Celebrity Photographer Lured Overseas in Impostor Scam
Joe Scarnici recounts how he was targeted and lost thousands
Joe Scarnici works around the globe as a celebrity photographer, so when he gets a call from a man who proclaims himself the assistant of billionaire Christina Ong, he’s intrigued but not shocked. The assistant says Joe was recommended to Ong by one of his past clients, Martha Stewart. After speaking about the project, a photo shoot of Olympic athletes in Southeast Asia, Joe decides to sign on. A contract is signed and he flies to Indonesia, where he becomes entangled in a complex scheme that has plagued the entertainment industry for years.
[00:00:01] Michelle: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] My friend comes out with his phone and he shows it to me, and he goes, this is a scam. So I'm in shock on the phone with this woman's assistant, reading on my... another phone that this is a scam and a photo of the driver, and I'm like, that's the same guy.
[00:00:22] Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm Michelle Kosinski. This scam, I have to say, is mind-blowing. You know, it's one thing to fall victim to a scam, another to lose tens of thousands of dollars, but another thing entirely to end up traveling to the other side of the world for it. This is a scam you might have gotten wind of recently. The FBI is now involved. The scammer is preying on Hollywood, on the people who make Hollywood work. Photographers, make-up artists, even chefs. Some of the hardest working people who rely on sometimes last minute gigs that are creative, unpredictable, and often expensive. One of those people is Joe Scarnici, a photographer who's built a name for himself getting those perfect shots. A 6'4" father of two with Hollywood star good looks. He didn't ever expect to be one of the faces or voices of this messed up, dangerous, psychologically twisted scam. But he tells it best.
[00:01:29] Joe Scarnici: I am a commercial and editorial photographer. I work, you know, the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, and Super Bowl. I'm going to my fifth Olympics. I'm definitely a working photographer. I, I'm very lucky to do what I do.
[00:01:42] Michelle: So you're very used to getting booked at a moment's notice, you're used to getting these kinds of calls, yeah?
[00:01:47] Joe Scarnici: Absolutely. A lot of clients, a lot of larger jobs start off exactly like this. Hey, you were recommended, we have a job, here's the budget, we agree on things, okay, we're going to forward you some money for expenses to start off.
[00:02:00] Michelle: So you're shooting pictures that are appearing in magazines and on fancy websites, and, and you're shooting those really artistic pictures, I'm guessing.
[00:02:12] Joe Scarnici: I do. A lot of, a lot of advertising, a lot of editorial.
[00:02:16] Michelle: Got it.
[00:02:16] Joe Scarnici: A lot of portraits, a lot of studios. Studios can be anywhere. At one time we did a shoot in South Africa and uh, this one was on a game reserve. So every morning we went in, our tent was where the giraffe slept, so the giraffe would be looking at us, and then it would walk off, and at the end of the day as we're leaving the tent, the studios they set up, the giraffe would be waiting for us to leave so he can could back to the parted trees and go to sleep. It was, it was pretty bizarre. It was really cool.
[00:02:43] Michelle: I'm sorry, Joe, I don't think we can do this interview. I think you're just too cool for us.
[00:02:48] Joe Scarnici: No, not at all.
[00:02:49] Michelle: So picture him there in his cool garage office out in California decorated with motorcycle parts on a typical sunny morning this past August when his phone rings. The start of a very wild ride.
[00:03:04] Joe Scarnici: I had just gotten booked on a, a job for I believe it was Adidas in New York City, and so I was working on equipment lists and I got a call from, it said his name was Albert, and he was an assistant to somebody that they received my recommendation from Martha Stewart, and she was really a fan of my work. He didn't give me any details, but he said, would I be available for a phone call with, with his boss, basically.
[00:03:30] Michelle: What did Albert sound like?
[00:03:31] Joe Scarnici: Albert sounded very British. He had a Queen's accent, let's say that, Queen's English. He was very polite, extremely polite. He um, he spoke slowly. He spoke very succinctly, um, and was very businesslike. It wasn't a lot of personal get to know you type of thing. It was very much; I'm calling on behalf of my boss. She would like to have a talk with you. You were recommended. Are you available?
[00:03:57] Michelle: So he, he sort of knew the mechanism by which he would book a jet-setting photographer.
[00:04:03] Joe Scarnici:
[00:09:21] Michelle: And that's, that's how these calls usually go. So he, he sort of knew the mechanism by which he would book um, a, a jet setting photographer.
[00:09:32] Joe Scarnici: Yes, and I used to do some work for a very famous musician's manager, let's put it that way. And he would never make his own phone calls. He had an assistant call people, get them on the phone and then loop him in. So this wasn't a foreign thing to me, but I hadn't encountered it since. So because of this initial structure, and because I'd had this experience in the past, I was like who is this person? I'd never heard of Christina Ong before, so he says he's going to call me in 10 minutes. So I'm googling, and I'm like, what? Is this the right, you know, is this the right person? You google Christina Ong and it's like the 8th richest person in Singapore, and woman in Singapore and the Queen of Bond Street in the UK, and I'm like this person? So I call my wife. So it kind of like created a little bit of buzz between my wife and I. You know, I'm holy cow, what, what, you know, what's this?
[00:04:55] Michelle: Yeah. A mystery boss lady.
[00:04:57] Joe Scarnici: Half of me is like, it can't be the same person. Like who is this? Like these people don't call me. Billionaire women from Singapore don't call me. It's, it's usually clients or marketing or PR or, you know, like all these other type of people that call me for work. So, Albert called me back and said I'm going to loop through Christina Ong. She was also, you know, the Queen's English, speaking very polite. She had a higher pitched voice. She was very, she was a little more bubbly and free and oh, she was telling me about yoga, and she started telling me about how she, I don't know, what's the word? Not sponsors, but she, she takes care of athletes, Olympic athletes that don't have as much opportunity as others in countries that don't have as much opportunity as others. and that she's doing a symposium and she has some people that she's working with that they were looking for a photographer to travel and do some work with her.
[00:05:52] Michelle: It sounds like some of the things that a person like that might be up to, right?
[00:05:55] Joe Scarnici: Absolutely, absolutely. It was an interesting conversation. She was asking me a lot about like, how do you think and how do you approach and how do you feel? Like, what's your philosophy behind portraiture, asked me really deep thinking questions about the creative process.
[00:06:13] Michelle: Did that just make you more intrigued?
[00:06:15] Joe Scarnici: Yeah, because that's not something that anybody asks really.
[00:06:18] Michelle: Yeah. But in a good way, right? So it was--, it wasn't like a red flag, was it.
[00:06:23] Joe Scarnici: No, not at all. I was, I was, it was very intriguing, like wow, this person, it's a, she's thinking really deep about this and she's, she cares about this in a different way. It definitely peaked my interest for her project, you know.
[00:06:35] Michelle: Sure.
[00:06:35] Joe Scarnici: She was saying that she was looking at my website, and she liked the portraiture, and she was just describing them in a different way, which was flattering that somebody took the time to think about it.
[00:06:47] Michelle: So she said all the right things and then some.
[00:06:49] Joe Scarnici: She did. The way she proposed the project was, there's some Chinese benefactors or Chinese business partners and she needs to find a photographer that they approve of. So she wanted to do a quote unquote test, and she goes, "I want to pay you a decent rate, and she asked me what my day rate was, and we agreed on a rate," and she said, okay, like when's your availability? And I'm looking at my calendar, I'm like, "I'm going to New York in two weeks, and I can do it after that. She's like, "No, no, no, I'm talking about now. Let's go do this right now. I need you to come up and I need to show them something, but like, let's just be spontaneous."
[00:07:25] Michelle: Spontaneous as in sign a contract and a nondisclosure agreement and get on that plane.
[00:07:31] Joe Scarnici: I was like "Fly to Jakarta this weekend?" And she says, "Yeah." I had like a really minor thing that I could move, and so I moved it, and said, "Sure, let's do it."
[00:07:39] Michelle: They spent the next day hashing out the paperwork over emails, Joe, Christina, her lawyer in Singapore, and of course, her assistant Albert who seemed to know all the ins and outs of this kind of deal.
[00:07:53] Joe Scarnici: And they said, "Okay, tomorrow we're, tomorrow morning our accountant is going to wire you some money." The next morning I got a Swift Citibank email from, it was like a screen grab that he had taken, it was, and then forwarded over to me. But it had Citibank, it had bank account numbers, her bank, my bank, it was, it looked legit. It looked, it looked like they're supposed to look.
[00:08:21] Michelle: So this big trip was all planned within 48 hours, just one little thing not quite buttoned up.
[00:08:30] Michelle: And did that money indeed hit your account?
[00:08:32] Joe Scarnici: No. And that's the thing. It was a Thursday, I think, and they're like, "It's going to take a couple days. It could be next week, but here's the Swift account and let's get over to Jakarta."
[00:08:43] Michelle: Are you excited about this job?
[00:08:44] Joe Scarnici: I was very excited about it. The fact that it was happening fast, and everything seemed to be inline and just happening really quick also kind of added to the, you know, the allure of the whole thing. It's like, wow this is...
[00:08:55] Michelle: Because of the speed of the arrangements, you had to book the tickets with your own cash.
[00:09:01] Joe Scarnici: I did.
[00:09:01] Michelle: Did that bother you at all?
[00:09:03] Joe Scarnici: No. I do so many jobs where I book upfront costs, and then bill it back to clients.
[00:09:11] Michelle: Oh really.
[00:09:12] Joe Scarnici: I'm leaving today to go on a photoshoot whereby this time next week, I will have about $15,000 on my credit card.
[00:09:20] Michelle: God, and you never have trouble getting people to pay it back.
[00:09:23] Joe Scarnici: Not usually, no. (chuckle) But the other thing to keep in mind is that I was buying plane tickets and reserving a hotel, but at the same time I had already gotten the Swift code thing; this is what we've estimated for your expenses. It's already coming to your account. So I'm like, okay, cool.
[00:09:38] Michelle: Okay, so there's no, there's zero unusual about any of this then.
[00:09:43] Joe Scarnici: No, there was zero red flags, there was nothing weird about this except for the fact that I didn't know these people.
[00:09:49] Michelle: Joe gets on that plane, which oddly connected through Hong Kong while the riots were going on over there. And where Albert called him with some details.
[00:10:00] Joe Scarnici: He said, "We have a fixer out of Singapore that's arranged a car service for you. I don't know if you've ever been to Jakarta, but it's not the safest city in the world, and a little bit corrupt. Not a lot of people take credit cards there, so do you mind paying cash for the car, and we'll obviously reimburse you for all of your expenses." Sure. I just was at the Rio Olympics, and nobody likes the credit card over there either. So this isn't a foreign thing, going to a weird land and them not taking a credit card. It's like, oh, okay. Sure.
[00:10:34] Michelle: Got it.
[00:10:34] Joe Scarnici: So I'm greeted at the airport with somebody with a sign, you know, and they're greeting you at baggage claim. And then, it was the, the driver and another guy that he had with him, and they said, we're, you know, we're your drivers. This is through a translator app because they spoke no English. We're your drivers, we, here's a receipt. We need this money to bring you to your hotel and this covers your travel tomorrow. It was 500 bucks. And I said, "Okay." And they were like, "No, like right now." I said, "Okay." So I went to an ATM after I got my baggage, and I handed the guy 500 bucks in cash. Drove me to my hotel. I got a call from Christina. She was saying, "Oh, I just want you to relax the rest of the day. We have a busy day tomorrow. You're going to leave early in the morning and you've got a long trip tomorrow," and she was just like, "Oh, the best thing is to like go to a jacuzzi and relax" and, and she was sharing with me what she likes to do to, to unwind when she gets off of a plane.
[00:11:27] Michelle: And did you choose the hotel yourself?
[00:11:29] Joe Scarnici: They actually booked the hotel for me.
[00:11:32] Michelle: And was it amazing?
[00:11:33] Joe Scarnici: It was a Marriott out in the wrong part of town type thing.
[00:11:35] Michelle: Oh.
[00:11:36] Joe Scarnici: No, the part of town it was in was not great at all.
[00:11:39] Michelle: Did that bother you? Did that, that raise any uh hairs on the back of your neck?
[00:11:43] Joe Scarnici: When I, I first got there, no. We went through some really rough parts of town to get there. So I, I, we got to the hotel, and I was like, this is fine. I was like, all right, at least I'm safe, I'm here. I was picked up, I was brought to a hotel, okay, we're on a good start. I wasn't kidnapped in Indonesia. And here, and you know, here I am.
[00:12:01] Michelle: Next morning, a very early start. The driver shows up along with that other guy whose job seems to be just to take the cash. But now they need more money. Seven hundred this time, because it's far they say. They insist. Joe could only take $500 out a day from an ATM, so using his translator app, he asks if he can pay them the rest tomorrow?
[00:12:24] Michelle: And what were these guys like?
[00:12:26] Joe Scarnici: The guy that took the money was short, he was probably 5'2", he was young. I would say he was probably in his mid-20s. He came in on a scooter every morning. Uh, the driver was older, and the car was a decent car, it wasn't like a Mercedes, but it was kind of what I would have expected for a driver.
[00:12:44] Michelle: So by, by day one are you starting to say, well this is not quite what I would expect from Christina Ong.
[00:12:52] Joe Scarnici: Not at all.
[00:12:53] Michelle: Okay.
[00:12:54] Joe Scarnici: I've worked for some really high end clients in some really crap parts of the world, and I roll with the punches every time, and it's, the mentality on these jobs is to do what you've got to do to get the job done. Because you believe in your client, so part of going out on the job like this is you want to make a good impression with your client by not being difficult.
[00:13:14] Michelle: Right.
[00:12:40] Joe Scarnici: Um, on the first day I was supposed to meet my athlete at 11 a.m., shoot till 12:15, and then drive back to Jakarta. And the trip was a six-hour trip to get out to where she was.
[00:13:26] Michelle: Whoa.
[00:13:27] Joe Scarnici: So, we drove an hour out, outside of Jakarta early in the morning, and I get a call from Albert saying, "What happened? The, they're turning the car around. They want all their money or they're not going to take you. They're turning the car around; they want all of their money or they're not taking you out there. They don't trust because they don't know you." So I call my bank, and they're like, "Sure, you can up your daily balance to 750." So we drove back to Jakarta, went to an ATM, met the guy in the scooter again, give him another couple hundred bucks, turned around and drove back out.
[00:13:59] Michelle: And, and the scammers told you that they were worried about being scammed by you, so you'd better pay them more money.
[00:14:08] Joe Scarnici: Yeah, they need more money because they don't trust, exactly.
[00:14:11] Michelle: This is day one, but things keep getting weird.
[00:14:16] Joe Scarnici: So we get there, and as, like as we're pulling up, basically, I get a call from Albert going, "Where are you guys? She's already left." You know, "She's got family obligations," and he's like, "Listen, let me, let me call them and let me try and fix this. Just hang tight. Take a look at the stadium." So I'm like I'm walking around in an abandoned stadium. It had an office with a couple of people in it, and there were little pieces of, of the facility that were still being used, so I walk up to these people, and I say, "Where's, where's the weightlifting gym?" you know, with my translator app. "Where's the gym, where's the fitness facility?" And they're like, "Oh, it's over there." And nobody's in there. I said, "Well, I'm supposed to meet this person here to photograph her. Do you know who she is?" And they said, "Oh yeah, we know who she is, but she, she works out in the town." I was like, "Oh, okay." So I go and I look at the facility and it had a good layer of dust on everything, like nobody had been in there for months.
[00:15:12] Joe Scarnici: And what, well when you saw that, what's going through your mind?
[00:15:16] Joe Scarnici: Disorganized client.
[00:15:18] Michelle: Okay.
[00:15:18] Joe Scarnici: Because she is between Singapore and UK and they're trying to organize things, and there's lost in translation and this happened so quick that something got lost, this type of thing happens.
[00:15:29] Michelle: Got it. Okay.
[00:15:31] Joe Scarnici: Um, so we drive six hours back to Jakarta, and I spoked to Christina in the car, and she said, "Look, she's agreed to shoot at her gym tomorrow. Just go back out there tomorrow." So the next day we drove out to the middle of this town, went to a gym that she works out at. And with my translator app and the guy spoke a little bit of English and I said, "You know, I'm supposed to shoot this person." And he looked at the girl and they say something, and he then goes, "She's pregnant." And I said, "Oh. How pregnant is she?" And they said, "We think she's 7 months pregnant." And I said, "Oh." And I didn't say anything...
[00:16:04] Michelle: That's unexpected.
[00:16:06] Joe Scarnici: I, I was very much like, okay.
[00:16:10] Michelle: On the phone again with Albert and Christina. They had this complicated emotional explanation that this well-known weightlifter had been pregnant but lost the baby recently, and didn't want the media to know, but since you, Joe, were talking to people, the local press found out and the weightlifter got spooked.
[00:16:32] Michelle: It sounds like a real story.
[00:16:35] Joe Scarnici: Absolutely. And I was like, "Oh my god. I, I had no idea. I'm, I'm so sorry. I, I shouldn't have mentioned that." They're like, "You don't know, it's not your fault. Don't apologize."
[00:16:44] Michelle: Oh, God. They're wearing you down, man.
[00:16:47] Joe Scarnici: I spent hours in the car every day, and like literally 10, 13 hours in the car every day.
[00:16:53] Michelle: Okay, so the next day.
[00:16:55] Joe Scarnici: So this story just kept happening. It was, oh, well we want to rent the place out but they, they want the media involved, and she doesn’t want to do media, and like these people heard of it, and like we can't do that, so I kept going to these locations. I haven't shot anything, and I've been here for three days. You know, it started to be like, what's going on, you know, like I'm talking to my wife on the phone and I'm like, this can't be fake. They're on the phone with me. They keep sending me to places. I'm on the, talking to them five, six times a day, like well we're working this out together. We're checking on..., I'm like, this can't be fake, right? And my wife's like, "It can't be. It real, don't worry, it's," you know, "you’re paranoid and you're jetlagged." And I was like, I know, but like, it's three days now I've been like just in a car driving to locations. And the other thing is...
[00:17:39] Michelle: This needs to be a movie.
[00:17:41] Joe Scarnici: I know, right? It's so crazy.
[00:17:42] Michelle: It's scary.
[00:17:44] Joe Scarnici: As a photographer, you want to please your client, and so the client is paying a lot of money to bring you somewhere, and after three days you haven't produced anything, it makes you a little bit nervous. It makes you question like, I need to do something 'case I want to hang onto this client, and they're being so nice to me.
[00:18:00] Joe Scarnici: Right.
[00:18:00] Joe Scarnici: The fourth day I got in the car, early in the morning, like 4:30 in the morning, shelled out another $1000. I'm shelling out $1000 in cash every morning, by the way, to these drivers. The fourth day uh I, I fall asleep on the car on the way, and like six hours later we get to the bottom of this mountain, that day and it's super beautiful. And I'm like, "Where are we going?" It was a national park, and there was a fee to get into the national park. Because I was giving $1000 a day in cash, I had no cash for myself. Side story... I had no cash to eat, and so nobody did, in fact, take a credit card in Jakarta, at least not around where I was. So I could eat at my hotel if I was back in my hotel at night, but I lived on truck stop food along the way to where we were going. And it ticks me off that the only food they had at truck stops was Starbucks and KFC. And they both took credit cards. And we go to this park I was like, this doesn't look like a gym. And I was, I was like, whoa, what's going on? Where are we? And I, you know, I get out of the car and I'm, there's like no phone reception really up there, like really minimal phone reception because it was on the top of this mountain. And Albert called me, and he says, "She wanted you to have a down day because you've been riding around in a car for the last three days, and we need today to get things organized. She wanted you to have a down day and relax, and so you're at a beautiful place.
[00:19:34] Michelle: How far away was, you, you had woken up at 4:30 in the morning.
[00:19:38] Joe Scarnici: Hours.
[00:19:39] Michelle: Joe is still, at this point, four days in and you're in constant contact with both Albert, the assistant, and Christina, the billionaire. And Albert has another surprise. Christina, he says, has flown in and wants to have lunch with Joe.
[00:19:56] Joe Scarnici: I was like, "Oh my god, I'm going to meet her." So it was this gorgeous place at the top of a mountain, there was a, there was an old volcano and the crater was a sulfur lake, so...
[00:20:07] Michelle: Oh my God.
[00:20:08] Joe Scarnici: So it was signal, and I was, I was talking to my wife going, and she was just like, "I'm worried about you, I'm worried about you." I'm like, everything was fine, everything was okay, but that was the first time that she was weirded out and that I was like, what are we doing here? This does not make sense.
[00:20:21] Michelle: So Joe is now wandering around a volcano, and I'm sure we don't need to tell you lunch never happened. More delays, apologies, excuses.
[00:20:33] Joe Scarnici: So, okay, so I go to a badminton stadium and I shoot photos after being in a car for 13 hours in traffic, and nobody at this place had any clue. I'm like, "I'm supposed to shoot an athlete here," and they're like, "A what? Who? Who are you shooting?" I was like that night, she asked me if I could stay one extra day. "Can we change your ticket, I'll buy you business class ticket, we've been in the trenches together, we've been really hashing this out, you've really been great. We're rolling with the punches with all this.
[00:20:58] Michelle: So this is the fifth day you've been there now.
[00:21:01] Joe Scarnici: Yeah.
[00:21:01] Michelle: Joe stays that extra day, and by the way, that wire transfer has still not hit his account.
[00:20:46] Joe Scarnici: At this point, I'm getting frustrated with the situation. I'm still believing it; I'm just frustrated that it was more a frustration that the client didn't have their act together before bringing me out there.
[00:21:21] Michelle: Right.
[00:21:21] Joe Scarnici: Bear in mind, every morning I'm giving my driver $1000 in cash.
[00:21:26] Michelle: Again, he waits for hours to meet this elusive, yet ever present Christina, and again, the logistics just don't work. She asks Joe to stay another extra day.
[00:21:37] Joe Scarnici: I said, "Christina, there's no way. I can't." She said, "I completely understand. Would you be available to fly back out? You've been great, I want to work with you on this. I really want to show my business partners your work. I really have faith in you," And I was, at, at this point, I was like, "Sure, there's nothing I can do tomorrow, but sure."
[00:21:54] Michelle: You, you were willing to fly back out?
[00:21:57] Joe Scarnici: I would have been willing to fly back out if money was in my bank account, yeah.
[00:22:00] Michelle: Wow. Well you're, you're a good client.
[00:22:04] Joe Scarnici: I go whatever mile I need to go on on a photo shoot. I was bummed that I hadn't produced anything for this client. I was still in the mindset of I'm letting my client down.
[00:22:15] Michelle: After all that, 5 a.m. wakeups, days in the car, endless no-shows, Joe gets out of there back to the US.
[00:22:24] Joe Scarnici: I fly home. on Friday, no money in my account. I's been talking to Albert about the money, and he was coming up with solutions and reasons why. It takes a while, and it's, it's a large amount, it was like...
[00:22:36] Michelle: And how much money are you out at this point?
[00:22:39] Joe Scarnici: $15,000 in expenses.
[00:22:41] Michelle: Okay.
[00:22:43] Joe Scarnici: That's, I gave like $8,000 in cash to the drivers, and the rest was all airlines and hotels.
[00:22:49] Michelle: Right.
[00:22:51] Joe Scarnici: And KFC.
[00:22:53] Michelle: Yeah. Well at least you got a, you got a trip to a nice park and saw a mountain and stuff.
[00:22:59] Joe Scarnici: That was the only good thing. (laugh)
[00:23:02] Michelle: A weekend passes. Still, of course, no money lands in his account. Joe is at dinner with friends in New York at this point when he gets yet another call from Albert.
[00:23:12] Joe Scarnici: And he's saying, "You know, we've arranged it, it's all set. It's ready to go. When can you get back out to Jakarta?" In my head at this point, I had decided I'm not getting on a plane again until that money hits my account.
[00:23:27] Michelle: Good man. Good man.
[00:23:29] Joe Scarnici: And uh he says, Okay. And Mrs. Ong wants to get on the phone with you." So I'm like, "Okay." So he connects me to her, and she's like, "Oh, we, we're very excited. We've got this ready to go. Come out for two days. It's got to be done on Thursday or Friday. I really want you to be the person coming out. We've invested a lot of time into this, and we've got a rapport, I really want it to be you." And she was like, "I'm going to send my private jet to pick you up at LAX. I'm going to fly you to Japan and meet you in Japan personally, and I want to spend the day with you in Japan so that you and I can get to know each other."
[00:24:00] Michelle: Do you like Christina? Like do you, do you feel like you're friends now?
[00:24:05] Joe Scarnici: Yes. I was speaking to these guys five, seven times a day.
[00:24:10] Michelle: Right.
[00:24:10] Joe Scarnici: Okay, she's just like, "Are you okay with that? Are you okay with this kind of discreet relationship?" And I was like, discreet relationship? That, that phrase was like, what?! She's, this, this is where it gets weird. She started blowing kisses into the phone and saying, "I really want to get to know you better. I'm real excited to meet you in Japan. Blow me a kiss. Where's my kiss?" And she started calling me darling. "Where's my kiss, darling? Blow me a kiss." And I'm in the doorway like getting weirded out. In my head, I'm speaking to a 72-year-old Singapore billionaire woman. And she asked me a few times about this whole week and a half, whatever, "How are you feeling right now?"
[00:24:52] Michelle: When Joe tries to put the brakes on this relationship thing, Christina gets upset and hangs up prompting another angry call from Albert.
[00:25:01] Joe Scarnici: And as this is happening, my friend comes out with his phone and he pulls it out and he starts typing, and he shows it to me, and he goes, "This is a scam."
[00:25:09] Michelle: Boom. Joe's friend simply googled some of the details Joe had described and up popped the Hollywood Con Queen. This scam that has deceived hundreds, hundreds of artists just like Joe. And Joe is still on the phone with them.
[00:25:25] Joe: So I'm in shock, on the phone with this woman's assistant reading on my, another phone that this is a scam and a photo of the driver, and I'm like, that's the same guy. I was just like, Albert, there's no way I can come out there unless money hits my account, I'm really sorry. I've just got to be careful. He's like, "Whoa, you don't think this is a scam, do you? Do you really think that we're scamming you?" I did, but I said, "No, I don't, however, I, I need the money to hit my account." And so we hung up the phone. One my buddies is like, "You're on suicide watch, bro." I'm like, "Oh my God, this is..." like couldn't believe it, like holy, this is a scam. And I was, the first words out of my mouth were, "God, that is good. This, these guys are good."
[00:26:07] Michelle: Like, are you furious at them? You must have just been numb.
[00:26:12] Joe Scarnici: I was pretty numb. I was real embarrassed to have fallen for this, but at the same time, now in retrospect, I don't know that it was fair to be embarrassed because these guys are good. People are, I mean, it's still working, it's still happening. Um, I was upset, I was angry, and I'm, and part of me is going, $15,000, like and it's not like it's on my credit card, pay it off over time, it was $8,000 in cash that I had to shell out. Like, that's like gone immediately. That, that's a big hit.
[00:26:45] Michelle: But even the next morning, the scammers are back on the phone asking again if Joe can fly back to Indonesia. Joe says, show me the money, which of course, never appears, and Joe never hears from Albert or Christina, his constant phone buddies for one crazy week in Jakarta, again.
[00:27:07] Michelle: Do you wonder, of all the of all the photographers or all of the people in the world, why me?
[00:27:14] Joe Scarnici: It, the job definitely seemed like it was the perfect job for me. Let's go shoot athletes in exotic parts of the world, and let's go do portraits and photoshoots with these people where we're going to pull some feeling out and tell a story of these people. I mean it, it was like wow, this job sounds awesome, and it's right up my alley.
[00:27:35] Michelle: So what this whole scammy saga boils down to is simply that thousand dollars a day for the driver in Jakarta. That's what this was all about.
[00:27:46] Michelle: So for them to go to this extent, to research you and research the entire industry of photography and photoshoots, to get $8,000, does this just boggle your mind?
[00:28:02] Joe Scarnici: It does. It seems really petty.
[00:28:04] Michelle: Joe contacted the FBI via their website and went to the press with his story to try to help other people from falling prey. And immediately heard from others just like him.
[00:28:14] Joe Scarnici: And they're like, this just happened, like I literally just connected in LA from New York. I'm on my way there.
[00:28:20] Michelle: Joe is left haunted, including by all the creepy conversations he had with the fake Christina Ong.
[00:28:28] Joe Scarnici: The fact that she would ask me, "How do you feel right now?
[00:28:32] Michelle: Spooky.
[00:28:32] Joe Scarnici: That question is very, it's a very interesting question. Psychologically it, it, it makes you put down your outer shell that you're, you know, you portray to people and dig a little bit deeper without thinking about it, and, and come up with a different kind of answer, and that kind of psychological question always kind of stuck with me. She asked me on my very first conversation, and she asked me like on my very last conversation with her that same question.
[00:28:58] Michelle: So it almost seems like they also were getting some kind of weird thrill out of it to manipulate you.
[00:29:05] Joe Scarnici: I, you know, there was a lot of time and energy put into it, and you wouldn't be able to put that much time and energy into something if you weren't getting some kind of psychological thrill or something else out of it. I mean, $8,000 is a lot of money, and if you get $8,000 from 100 photographers a year, it's a lot of money, but at the same time, the, the time investment in this is incredible. The, the research and the, the time to build the story is just incredible, and really done by a really intelligent person.
[00:29:38] Michelle: Yeah. So interesting. So Joe, how do you feel right now?
[00:29:43] Joe Scarnici: (laugh) Right now, I feel relief talking about it, believe it or not. Since being able to tell other people and over the weekend last weekend I learned about two people that were literally going in that, you know, my story helped, and I hope speaking with you my personal reason for speaking to you is that I'm telling everybody I possibly can in every industry about this.
[00:30:08] Michelle: Great.
[00:30:09] Joe Scarnici: And not just photographers. The people I spoke to last weekend were chefs, both of them.
[00:30:13] Michelle: Chefs?
[00:30:14] Joe Scarnici: Now she's targeting chefs. I'm not trying to be a hero, I'm just trying to, hey, this really sucks. Just be careful. It really sucks when you get burnt for that kind of money, because our industry; chefs, photographers, make-up artists, we're inherently trying to please people with our photography or our food or whatever it is. We're trying to please, we're, we're pleasers. That's the kind of human beings that we are, and we're putting a, a genuine goodness out into the world to try and make this happen, and then somebody takes advantage like this, it really hurts your feelings for lack of a better term.
[00:30:53] Michelle: Whew, that was a journey of scamming in the absolute extreme. The Olympic Gold Medal of scams. But don't think this story is over yet. There is more. So brace yourself for another flight, and what we've found out about who may be behind this on the next episode of AARP's The Perfect Scam.
[00:31:19] Michelle: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a scam or fraud, the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline is a free resource available to anyone. For nearly 20 years trained staff and volunteers have helped thousands of individuals and their family members report and recover from fraud. Call 877-908-3360. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez; and of course, Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Michelle Kosinski.
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AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.
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