My words of warning to all freelancers, copywriters, bloggers, and digital experts …
This is what happened last week when a new ‘client’ – Alex Jones, a ‘wildlife photographer’ who allegedly sells his own photos on his site, The Wildlife Studio (now posing as ‘Our Wildlife Studio‘ and at Photographic Safaris) – tried to scam me. (1.5.19 update: this conman is now also known as Phillip Buffett, Mark Cas, Mark Castley, Mark Hill-Wood and Marc Marshall.)
Please read my tips at the end and share this post to help prevent freelancers from becoming victims. As ever, if something is too good to be true, it really is too good to be true.
On Tuesday, 2 October 2018, I received this:
One half of me thinks, ‘Poor guy, I’d love to help out – and what a lovely rush job offer.’ The other half of me thinks, ‘That much budget? Really?’
I ask a few questions. He needs his site to be optimised. I’m put in touch with his SEO guy.
I send him my terms to sign, requesting 50% immediate payment after a sample piece of copy. (I send some early copy to make sure clients are happy plus to make sure I’m happy to work with them.) He emails that his ‘Financial Controller would deal with a bank transfer 50%. She is not back until Thursday afternoon Re a BACS bank transfer. By this time she can pay £2500 plus VAT. Is that acceptable?’
That’s only two days away and (despite the grammar) it’s fine, though I know I won’t send all the copy until receiving payment.
We arrange a call so that I can get the info I need. He reminds me of Dr Doolittle – he tells me how he talks to the wild animals he photographs and talks about his pet parrot. He reveals he has a wealthy client who recently gave him a big commision.
I ask about his competitors: he tells me they’re David Yarrow and David Lloyd. I look at their websites. One half of me thinks, ‘Wow, those wildlife photographers have great websites and take amazing animal shots.’ The other half of me thinks, ‘But this site …?’
This lands into my inbox:
I replied, ‘That’s an incredibly wonderful offer!!! Are you sure?’ I check out the website and who owns it: it stacks up. One half of me thinks, ‘Wow, wow, wow!’. The other half of me thinks, ‘If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true.’
I send some copy (I admit it – I sent more than I should due to the project urgency), to which he replies within ten minutes ‘Unbelievable!! Brilliant.’ One half of me thinks, ‘Yay, a happy client!’ The other half of me thinks, ‘No amends? Seriously?’
I receive this:
Consider it good or bad, advertising makes you cynical. I decide to do some checking …
I find this post on Naturetti.com entitled ‘Website Stealing and Seling 100s of Wildlife Photos Without Permission’. It has screenshots of tweets by leading wildlife photographers angry that their work is being passed off by Alex Jones as his own. I learn that the website was first registered in November 2017 then taken down though ‘Google still holds archived versions of the webpage showing all of the photos suffering copyright infringement.’
I look at the client’s Facebook page – lots and lots of angry comments from photographers plus reviews from freelancers complaining that he’s using platforms like People Per Hour and Freelancer to rope people in; that payment has not been made; and that he asks you to invest in a scheme to gain 200% returns in just a few days.
So I decide to see how everything plays out … I tell him I need to receive payment before I can send more copy. He asks me to send my invoice. Now, in our call, he’d mentioned he lived in Greenwich – the address he gave on my terms is different (it’s the one listed on his website). He says it’s the studio and sends me an address in SE18.
In my blog The Secret To Getting Clients To Pay On Time (And What To Do If They Don’t), I discuss why it’s important to check out if a company is registered or if the client may seem to be a company but is actually a sole trader. Why? If they’re a sole trader, you need their residential address as per the electoral register. Otherwise, if they end up being a dodgy payer, it’s tricky to take them to the Small Claims Court. You can fully check a residential address by paying £35.94 on 192.com to search the electoral roll. You can also confirm someone’s identity with Hooyu. Confirming the validity of a company is free and easy on Companies House.
Your local council/library and the British Library hold copies of the electoral register that anyone may look at under supervision. Credit reference agencies can also buy the register to run checks.
I hadn’t checked initially. But I did then. And I couldn’t find him.
Oh, hello – is that my copy I can spy live on the website? Yes. Oh, and have I been paid for it? No.
I email about this, reminding him that all work remains within my copyright until all payment is released and to please remove it. I tell him I can’t invoice without a valid residential address. He replies, ‘I have offered to pay you twice today and we changed the site to accommodate it. I’m not changing it as I’m waiting for your invoice and it will be paid now.’
He sends me a jpeg showing his address on part of a council statement and on a poll card from May. (Who keeps a poll card for 5 months??) And here’s the thing – the personalised bits are in Gill; the rest is Helvetica. Hmmmm, the font on all poll card wording is always Helvetica.
Again, I politely ask him to take my copy off. He replies that he won’t, telling me to call the electoral dept at Greenwich. (So, about this thing called Data Protection then …?) The email continues:
I’d cc’d the SEO guy when I’d asked for my copy to be removed, replying to an earlier email with the Maldives subject header to see if it raised a warning signal. He contacts me saying he’d also been offered this “opportunity”. Just like me. Plus, an investment opportunity returning a 200% profit in 4 to 5 days. Just like one of the freelancers who’d posted on Facebook.
Whether the address is true or false, I do not want to reveal any personal info such as bank details in an invoice or, frankly, to have any further dealings with him.
I receive another email suggesting that things are finalised today because he’s going to Kenya.
OK, no more time wasting. I call Action Fraud to file a report. They act on behalf of the police, passing the case on to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. They advise me not to supply any details in case he re-uses them. They also recommend that Paypal and an email address are more secure for payment because your bank details are kept private. They give me a case reference number. They tell me not to have any further contact with him.
I also report the matter to Google.
Dr Doolittle? No. Dr Donogood? Oh, yes.
BTW, here’s a Google cache of the home page before my copy, then with my copy.
Quick update … a week after complaining to Google, they informed me that, in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the URL – https://thewildlife.studio/ – would be removed from their search results.
Warning signs of a copywriting scam
- What data is available for the website registration on Whois.net and how long the site has been registered?
- How do the social media accounts look? This guy has 11 posts and 9 followers on this Instagram account (yet 9,301 followers on the Instagram account linked to from his website) and 4 followers on his Twitter account
- Does anything else raise a red flag if you run a search online?
- Has a client overpaid, saying they accidentally sent more money than they meant or that they’ve decided to cancel part of a project.? They may ask you to return the money by a different method. You may then find out their initial ‘payment’ to you was rejected by your bank or didn’t ever happen. Be wary of forged bank statements and convincing looking emails linking to a fake site and asking you for login details.
- If you receive money via PayPal, don’t click the link sent – go to your account via https://www.paypal.com/uk/home and make sure the funds have been received.
- A final tip: monitor your credit report on Experian in case someone has got hold of your details and is claiming to be you.
If you’ve experienced something similar with ‘wildlife photographer’ Alex Jones of The Wildlife Studio (who has now set up another site offering photographic safaris, digital photography courses and private guided safaris in Africa), please email me so that incidents can be cross-referenced and the Action Fraud bureau can build up their case with concerns on several levels: for freelancers, for photographers, and for people buying the photos.