Don’t be fooled by these common photography scams!

Start working as a professional photographer and soon you’ll be hit with some photography scams.  There are lots of different scams occurring featuring photographers.  Some are very simple, others quite complex.  Weddings, family reunions, fashion photo shoots, international photojournalism…scammers will use any excuse to steal from you.  I’ve been in business for a few years and have personally received probably twenty or more requests to participate in such scams.  The scammers are out there and they really want your money.  So here are several of the more common photography scams to be aware of.  Don’t be a victim!

Why do these photography scams work?

Scammers are using psychological warfare against photographers to cheat us out of our money.  They play to our weaknesses…our hunger for work or money and our egos.  The scammers use terms like “up-and-coming” or “stunning work” that flatters and disarms us.  And the scammers keep at it because unfortunately, it works.  Even if only 1 in 200 photographers fall for their scam, that’s money in their pocket.

family reunion photography scam

Photography Scams #1 – The Family Reunion Scam

This is one of the more common, and current, photography scams.  A potential client contacts you wanting your services.  The client needs a family reunion photographer.  He has a date and location arranged and asks how much you would charge for a few hours of work.  You name your price and he agrees.  As you start to work out details about payment, the client asks for a favor…if he pays you more than your asking price, would you please give the extra to the event planner?

Variations of this scam include family reunions, weddings, events, etc.  The inquiry can be on the via e-mail, text,  your website or through a known referral service.  What kind of job or how the inquiry comes in doesn’t matter.  What you need to be concerned with is the request to pay a third party out of your fees or accounts.

How you are scammed

The scammer “client” tricks you by either paying you with a fake check, stolen credit card or bogus PayPal account.  You think you’ve been paid, so you pay the event planner (also the scammer) from your account.  But then the money disappears from your account because it is fraudulent.  You are out the money you paid the event planner and any of the scammer’s money you spent elsewhere.  Sometimes these requests come in via email, but now they are more common via text messages.

Tips that this is a scam

  • Poor English or grammar.
  • Not having an actual date in mind or changing the date based on your schedule.
  • Insisting on paying by credit card.
  • Not using your first name or studio name.
  • Not being local.
  • Asking to pay you through an uncommon portal because their PayPal or Venmo accounts have been “frozen.”
  • Having some sort of strange situation that prevents them from meeting locally or talking on the phone.  Often it’s a medical condition.  One scammer told me he was in the ICU recovering from eye surgery and couldn’t talk on the phone because he was hard of hearing.  I’ve also had scammers tell me they are military personnel stationed overseas.

How to protect yourself

This scam is easy for me to see coming a mile away because I live in rural Wyoming.  Our town isn’t exactly a garden spot and if they are legitimate clients we will have a mutual friend in common.   And 95% of my clients come to me from other clients.  But if you live in a metropolitan area, being picked from Google with no connection to anyone is much more likely.  So follow these tips.

  • NEVER agree to pay another vendor (event planner, caterer, florist, organist, etc.) with money from your account.  NEVER.  Anyone asking you to do so is a fraud.  Stop communication immediately.
  • ASK for details that would confirm their story.  Why did they pick that location?  Can they give you the name of a local contact you can set a meeting up with?
  • NEVER give someone your bank account information for a transfer or transaction you didn’t initiate.
  • RECOGNIZE this scam can be any kind of session…a wedding, family reunion, family session, fashion session, etc.  The hook for money might not be immediately apparent, but if something seems suspicious, proceed with caution.
  • CHECK with your the location vendor to see if there is a reservation for that day under this person’s name.  If no reservation exists, proceed with caution.
  • INSIST on a small deposit now using your payment processor and cash in hand the day of the event.  If they give you excuses about why this won’t work AND you cannot establish one local connection, end communication.

Photography Scams #2 – The Fake Fashion Shoot

This scam is similar to the first, except the client wants to hire you for a high-end fashion shoot.  The scammer offers you a really nice fee for your work.  But he wants to pick the models for you to work with.  The client says you will need to pay the models out of the funds he sends you.  This scam works similarly to the family reunion scam, but the setup is more elaborate.  The scammer uses better English and poses as a representative of a legitimate company, many times one you’ve heard of and would trust.  If you google the company and the coordinator, both will probably be a legitimate business.  In some instances, they will actually send you paperwork like a contract and a check.

How you are scammed

This works exactly the same as the family reunion scam.  The scammer pays you via a bogus check or stolen credit card.  You pay the models (or vendor fee or video crew) with money from your account.  But then the client’s payment is discovered as fraudulent and you are out the money you paid the “models.”

Tips that this is a scam

  • Fashion photography is not really in your wheelhouse.  You might be a family photographer, senior photographer or newborn photographer.  But the company wants to hire you for a fashion shoot.
  • The request to pay the models out of your fee.  That’s just not how good business is conducted.

How to protect yourself

These scams are more sophisticated and trip fewer alarm bells because it looks like a legitimate work agreement.  They sent you a contract, for pete’s sake!  But still, keep these in mind.

  • NEVER agree to pay another vendor out of your pocket.   Ever.
  • ALWAYS research the “company” that wants to hire you.  Look up the company name and employee name independently of the links they provide.  Find the company website and e-mail and compare it to the contact information you’ve been given.  Often times they look similar but won’t quite match.
  • VERIFY that person is really offering you a job.  Look up the company online, find contact information and call them!

Read about one very elaborate scam targeting travel photographers here!

common scams targeting photographers

Photography Scams #3 – Facebook Ads for Photography related items

About a year ago, I saw a Facebook ad for a really cute t-shirt reading “I’m the crazy camera lady.”  It was brightly colored with a really neat graphic on it.  I figured it would be perfect for me, so I clicked the link.  The t-shirt was very reasonably priced at just $14.99.  I ordered three using PayPal, one for me and two for client gifts.  It said the t-shirts would arrive in 4-6 weeks.

Six weeks came and no shirt.  Three months came and no shirt.  I clicked on the link provided to me in my e-mail receipt and it went to a site no longer working.  When I replied to the e-mail I’d received, it came back to me as undeliverable.  So I contacted PayPal.  They required I work through the vendor first.  I sent a message to the vendor outlining my problem.  They responded with “Oh, sorry.  It’s in the mail, here’s the shipping number.”  But the shipping number was a fake.  Almost five months after I placed my order, PayPal refunded my money.

How you are scammed

I see these companies ads all the time on my Facebook feed, more often right before a holiday.  They offer cute photography related clothing (shirts, shoes, bags, signs, accessories) that you, as a photog, might be interested in.  They get you to order a product that never exists or is poor quality.  The company takes your money and never delivers the product.  They count on you forgetting about your order.  If you push them for information, they stall, sometimes for months.  Or they promise high-end brands and deliver crap merchandise and pocket the difference.  Sometimes they steal other companies. designs and put them on

How to protect yourself

  • DON’T rely on Facebook to weed out these companies.  They are happy to let them pay for ads to come up in your feed.  Facebook does zero investigation of these companies before letting them pay for ads.  Just because they come through FB doesn’t make them legitimate.  Report them to FB, comment in the ad that its a scam and make friends and family aware of them.  But FB will not intervene on your behalf, nor will they pull the ad.  They are notoriously terrible about not caring.
  • CLICK around the website.  Does the company offer other merchandise?  Are there lots of dead links?  Few products, poorly written product descriptions, and bad links indicate a possibly shady company.
  • INVESTIGATE the website at https://whois.icann.org/en.  This site will provide you with details on when the domain was registered, created and last updated.  If it’s fairly new or registered somewhere other than the U.S., beware.
  • RESEARCH the company online.  Look them up in the Better Business Bureau or just google the company with the word “scam.”  Sometimes that turns up videos or complaints from other people.
  • USE PayPal or a credit card with fraud protection.  These companies can sometimes help settle disputes or get your money back.
  • DON’T order from them.  When in doubt, take a pass.

Photography Scams #4 – The Bogus PayPal Payment

This photography scam comes up if you’re selling something…usually equipment or sometimes art prints or merchandise.  A scammer will contact you about something you are selling and agree to the purchase price.  They offer to pay through PayPal or Venmo.  You receive an email saying “congratulations, you’ve been paid!” from the payment service, so you go ahead and mail the merchandise off to the buyer.

How you are scammed

The e-mail is fake and if you check PayPal or Venmo, no such transactions exist.  The scammer sent you a fake e-mail that looked super legitimate but no money was ever really sent.  Now your item is gone and you have no recourse to get it back.

How to protect yourself

  • ALWAYS verify payments by logging into your accounts through their website independently.  Don’t click through via the e-mail you receive.

how to spot a scam in photography

Photography Scams #5 – The Broken Gear Swap Scam

This photography scam also involves selling gear.  The scammer agrees to buy an item you are selling and pays you for it.  The payment is legitimate so you send their merchandise.

How you are scammed

When the scammer receives the merchandise, they replace it with an identical, broken item.  They file a claim with E-Bay or PayPal saying you sent them a faulty piece of equipment.  They get their money back and you are left with a piece of broken or junky equipment.  Your legitimate item is long gone.

How to protect yourself

  • DOCUMENT everything about your item.  Take and keep photos of the item, including serial numbers and distinguishing characteristics.  That way you have the evidence to dispute a claim.

Want to join a network of other photographers?  See Why Cole’s Classroom is the Best!

Photography Scams #6 – The Photography Contest Scam

The scammer contacts you saying one of your photographs won a prize in a photo contest.  It may be a really nice camera, an expensive lens or some other expensive piece of gear you’d like to own.  In order to receive your prize, however, you’ll need to pay a redemption fee or pay shipping charges on the item upfront.  The contest coordinator sends you a link to a website where you enter your credit card information to pay the fees and you anxiously await your new bit of gear.  But the prize never comes.  The contest and prize were fake.

A variation on the photography contest theme is that in order to collect your prize, you’ll need to make some sort of purchase, like a book or a magazine subscription.  They trick you into buying their product but you’ll never see the prize.

How you are scammed

There is no contest and no prize.  The fees you paid were collected by a company that is now defunct and you’re out the money.  This works because the prize they pay is often something really expensive, like a full-frame camera or a really nice lens worth thousands of dollars.  Because the prize is so valuable, it feels like a bargain to only have to pay $100 bucks or so for shipping or insurance.  But you’ll never see that prize.

This scam can look very legitimate.  The scammers will often duplicate existing photo contests making their content on their site look incredibly similar to an existing company.  For example?  A few years ago, I got an e-mail from “ViewBug” saying I’d won a photo contest and was eligible to receive a Sony mirrorless camera.  I used to participate in ViewBug so it seemed legitimate.  Until they wanted me to pay for a full subscription to their website to release my prize.  Upon further inspection,  the website and e-mails were from Veiwbugg.com.  Notice the misspelling of the name.  It’s close but it’s not ViewBug.com.  So I ignored the e-mail.

How to protect yourself

  • NEVER accept an unsolicited prize.  If you didn’t enter the contest, your guard should immediately be up.
  • DON’T pay for a prize…not shipping, not taxes, not insurance, not a portion of your proceeds to a holding company.  A prize should never come with strings.
  • NEVER provide personal details like a social security number or bank account number in order to receive the prize without doing research first.  Prizes over $600 are supposed to be reported to the IRS, so legitimate contests will need your social security number.  But make sure you actually entered the contest.  Be suspicious of prize notifications out of the blue.
  • VERIFY that the “photo” is one of yours.  If they can’t provide you with one of your photos, it’s a scam.  If they provide you with a photo from your website, it’s probably a scam.
  • ASK for a copy of the official rules.  There are contests out there that don’t require entry – you’re entered automatically if you use a certain credit card or make a transaction during a certain time period.  The official rules should explain all of this.
  • RESEARCH the company before you hand over your social security number.  Here’s a great article on how to see if you’ve really won a prize or are being scammed.

Bad Review Photography Scam

Photography Scams #7 – The Bad Review

The scammer contacts you threatening to give you a bad review on Facebook, Yelp, Google or some other online directory if you don’t pay them a fee.  Or they post a scathing review first and tell you they’ll delete it for a fee.

This is straight up extortion and it’s illegal.

As a variation on the theme, sometimes you’ll get a string of bad, fake reviews on your page.  Soon you’ll receive an e-mail from a business claiming to specialize in acting on your behalf to get rid of those fake reviews if you’ll just pay them.

How to protect yourself

  • DON’T PAY THEM!!!
  • DOCUMENT EVERYTHING!  Take screenshots of texts or e-mails where the demand for money is made.  Follow up with the directory personnel and provide your documentation.  This is usually enough to get the bad reviews removed.
  • DON’T even respond to these kinds of emails or text messages.  EVER.  I repeat, do not engage them.
  • CONTACT the authorities.  Report these to the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI and your local police department (use the non-emergency number please!).  We list those numbers at the end of the article.  Often there is nothing they can do, but it’s always good to make them aware of what’s going on.

Click here for a list of common photography abbreviations and acronyms! 

Photography Scams #8 – The website renewal fee

The scammer contacts you by e-mail, phone or event text pretending to be from your website hosting company or your domain renewal service.  They inform you that your domain or website is up for renewal and you need to complete the forms and pay your fee so that your website will remain active.  Often times this comes as an e-mail that looks like an invoice from a legitimate company.  The scammer plays on your need to have a functioning website and will use terms like “your website will be deleted in 24 hours,” or “don’t lose all your SEO credibility.”

How you are scammed

This is an attempt to trick you into switching hosting companies without realizing it or to fleece you of your credit card information and other personal details.  They may actually switch you to their company at higher rates, they may bill you for a service that they never provide or they may straight up steal your credit card information.

How to protect yourself

  • DON’T click on any links provided in the e-mail or provide credit card information over the phone.  They will make it sound urgent.  It’s not.  Hang up, delete the e-mail and walk away to do your own research.
  • VERIFY your information with your hosting company or domain name registrar independently of any information provided.  For example, if your domain is hosted by Wix, log into your Wix account and research the claim from there.
  • KNOW who handles the details of your website.  Keep a record of your domain registar and website hosting provider.
  • DON’T engage with a company called Domain Name Registry of America or Domain Services of America.  They are notorious for tricking you into using them, then jacking up your rates.
  • REPORT them to the FTC.

Reporting a Scam

Here’s how to contact the authorities to report scams and potential scams  If you’ve been the victim of one of these photography scams, please report it.  I know it’s hard because you feel like an idiot (speaking from experience, here) but don’t suffer in silence.  Report them to the authorities, share your experiences and spread the word.

Don’t forget to report these scammers to mutal parties too, like Facebook, Instagram, WeddingWire, The Knot, etc.  Usually they are fake accounts and there is nothing to be done.  But they can shut down the account and slow the spammers down for a while.

Cover Your Assets

All of us will be approached by a scammer at some point in time.  And sadly, these aren’t the only photography scams out there.  Don’t ever be pressured into a quick decision or transaction.  Remember the old adage, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.  Listen to your gut.  Check with photographer friends about the legitimacy of the offer – many times they can help steer you away from a bad situation.  And be skeptical.  It’s perfectly okay to tell a potential client “I’m sure you are being honest, but I’ve had several scammers approach me lately.  To protect both our interests, this is how I need to proceed…”

Stay safe out there, friends!