Henry and Zory did everything that photographers should do before agreeing to a creative project. They vetted the client. They talked with her on the phone multiple times to build a rapport. They discussed the assignment in detail to ensure that everyone was on the same page. By all means, they were prepared. But when the duo flew to Jakarta to start shooting, they became the latest victims of an elaborate international scam that targets freelance creatives and bilks them out of thousands of dollars.
At the center of this story is an individual who uses dedicated research, skilled accent work, and deft psychological manipulation to trick a variety of contractors — from photographers to military advisers to stuntmen — into flying to Indonesia and paying immense upfront fees for which they’re never reimbursed. To this date, it’s estimated that at least 500 people have fallen victim to the scam, though the actual number may be in the quadruple digits. Here, Henry shares his story as a way to help spread awareness within the freelance community.
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 Condé Nast Traveler. We had just finished talking with them about doing some featured work on Zory’s and my Instagram accounts, so the timing made sense. Flattered, I read through her pitch about needing some up-and-coming photographers to help capture the essence of China for an exhibit centered on 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 said that I was interested in the project.
About a week later, she responded, and we set up a phone call.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in November, her assistant Aaron called us. I noticed that the area code was from New York. Aaron had a thick New York accent, and after a momentary pause, he connected us to Wendi.
When she got on the line, she introduced herself through an interesting accent that was a mix of Chinese, British, and East Coast drawl. (If you’ve seen “Crazy Rich Asians,” she sounded very similar to Michelle Yeoh’s character.)
Wendi complimented us on our photography and went on to say that our style was exactly what she wanted in her exhibit. She then talked about her childhood experience in China, and we found ourselves completely drawn in by her storytelling. She told us that the hours between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. were when the people of China whispered among 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 then asked to hear more about our backgrounds. My parents are from Taiwan, and Zory is from Bulgaria. We both talked a bit about our respective cultures, about which Wendi 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 around town.
She ended the call by asking us to help her research which parts of Southeast Asia would work for the proposed subject. In turn, she would ask her panel (comprised of senior editors from magazines such as Vogue and Cosmo) which areas they thought might be best.
After a couple more calls negotiating budgets, we agreed on a price that was higher and a timeline that was later than she had initially offered. She explained that we would have to book our own tickets to our first location, Jakarta, since she was taking care of all the internal flights (by way of private jet) and hotels. Of course, she said, we’d get reimbursed in full within 24 hours of the project’s conclusion.
Zory and I spent some time discussing whether or not we should be fronting such a large amount with a new client we had never actually met. (Last-minute airline tickets were $2,200 USD each.) But all I could think about was the grandeur and high-profile connections that “Wendi” would be able to open up for us if the project was successful. We had shot other projects in the past (albeit with bigger companies) where we had to initially front travel costs, so this didn’t seem like too much to ask.
After deliberating, we agreed to the terms, and Wendi sent over an NDA and shooting schedule. Looking back now, there were several red flags that we overlooked.
The NDA, for starters, listed Wendi’s lawyer as a Mr. Hebert B. Dillof, who I couldn’t find anywhere online. His name was also spelled differently later in the document, and it listed incorrect dates for the Olympics. I did a DNS lookup of the wendimurdoch.com domain, but in my haste, I overlooked that it had been created only a couple of weeks prior.
The shooting locations she selected were Jakarta, Semarang, Badung, and Penang, which were especially confusing since most of those places (minus Penang) lacked noteworthy photo ops for the exhibit subject of China.
We tried getting Wendi on the phone to discuss details after receiving the documents, but her assistant Aaron said that she’d be unavailable that day because it was her birthday and she was spending it with her family. A quick internet search revealed that it was actually Wendi Murdoch’s birthday, so we wished her a great day.
Small details like that are what make her so convincing. I’ve heard from others who got scammed that while they were on the phone with Wendi, she would even pretend to talk to her kids or other family members.
After we booked our plane tickets and packed our bags, Aaron gave us a final call to tell us, apologetically, that we’d have to pay some additional photography permit fees, or “bribe” fees, to “corrupt” members of the local government. He followed this by claiming he wasn’t “racist” in saying that Indonesia was corrupt. I thought that was a peculiar thing to say, but I let it slide. Boy, did it come up again later.
The fees were kind of high ($1,100), but Aaron reiterated that all expenses would be reimbursed per the contract. As we were just six hours from our flight, it was hard to contest this new development.
So, we headed to the 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 directed us to the nearest money exchange so that we could pay the permit fee. He handed us a bill, and though it had what looked like an official seal on it, it also looked a little odd. For instance, it was billed to “Henry and Guest,” which seemed unprofessional since the project was for both of us. It also had a bizarre-looking postal stamp as opposed to a more official company stamp, and the company logo at the top left didn’t include an address or contact info. Some warning bells sounded off in our heads, but Aaron had told us that we’d be handing the money over to the driver, so that’s precisely what we did.
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 that the hotel was paid for, we felt a bit more at ease. We were excited to start on the project, so we made sure to get a good night’s rest.
At 7:30 a.m., we awoke to Wendi calling us urgently to tell us that the transportation company was refusing to work with us — they claimed that we had been racist by taking photos of our driver. Wendi said that she had no idea how to fix the situation and that, perhaps, we should just cancel the whole project. A bit flabbergasted and still jet lagged, we went on the defensive to try to salvage the shoot and promised to fix the misunderstanding. We’d realize later that this was one of her key tactics: attack us with bizarre allegations so we had to defend our position, and then ask for money while we were still in a defensive state. It totally worked. While we were busy apologizing for “offending” the driver, she casually mentioned that there would be another photography fee for the last two cities. By then, our warning bell system was exhausted, and we just agreed to it, fully believing we’d be reimbursed after the project was finished.
We met the driver downstairs, and he acted like nothing was wrong. We handed him the second permit fee, and then he dropped us off 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. Curious, Zory asked him for more details. We soon found out that he was working for Wendi Murdoch as well! We became friends quickly and began discussing all of our project’s oddities.
According to our new friend, he had arrived in Jakarta a day or two before us and was about to cancel the project because they kept giving him the runaround 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 if he violated the NDA and the contract. But even after all of this, he wasn’t completely sure it was a scam, and neither were we. Doubt was certainly creeping in, but we didn’t know what to believe.
We exchanged WhatsApp numbers and stayed in contact as we went our separate ways.
After a full day of shooting, without any help from the transportation company, we returned to the hotel to rest, recuperate, and investigate a bit further. We had the concierge call all of the hotels we had supposed reservations with to see if any had been paid for. As we learned, one by one, that none had been, it started to seem more likely that this was an elaborate scam.
A couple hours later, Aaron called to check in. We asked him why none of the hotels had been paid for, and he completely lost his mind! He went on another long rant about how I was “racist” to the driver, this time adding how I wasn’t in touch with my Asian side and that it was offensive how cynical we’d both been toward Wendi about getting reimbursed. He also threatened to call Immigration to tell them we were in Indonesia doing work illegally on a tourist visa. He then said that Wendi no longer wished to work with us and she wanted to cancel the project altogether.
Despite everything that had happened over the past 48 hours, at this point, we were still on the fence about the legitimacy of the trip. Maybe it was because we already had so much skin in the game, or maybe it was the continued confrontational tone and threats of legal action for not finishing that put us on the defensive — but we still surprisingly wanted to continue with the project! Looking back now, it seems crazy, but they just knew which buttons to push at the right time to keep us invested.
We eventually got Aaron to calm down and said that we’d talk again in the morning to discuss whether or not the project was still viable.
After a sleepless night, we decided we’d hear what Aaron had to say on the call and regroup from there.
At 8 a.m., Aaron called and said that Wendi had decided to cancel the project, but not to worry — she would reimburse us for all of the travel costs and permit fees within 24 hours. He then asked us to write an invoice with our bank account and routing number so that they could transfer the money we were owed. Though we felt an instant weight off our shoulders, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that we were getting scammed and were possibly in danger.
I decided to look on Facebook to see if I knew anyone who lived in Jakarta. Lo and behold, one of my friends had just moved there from Los Angeles and he’s the type of guy who “just knows things.”
I pinged him on Facebook Messenger, told him that I was in a weird situation in Jakarta, and asked if I could call him. He gave me his WhatsApp info, and within 10 seconds of my telling him what had occurred, he knew what was happening to me. He gave me a link to a story in the Hollywood Reporter, which discussed how many others (filmmakers, military consultants, hair stylists, etc.) had been scammed in the same way. The feature even included recordings of the scammer, and one of them matched “Wendi’s” voice exactly.
I spent the next three hours calling to secure all of my financial accounts and ensure that nothing had been stolen. I was fully paranoid, thinking that they might have bugged our hotel room, filmed us, and used my information to steal my identity. Luckily, they hadn’t done any of that, most likely because they were already busy scamming the next photographer on their way to Jakarta.
As of today, the person behind all of this is still running the scam. And yes, it’s one Indonesian man who is apparently an expert at impersonating both male and female voices, as well as a variety of accents. I spoke to Nicole Kotsianas, Director at K2 Intelligence, who’s been on the case for the past year. She said that she’s spoken to at least 100 people who have been scammed by the same man and estimates that the actual number of those who have fallen victim is between five to 10 times that amount.
Our total loss was around $7,500 USD. And no, we were never reimbursed for any of it.
In order to capture the scammer’s voice, I managed to record one conversation between Aaron and us, about a scheduling mixup between them and the driver. If you find yourself interacting with someone similar, do not proceed with the project.
If you or someone you know has been scammed by this individual, please reach out to me or Nicole Kotsianas at K2 Intelligence.
As terrible as it was, we refuse to let this encounter color our view of Instagram, photography, or the beauty found in traveling the world.
Here are some tips on how to make sure you’re working with a legitimate client:
- Take a look around the company’s website and look for a contact number or address. See if there is quality content on the site. Look for strange misspellings.
- Do a DNS WHOIS Lookup to see when the domain was registered. We totally overlooked that the wendimurdoch.com domain had been registered just two weeks before they contacted us.
- If there is a contract, look for misspellings or strange wording. Google any individuals that are written on the contract to make sure they are real.
- Push for a pre-payment if the client insists that you pay for upfront costs such as airfare and hotel.
- Beware of clients pushing you to commit on a sudden timeline and refusing to budge. For example, most projects we’ve worked on had flexible and reasonable timeframes. With the Wendi Murdoch scam, they really insisted that we book the airfare immediately and deliver on an unreasonable deadline — all with the intention of keeping us off balance.
- Use your intuition. If it feels weird and too good to be true, it’s probably worth pausing to ask some of your friends in the industry what they think.
Stay safe and be sure to share this along your social channels to spread awareness! Let’s catch this guy.