The Photography of Fraudulence

The first five weeks of 2023 have been unexpectedly bumpy as TIA endeavors on rebranding its services and products. “Bumpy” might be simplifying the last statement a bit.  At the same time, “turbulent” is not accurate either.  I guess I will just use the term “rough”.

The beginning of the year started off on high notes. One of my friends, who I’ve known for three decades (we were onshore oil brats at the same high school, once upon a time) became the first customer for TIA this year. His purchase of a metallic print as a gift for one of his own friends essentially upended the interminable, economic drought that TIA had been experiencing for more than a year.

A few days later, my most frequent client – Seattle Parks & Recreation – informed me that there would likely be some photographic projects to look forward to this summer and wanted to check on my availability.  My last assignment with them ended rather abruptly due to the pandemic outbreak back in 2020.  The fact that my contact at Seattle Parks reached out to me several months in advance – as he typically and helpfully did each year before 2020 – was another positive sign for TIA in 2023.

Lastly, a new customer, by the name of “Audrey Scott” (those quotations are deliberate) contacted me and inquired about hiring me to take a set of images for a photography workshop.

As much as I would like to summarize the events that occurred, I believe it might be helpful to share the actual correspondence we had, all of which took place via email in January. Everything you’re about to read actually occurred.

A monochrome photo of a silhouetted thumb dialing a number on the illuminated screen of a cellphone, encapsulated in darkness.

“AUDREY”:  My name is Audrey Scott. I am a consultant, event planner, and program coordinator. I got your contact details online. I need your services to take specific pictures for an upcoming workshop. I have seen your portfolio and I am impressed with your work. Get back to me for more details on the project. I have Dysarthria so please email and text communications only. Warm regards. 206-XXX-XXXX.

TIA:  Hi Audrey:  Thanks for your message and your interest in TIA International Photography. Could you please provide the details of the workshop you would like to have photographed? Please let me know when, where, and how long the workshop will be as well as the subject matter you would like to have captured specifically.  Once I know this information, I will be able to determine my availability and provide an estimate for services. Thank you. Best Regards, Tosin (“toe-sin”)

(TIA thoughts):  I haven’t met someone with dysarthria previously. She’s provided a phone number for texting to communicate. Intuition tells me her introduction is slightly unusual, but perhaps she is a legitimate customer with a legitimate request. That would be appreciated presently. Carry on.

“AUDREY”: Hello Tosin. Thank you for the quick reply to my message. The workshop is coming up soon and it’s titled ‘PHOTOGRAPHY – CATCHING THEM YOUNG’. The participants of the workshop are kids and young adults between the ages of 13-17 that will like to delve into photography as an occupation in the future. I need the service of a seasoned photographer to capture some images that will be used in a slide during the workshop. I do not want to use existing images because of copyright. The pictures should be in high definition and colored. I want the pictures to be at least 150 dpi. The images will be sent to me via email and it should be in jpeg format. I will have exclusive right to the pictures. Also note that these pictures will be handed out to the participants in a printed form. I want the pictures to describe the different scenarios involved when taking a picture. The delivery date of the pictures is 8 weeks starting from January 9, 2023. Listed below are the pictures I want you to take.

1. A snapshot of a tree. Any tree. (I want the focus to be on the tree. Make sure it’s clearly taken and visible. The size of the tree notwithstanding.)

2. A snapshot of a moving vehicle. I want the car to be in focus and blur the scene.

3. A snapshot of an animal. Any animal. A dog or cat most preferably. (I want a clear image of any animal preferably a dog or cat. I chose these two because of easy access.)

4. A snapshot of the skyline in a sunny, bright and beautiful day. (For the skyline, I just want a clear and crisp picture of the skyline. I do not think that requires any special effect.)

5. A snapshot of a water body. A pond, lagoon, beach, lake, river etc. (The same thing goes for the body of water. I just want an image that shows a natural body of water. A clear image of a water body. The main object is the water that’s why the options are so wide. Beach, river,
pond, stream, lagoon etc.)

My budget for the job is $750 per piece. Let me know if that’s fine. If it’s not, please get back to me with the price quote and what would be your preferred mode of payment. I’m proposing a certified bank draft, a cashier’s check or bank certified check considering the amount involved. I look forward to reading from you soon.

(TIA thoughts):  Seems like a simple and straightforward assignment that I can do in the time requested. Good to know she doesn’t want existing images. Makes this job easier in terms of negotiations. Sounds like “Audrey” has a budget.  That’s always nice to know upfront. Payment method is iffy but will keep an open mind.

TIA: Hi Audrey:  Thank you very much for listing all the details regarding the images that you need. I would be very happy to capture the images that you described. I would just like to ask a few questions for my own understanding please.  1)  You said “the delivery date of the pictures is 8 weeks starting from January 9, 2023”. Does that mean you would like each photo to be submitted to your attention before March 9, 2023? In other words, is March 9th the deadline for which you would like the images?  2)  Regarding your budget, you mentioned “$750 per piece”.  Does “per piece” mean per photograph?  Please let me know your response so I can make arrangements accordingly and get back to you regarding next steps. Thank you.

“AUDREY”:  Hello Tosin. Thank you for the quick response. Yes, $750 for one picture. The total will be $3,750 for all 5 images. The delivery deadline is March 9, 2023. I see that you don’t need that much time to deliver the pictures. I have informed the sponsor and he has agreed to send you a cashier’s check or bank certified check for the quoted price. I would like to make part / full payment so you know that you have my job with you. In the meantime, do get back to me with your information in the format below to mail the payment to you:

1. Full Name to be written on the Check
2. Full Physical Address
3. Mobile Number

Your payment will be prepared once I have the requested details. Payment will be received before you turn in the images. You can send your details to me by text message on here 206-XXX-XXXX (Text only) Best Regards.

(TIA thoughts):  OK. “Audrey” has verified the total payment and the deadline. Plenty of time to get this done. She’s offering to pay part of the payment in advance, which shows that she’s serious. This is helpful and builds my confidence. I wonder who the sponsor is. Sounds like it could be an important organization, but unlikely due to content of subject matter and ample time to complete. Would love to know who the sponsor is. Kind of intriguing, but stay focused.  If it’s a media corporation or otherwise, a name would help me to know if this is really legitimate.  At the same time, this is beginning to border on the suspicious. I’m an official business so I can provide the information she wants, but all this would be completed much quicker via PayPal or Stripe or some other electronic means for transactions. Since it’s not a rush job, it should be fine. Will do some more research about cashier’s checks just for my info.

TIA: Hi Audrey. No problem at all.  It shouldn’t take long to obtain the images you requested. I will try my best to submit some results before the end of the month.  You can then choose which five images you like best via a personalized, password protected online gallery that I will provide for you later. I appreciate your offer to make a partial payment for the services in advance. This inspires confidence for the seriousness of your request. Here is the information you requested:  1. Please issue the cashier’s check or certified check to “TIA International Photography”.  2. Address:   XXXX XXXXXX Seattle, WA 3. Mobile:  206.XXX.XXXX.  Thank you.  Please let me know if you have any additional questions or inquiries.

“AUDREY”:  Thanks for your response, Tosin. I acknowledge that your details have been received and payment will be mailed out to you as soon as possible. I will keep you posted. My regards.

(TIA thoughts):  If she sends 50% of the fee, I should expect a check for approximately $2,000. I can also learn who the sponsor is.

A monochrome photograph featuring a stranger's eye behind eyeglasses looking directly at you through the darkness.

A few days passed after this correspondence. On Friday, January 20th, I decided to check my mail.

A surprise was waiting for me.

I had received a U.S. Priority Mail envelope. The sender did not have an individual’s name listed.  Instead, it stated the company’s name – Lonza Biologics – with an address in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Lonza is an international pharmaceutical company based in Basel, Switzerland, with office locations located worldwide). I immediately queried in my mind whether this company was the “sponsor”.  When I opened the envelope, there was no letter from “Audrey” or anyone.  There was only a check.  Upon first glance, it appeared to be from the Bank of America.  The names on the upper-left corner of the check were of two individuals who were, apparently, based in Arizona. Lonza’s name was not written on the check.

Finally, the most flummoxing aspect was the fact that the check – issued to TIA International Photography – was not for $2,000 or less, but for $7,000.

Yes, $7,000.

I remembered my eyes immediately widened in baffling bewilderment and then squinted severely, giving the check probably the most vicious side-eye I could muster at that moment. I was not happy about this.

(TIA thoughts):  WTF? Yeah. Something is definitely wrong here. A few things, actually. This may actually be a bullsh*t assignment that I suspected at the beginning, but I’m going to dig deeper because I want to know more and confirm. I want to confirm this assignment is bullsh*t.

As Alice herself observed while wandering Wonderland way back when, things got “curiouser and curiouser.”  

A few minutes later, I returned to my computer to email “Audrey” about the check. Coincidentally, as I went online, an email from her was already waiting for me in my inbox. The subject heading stated:  “PAYMENT DELIVERED!!  Acknowledge that you received it.”

“AUDREY”:   Hello Tosin. I am happy to inform you that your payment has been mailed out to you by my sponsor and has been delivered to your address by USPS. The Portrait project is a two phased project. Therefore, we are considering you to work on the Phase 2 of this project. I have complete faith in your ability to do a good job and I am impressed with your level of professionalism so far hence the need to have you execute the next phase of the project. The additional fee for the next phase of the project was added to this payment. We’ve calculated the next phase with the same rate as this first project, so the first Phase and the Phase 2 will cost us $7,000 and that is the amount on the check. We don’t have much time now and here is the information.  Amount on check: $7,000.  Kindly confirm with me as soon as you receive the payment and you can start immediately. We have barely 8 weeks to finish the project now. Proceed to deposit the check. Let me know as soon as you deposit the check. Many Thanks.

(TIA thoughts):  WTF? WTF? WTF? WTF? WTF?  And why is she in such a bloody hurry for me to deposit her damned check for more than three times the amount that was expected? Bloody hell. We still have PLENTY of time to get the job done. This has officially stopped making any sense.

TIA: Hi Audrey. Many thanks for your email. I did receive the check for $7,000 in the mail today.  Fortunately, your email was waiting upon checking my inbox because I needed some clarification given the amount is much more than what I had initially anticipated. Now that you have mentioned that there is a second part of the project (a “Phase Two”) that I didn’t previously know about, it is paramount that you please inform me of what the second part of the project entails. It is important for me to be able to know your expectations so I can confirm my availability and verify that I have the resources to deliver on what you request. This is why I was readily available to affirm that I could deliver on the original assignment (“Phase One”). Before I deposit the check, could you please tell me what your expectations are for Phase Two of the assignment and how the amount of $7,000 was determined?  I would like to make sure I am aware of all details and expectations of my clients and customers in advance. I look forward to hearing from you.  Have a very pleasant weekend ahead. Thank you.

“AUDREY”:   Hello Tosin. Thanks for the quick response to my message. The second phase is the continuation of the Phase 1. It’s also a “5 shots” project like the Phase 1. We had to break the projects down into two phases for easy execution and quick turn in. I have submitted the Phase 2 to my sponsor for approval. As soon as the second phase is approved, I will forward the project scenarios to you. Please note that a new date will be communicated to you for the delivery of the second phase of the project. You don’t have to worry about turning it in anytime soon. Go ahead and deposit the check and get back to me as soon as you do that so I can give feedback to my sponsor. The funds will be available 24 hours after you deposit the check. Warm regards.

That was my last communication with “Audrey” on January 20th.  I never wrote her again.  

A monochrome photograph featuring the silhouette of Downtown Los Angeles under a stormy sky.

This is the part in which I get angry – at myself. Here’s why:

Since I already had the check, which looked legitimate, and “Audrey” had “explained” what Phase 2 was (albeit in an illogical way compared to her very first correspondence), I proceeded to deposit the check.

Correction…I proceeded to *attempt* to deposit the check at my bank branch’s ATM location.

The ATM refused to accept the check. I attempted three times to make the deposit, assuming it may have been a hardware or software error on the bank’s side. Nope. As I type this, I can even recall the rejection message on the ATM’s screen which, personally or psychologically, appeared to be more of a warning encouraging me to stop trying to deposit the check. That was the vibe.

I had already reached a conclusion about this situation, but I wanted confirmation – one final nail on the coffin.

On Monday, January 23rd, I went to my bank’s local branch to speak with a bank teller, in person. I told her that I had a problem with depositing a check via the ATM last Friday.  She asked for the amount on the check.  When I told her it was for $7,000, she stated that sometimes, if the check’s amount is over $5,000, the ATM may not accept it.

(In fact, in TIA’s 13 years with this bank, I had been able to deposit checks that exceeded this amount at an ATM many times without any difficulty or rejection.  I didn’t want to dispute this point with the teller because 1) Things may have changed at the bank, and 2) That wasn’t the primary reason for my in-person visit anyway).

I just wanted confirmation…and I knew I would get it shortly.

The bank teller started rummaging through my account on her side of the counter. My previous experience is that in-person deposits rarely took long to process – which is why ATMs are so handy – but it was taking a while here. There had been a long silence at the counter for five or six minutes.

Confirmation was coming.

Suddenly, the bank teller stood up and approached the bank branch manager sitting farther away at the other end of the room. She stood up, looked at me briefly, and accompanied the teller back to the counter. She greeted me and looked over the shoulder of the bank teller – two pairs of eyes looking at my business checking account behind the counter. Again, there was an uncomfortable silence for about two minutes.  The bank manager looked up at me, expressionless, and asked, “Have you ever worked with the person who sent you this check?” 

I responded that I had never worked with the person. This was the first time (and undoubtedly the last time as well).

Another awkward six or seven minutes passed.  All I could hear were the typing of keys and soft murmuring between the bank teller and bank manager. Fortunately, I was the only customer at the bank at that particular hour, so I wasn’t holding up anyone else. The long pause was becoming more embarrassing, and more verifiable of what I had predicted.

Finally, the bank manager looked up and said, “We apologize, Mr. Arasi, but this check is fake.”

Confirmation. Confirmed.

“I knew it,” I responded to her (as well as myself).

A monochrome photograph featuring a collection of digital SLR cameras next to a set of printers located on a table.

The bank manager offered me a choice:  I could either keep the (fake and useless) check or let the bank investigate it to figure out who might be behind this.  The choice was clear and I told the bank that I wanted nothing to do with the check and they should investigate.  The bank had the resources to do this, and this kind of situation, unfortunately, was probably nothing new for them. The bank manager had just told me the check was fake with the same down-to-earth, matter-of-fact manner as though confirming that, yes, it does rain in Seattle. They were the professionals. They should handle the matter. 

In retrospect, I wish I had taken a photograph of the check, just to keep for my own records.

What I did do, instead, was research what type of scam that “Audrey” tried to use to defraud my photography business. That was the goal all along.  Had my bank’s ATM not rejected the check initially, I would have found myself and my small business in a serious dilemma. The potential predicament would have been further compounded if I had the nature of being greedy for a gross overpayment and had started spending that money as soon as the fake check “cleared”.

Fortunately, that’s just not how my brain is wired.  I want to be paid for the work I have done and that I agreed to do.  I run a small business and I hold my own ethics in high regard with all my work and professional interactions. That’s been absolute from the first day of TIA.

To avoid a situation like this from happening to you (not just in the photography industry, but any small business enterprise), please have a look at the guidance the U.S. Federal Trade Commission provides regarding fake checks. I believe the situation I have described in this article would classify as the “Overpayments” scam.

Since “Audrey” used the U.S. Postal Service in attempt to defraud my business, I filed a report via the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and described the situation. In this case, I was glad that I kept the original envelope in which the fake check was sent. It provided some details such as the sender and tracking number. (Again, if I had taken a photo of the check, I could have included its details within the report too). I seriously doubt Lonza had anything to do with this, but “Audrey” – supposedly based in Seattle and suffering from dysarthria – was in cahoots with someone in New Hampshire and Arizona (if their identities weren’t already stolen) to dupe me into depositing $7,000 into my business account. “Audrey” would likely claim later, if things had gone her way, that she had overpaid me, thus requesting a refund. I would then owe her money if I had already spent it. This would be in addition to trouble with my bank once it discovered the check was fake, had to void or reverse it, and reveal that I didn’t actually have the funds that “Audrey” sent. 

Needless to say, I was not expecting to kick off the new year with an encounter with fraud. I was upset for a day or two, but I had to get over it because there were still 49 weeks of the year remaining. Dwelling on “Audrey” too long would be a disservice to TIA and my professional goals of reviving my business. I am grateful that either karma or providence – or both – were on my side in this situation. My bank actually protected me from being defrauded.

However, I will conclude on this very personal note for “Audrey”:  The personality that I was born with causes me to try my utmost best to give every person I come across the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their actions.  I want to believe people are genuinely kind, well-intentioned, and decent individuals because this is how I’ve been raised, and it’s how I view myself.  I abhor the fact that “Audrey” came so close to taking advantage of my personality to use against myself. There are too many “Audreys”. I am exhausted and exasperated with “Audreys”.

Alas, this personal worldview and attitude have been so severely challenged in the last decade that I have no choice but to look at every interaction with a customer with intense scrutiny. No situation is ever that clear-cut and obvious anymore.  There are a lot of dishonest, loathsome, disgusting, and deplorable individuals with ulterior motives who prey on other people trying to be decent citizens in this society.  These despicable, filthier-than-scum con artists and fraudsters have been so overwhelmingly successful at scamming others and making a living (or killing) at defrauding people. 

I truly hope, without an ounce of equivocation, those of you who engage in this kind of activity – be it just once or regularly – will be caught, face every punishment, and suffer every consequence that comes your way for this behavior. You are among the key contributors to the ongoing devolution of today’s civilization and dismantlement of human civility.

Interestingly, since January 20th to date, “Audrey” has not contacted me again. She hasn’t asked about how the project is going or if the photos are ready, but she dare not contact me again.  She probably knows “the jig is up” by now as I never confirmed that her sponsor’s check was deposited, which was the true objective.  Regarding the photos themselves, I managed to capture all the images she had originally requested, but I’ll never send them to her or whoever “Audrey” actually is.

To blazes, defrauders.

A monochrome image featuring a pair of black sunglasses resting on the keyboard of a Macbook laptop facing a screen filled with digital photography.

5 thoughts on “The Photography of Fraudulence

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    1. Thanks, KD. Given the big picture, it was a learning experience, and the plot failed. Call it good karma or some benign or benevolent presence in the universe — something was on my side that prevented the worst, so I’m grateful. Onwards!

  1. Glad the bank caught the check like they should! I presume the scam here was to say the sponsor didn’t need phase 2 and that you would need to refund them the difference. Probably enough banks out there that don’t scrutinize these things sufficiently and allow the deposit, temporarily. Then you’d have been sending them real money and the bank would eventually catch up to the fact the check was fraudulent.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read the story. You’ve added more insight to what the defrauder’s overarching objective was, which, in reality, is much more conniving than what I had preconceived. Will start viewing all my future collaborations and partnerships with a microscope — just to protect everything I’ve created and built over the years.

      1. I think in general this is referred to as an “Overpayment scam”. Takes a number of different forms, but it is good you wrote about your experience with this so we can all be a bit more vigilant. Personally I won’t accept checks for this kind of thing. Or if I did, for a print or something like that, I’d wait for it to clear before proceeding.

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