work with them have to do so through referral from an industry professional or a search company. Another well-known agency in Miami is doing something similar. Helpfully, they refer models to such a company, which they say will screen models’ applications for them, and present qualified models to “agencies”. What they don’t tell you is that the search company is owned by the same person who owns the agency, and that the “screening fee” is really just an up front application fee under another name. Other real agencies allow models to apply in person or by mail for free.
The Nigerian Scam
Various versions of this have been around for nearly a century, but with the advent of the Internet the scammers have gotten more sophisticated and are able to target likely victims with a pitch tailored to them. Although most of the scammers using this technique seem to be in Nigeria (which has a very permissive government when it comes to things like this), they could be located anywhere. Lately the UK has been a favorite claimed location for them.
The Pitch: We want you to do something for us, and we will pay you a very large amount of money for it. It could be a “commercial job” or a “fashion show” or anything at all related to the industry. The specifics of who they claim to be and what they are offering change, but in all cases they will say they will pay you a lot of money up front, even before you do the job. They may refer you to real-looking websites announcing the event, and use the names of real designers or clients.
The Reality: There is no commercial job, no fashion show, no nothing. Never was. Any website they refer you to either has no association with them, or is made by them to dupe you. If you give them your contact information, they will send you real-looking certified checks just as they promised they would. But “Oops! We made a mistake! We overpaid you and need you to refund some of the money to us.” They hope you will deposit their check in your account, then send them real money in return before your bank notifies you that their check was a forgery.
There is a variant, where all they do is ask for your identification information – enough that they can do an identity theft and charge things to your accounts.
These Nigerian Scams are so prevalent on the Internet that we have written an extensive article about it here.
The Webcam Interview
The Pitch: The scammer claims to be a scout or booker for a well-known model agency, and says that he found the model’s information on a model listing site or something like myspace.com. The contact will usually be made using an interactive system like AIM, where the model and scammer can interact in real time. The scammer says they are interested in the model, but need more information and pictures to make sure she fits their requirements. The model is sometimes asked to email additional pictures, but most often is asked to do things for her webcam so the scammer can see her. As the “interview” progresses, the model is asked to do ever more revealing things for the webcam.
The Reality: Major agencies rarely go cruising around myspace.com or model listing sites looking for models. If they happen to find one on such a site, they don’t contact them with a yahoo email address or through AIM. They might contact a model through email, but using their company domain, and asking for a telephone interview. They will never, ever ask for nudes to be sent to them, or for a model to do anything at all on a webcam.
The Model’s License/Work Permit
This one has been around for years, and seems to be making a comeback.
The Pitch: The model is told that she is wanted for work (or for an agency) in Europe, and is made all sorts of promises, often using real-sounding names. Preparations are made for a trip, and it all begins to sound very good. Then in the middle of the conversation, the scammer will tell the model that to work in Europe she needs a “modeling license”, and asks her to confirm that she has one. She won’t have one, of course, so the scammer tells her he has an attorney who can get her one – for a fee.
The Reality: There is no such thing as a “model license” in Europe (although there are a variety of visa issues, depending on the country, that he European agency will have to take care of). Money sent to the scammer for the “license” buys nothing at all, and once the money is sent, communications stops. There never was any work or agency for the model in Europe.
A variant of this is a claim by some “client” that the model, typically one in the US, needs a work permit to take a job offer in Europe. They may even supply a link to an official website, such as in the UK, which shows that it’s true. Like all good scams, there is a veneer of reality behind it – models really do need work permits to come to the US or to Europe. But they are not something that clients have models pay for. Almost always, the work permit (or work visa) will be arranged through a model agency, and will allow them to work for an extended period. It is never true that a real client will ask a model to pay for a permit up front.
The Fake Magazine
This happens mostly on the Internet.
The Pitch: Work with me and I’ll put you in this new magazine I’m about to publish. It’s a come-on line used by mediocre photographers to entice models to shoot with them, or shoot in a way they normally would not.
The Reality: There is no magazine, there never is going to be a magazine. At best the photographer will put up some kind of “magazine” on the Internet, as though that means something. Appearance in it is worthless to the model, and cannot be counted as a tearsheet.