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Hollywood Freelancers Team Up to Take Down a Scammer

Two photographers realize they are victims of an impostor scam targeting industry professionals

The Perfect Scam - Episode 67 - The Hollywood Con Queen Part 2


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Celebrity photographer Joe Scarnici spent thousands of dollars trying to complete an assignment in Indonesia for someone posing as billionaire Christina Ong. Another photographer, Carley Rudd, had a similar experience with a person claiming to be Wendi Deng. Comparing notes, they realize they are caught up in a scam that has been weaving its way through Hollywood freelancers. Investigators pick up the case, trying to decipher who is behind the scam and why they’re doing it.

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[00:00:01] Michelle: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] You know at that point, my mind was racing and I feared for our safety and I feared that the hotel we were at, you know, potentially they could be in on it, and my mind went to a million places, and I watched too many James Bond movies and spy movies to kind of get into my head about it.


[00:00:27] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Michelle Kosinski. This week, the sequel to what is honestly the most bizarre, elaborate scams I've ever encountered. I think it might be my favorite partly because of who's involved and the extreme lengths both the scammers and their targets are willing to go to, to achieve their very different goals in this. It all unfolds like a creepy thriller and fittingly enough is set in Los Angeles. At least that's where the wild ride starts at the intersection where the perfect job and the perfect scam collide. You need to listen to last week's episode where sought after photographer Joe Scarnici takes us through every painful moment of how, what he thought was the perfect gig led him to the other side of the world, and the loss of a lot of his money. But who is the Hollywood Con Queen? There have been hundreds of victims and Carley Rudd is one of them.

[00:01:34] Carley Rudd: I am a freelance travel photographer. I'm based in LA, but I, I travel all over the world and live this kind of digital nomad lifestyle I've been living, um, for the past three years in different cities all over the world depending on where my work takes me.

[00:01:53] Michelle: What kinds of things do you take pictures of?

[00:01:55] Carley Rudd: Everything from landscapes, nature, to cultural attractions, restaurants, interiors of hotels, architecture.

[00:02:04] Michelle: So picture and feel, if you will, a well-worn street in Jakarta, Indonesia. The sun has cooked the afternoon to 95 degrees. Dust if visibly swirling in the air. Carley is there about a year ago videotaping her slow journey through town from the backseat of a rickety tuk-tuk, a little motorized rickshaw. The radio playing local music. Motorbikes dodge her and one another. On either side of a narrow, crowded street, open front shop after shop is jammed with boxes, shoes, brightly colored plastic everything. Kids tricycles, toys, stuffed animals. A man carries goods slung over his shoulder in a brown sack about as tall as he is. And Carley is feeling hopeful, excited. She's just started what she believes to be a thrilling assignment to photographs elements of Chinese culture in Jakarta. This would be part of an art exhibit for the 2020 Olympics. Her boss who sent her all the way out here in a hurry, none other than Wendi Dang, socialite, businesswoman, and former wife of media mogul Rupert Murdock. It started with an email from Wendi herself, or so it seemed, telling Carley she was highly recommended from mutual contacts.

[00:03:28] Michelle: All sounded good.

[00:03:30] Carley Rudd: Yeah, it did. Too good to be true.

[00:03:33] Michelle: More on that later. Though, from the start it did bother Carley that the planning for this job all had to be done so quickly. She needed to travel to the other side of the planet with all her equipment within 72 hours.

[00:03:48] Carley Rudd: It did. It did feel like a red flag at the time. I, I, I found ways to kind of ignore it and find excuses for it.

[00:03:57] Michelle: Was it because you wanted the job?

[00:03:59] Carley Rudd: Yeah, definitely, it's because I, I wanted the job and I hadn't worked with anybody of this caliber, Wendi, the real Wendi Murdock is a billionaire, and I made excuses for maybe this is how billionaires do business, and you know, at the drop of a dime you might be on a, a flight across the world.

[00:04:20] Michelle: She also has to pay for all her travel upfront, which isn't that unusual. And Wendi's ever present assistant, Aaron encourages her to fly first class for her and her husband, Jake, who would go with her and help her on the shoots.

[00:04:36] Carley Rudd: I was excited. I was also a little on edge the whole time.

[00:04:42] Michelle: Why is that?

[00:04:42] Carley Rudd: I think making that large of a purchase was out of the ordinary for me, even under the assumption that I was being reimbursed for it. Something felt a little off.

[00:04:53] Michelle: It even raised tensions a bit with the supposed Wendi Dang.

[00:04:58] Carley Rudd: I did get into an argument with her at one point. And the assistant called me and says, "I'm so sorry," and they were playing this good cop, bad cop with me and, and definitely kind of psychologically messing with me, and that was another point when I, I, it made me just feel uneasy about the whole thing.

[00:05:17] Michelle: It must have made you feel kind of nervous, like wow, I'm speaking to her, and we're getting to know each other.

[00:05:22] Carley Rudd: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And there were points where she, you know, went into detail about how she was on Thanksgiving vacation in St. Barts and I'd look at the real Wendi Murdoch Instagram, and the last photo they posted was the picture of her family in St. Bars, so it was so elaborate, (chuckle) these conversations and this kind of character that she was building up was very believable.

[00:05:49] Michelle: Carley gets on the plane and once in transit finds out she'll have to pay $1500 cash for a permit to shoot in Jakarta, as well as about a $1000 a day for her driver. She accepts this as part of the gig for which she will be reimbursed, and after their luxurious flight, she and her husband, Jake, finally land in Indonesia.

[00:06:13] Michelle: There waiting for them is that driver, and Carley kicks off the trip by snapping off a few photos of him. A smiling, friendly looking middle-aged man in a stripped polo shirt. It is the middle of the night, but immediately the driver wants to take Carley and Jake to a 24-hour money exchange in a sketchy looking part of town.

[00:06:33] Carley Rudd: The driver counts the money and then gives us this photography permit that looked official enough for me at the time. It had a seal on it, it had my name on it, it had, you know, it looked fine, and at that point I'm thinking, all right, now we're just going to get to the hotel and so everything's fine.

[00:06:50] Michelle: They hadn't even been on the ground at this point for more than a few hours on this warm Jakarta night, but red flags, and interestingly, red was supposed to be one of the themes of her project, were already popping up left and right.

[00:07:04] Carley Rudd: So, the driver mentions that he has to get the air pressure checked in his tires, and motions that he's going to this gas station.

[00:07:14] Michelle: Oh no.

[00:07:15] Carley Rudd: And my husband and I look at each other and we're like, okay. And he pulls up at this gas station at the air pressure station, and he takes the cash that we had just given him and puts it in this plastic bag, and he walks around the front of the car and towards the back of the car. And we're sitting in the backseat watching this all happen, and he, a man on a motorcycle pulls up quickly behind the car and greets our driver, and takes the bag of money and puts it in his backpack and drives off. I kept making excuses for, it's fine, it's fine. Like, let's just get to the hotel.

[00:07:51] Michelle: Carley's husband, though, is getting into fight or flight mode.

[00:07:55] Carley Rudd: He had his cord that charges his phone ready to like, behind the driver, ready to, you know, do anything drastic that needed to happen. He, he thought we were part of some sort of heist at that point.

[00:08:07] Michelle: Whoa.

[00:08:08] Carley Rudd: Yeah. And...

[00:08:10] Michelle: Like he was, he had his phone cord ready to like strangle somebody if he needed to?

[00:08:14] Carley Rudd: Yeah.

[00:08:15] Michelle: They get to the hotel, and after a welcome night of sleep, the next morning starts with delays and changed plans. Aaron, the assistant to Wendi Dang tells Carley there's now an issue with that mysterious driver, and would she mind just taking a taxi to shoot various locations? Carley and Jake are somewhat relieved by this prospect given the strange night before, though they don't know the city at all, which brings us back to those dusty market streets.

(street sounds)

[00:08:50] Michelle: Well, the places where you were going, did they feel safe? Did you feel, you know, being the Westerner, did you stand out with all your equipment, or did you feel like pretty secure?

[00:09:03] Carley Rudd: I definitely did not feel safe. Chinatown in Jakarta's, is a very dangerous place, not a place that a lot of tourists go. Um, I have a local friend that I ended up meeting up with in Jakarta and, and told him that I went to Chinatown for this project, and he was completely alarmed and said, you know, that's not a really safe place for you to be shooting.

[00:09:24] Michelle: Whoa.

[00:09:25] Carley Rudd: And, I stood out, you know, like a sore thumb and felt like a target with all of my camera gear.

[00:09:32] Michelle: But virtually the whole time as she and Jake make their way, she is on the phone with either Wendi or Aaron, just constant communication.

[00:09:40] Michelle: Were you also talking personal stuff, or like, did you feel like you were getting to know these people?

[00:09:45] Carley Rudd: Yeah, I, I definitely feel like they knew certain things about me. And the research that they had done on me was thorough and elaborate, and they knew things about my husband, and they wanted to hire him for a new job that they had coming up. They had spoken to me about how, you know, I was the perfect fit for this, and they had other jobs in the pipeline that they thought I would be wonderful for. At one point, Wendi's telling me how she wants to meet me in New York the next time I'm there.

[00:10:14] Michelle: So, Carley, determined to do her proud, gets her photos, some nice cultural shots of life in Chinatown. Another hot day rolls around, and again, this one brings more changes, excuses, delays. Now Wendi and Aaron want Carley and Jake to fly to Malaysia to stay another day. And a disturbing request, they suggest Carley and Jake split up and shoot different locations on their own.

[00:10:43] Carley Rudd: That was kind of one of the final red flags and she knows that my husband's not a photographer, and she had hired me to do this job, so that felt really strange, and I responded back, you know, I don't feel comfortable with that.

[00:10:57] Michelle: Like, let's get that pesky husband out of the way.

[00:10:59] Carley Rudd: Exactly, and potentially get me to pay more money for a driver, maybe my husband then would need a photography permit. I think their, their goal was to extract more money.

[00:11:10] Michelle: Carley's guard is so up at this point, in fact, that extraordinarily, she starts recording these phone conversations. So not only does she now have rare photographic evidence of the driver when she landed, she has audio of both so-called Aaron and Wendi. Listen.

(phone recording)

[00:11:29] Aaron: Hey, Carley, how's it going? So let me talk to the (inaudible) manager, 'cause they're the ones who take care of that. Let's call them...

[00:11:36] Carley Rudd: Yeah, I just want to make sure the hotel is aware that we, we changed plans and we're...

[00:11:40] Aaron: I put that on my to-do list.

[00:11:41] Carley Rudd: ...staying another list.

[00:11:42] Aaron: So don't worry about that.

[00:11:43] Carley Rudd: All right, perfect.

[00:11:44] Aaron: I will talk to them, and then I'll give you a call as to the next (inaudible).

[00:11:47] Michelle: And when Carley expresses her misgivings about certain things, the Wendi character takes her side and reassures her the money to reimburse her for the now more than $15,000 in expenses Carley has shelled out is coming her way.

(phone recording)

[00:12:03] Wendi: Well that should be in your account by uh end of business, Tuesday. I don't want there to be any kind of miscommunication.

[00:12:13] Carley Rudd: The driver he said that the, the driver would request 800 US dollars for overtime charges.

[00:12:20] Wendi: Ah...

[00:12:21] Carley Rudd: And that I would need to...

[00:12:22] Wendi: That's too much.

[00:12:23] Carley Rudd: to an ATM and...

[00:12:25] Wendi: Don't.

[00:12:25] Carley Rudd: ...have that money prepared.

[00:12:27] Wendi: What?

[00:12:27] Carley Rudd: And then, he...

[00:12:29] Wendi: To go to Malaysia would require 800 dollars. Are you out of your mind?

[00:12:34] Michelle: These conversations ramble.

(phone recording)

[00:12:36] Wendi: Oh, and then what were you saying, sorry, what were you saying, sorry. You said he's a writer, right?

[00:12:40] Carley Rudd: Yeah, he's a, yeah, he's a freelance, freelance writer.

[00:12:46] Wendi: What does he write about?

[00:12:48] Michelle: Wendi emphasizes how important it is to her to work with trustworthy people. She asks about Carley's life and Jake.

(phone recording)

[00:12:57] Wendi: And is he feeling comfortable? Is he happy about things? Just a quick question.

[00:13:00] Carley Rudd: Yep.

[00:13:01] Wendi: Are you feeling safe or not?

[00:13:03] Carley Rudd: Yes, Wendi, I am feeling safe. I think there was an initial hesitation with the driver.

[00:13:11] Wendi: If you need anything, you contact Aaron. Aaron will take care of it.

[00:13:14] Michelle: I love that conversation with Wendi, because it seems like she's on your side. Is that kind of how she, how she played the game?

[00:13:22] Carley Rudd: Yeah, it was a mental and psychological kind of breakdown and mind game. She would kind of reassure me that everything was fine, and this whole time between her character and Aaron's character, you know, they were playing this like good cop, bad cop, and, and they would make excuses for the other one, and then kind of, you know, get in arguments, and then reassure me everything's fine, and it was a, a total mind game.

[00:13:51] Michelle: And right after Carley airs her concerns and gets that reassurance from Wendi that Aaron would call her and arrange her next shoots...

(phone recording)

[00:13:59] Wendi: How (inaudible)

[00:14:01] Carley Rudd: Okay. I'll hear from him then, okay.

[00:14:04] Michelle: Whew. Like a cloud of dust in the alley outside, they disappear.

[00:14:10] Carley Rudd: He doesn't call. An hour goes by, and I decide to call him, the number that I've been speaking with him on, and the number goes straight to British accent, automated voicemail, and says this number is no longer in service. And when I heard that, my heart sank, and it kind of all became clear that I was part of this elaborate scam.


[00:14:37] Michelle: Ah, was there some part of you that, that was saying, no, no, no. This is real.

[00:14:43] Carley Rudd: You know, at that point my mind was racing, and I feared for our safety, and I feared that the hotel we were at, you know, potentially they could be in on it, and my mind went to a million places, and I've watched too many James Bond movies and spy movies, to kind of get into my head about it.

[00:15:04] Michelle: This is like James Bond territory.

[00:15:07] Carley Rudd: Yeah, exactly.

[00:15:08] Michelle: It's like, okay, so at that point do you call? Do you try to call Wendi?

[00:15:14] Carley Rudd: I only had Aaron's number. There was only one phone number that they had been contacting me from, and Aaron would kind of buzz in Wendi when she was part of the conversation.

[00:15:24] Michelle: Okay, so at that point, all of your red flags now come together into one waving red banner.

[00:15:31] Carley Rudd: Yeah.

[00:15:31] Michelle: How do you feel in that moment?

[00:15:34] Carley Rudd: It was pretty awful. I, you know, my heart was racing, and I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't believe that I had fallen for something like this. It was a roller coaster of emotions.

[00:15:47] Michelle: That was on the second full day in Jakarta, right? And how long was the whole trip supposed to be when you planned it?

[00:15:54] Carley Rudd: It was supposed to be a week of shooting in, in Indonesia and Malaysia.

[00:15:58] Michelle: Well you got off easy, girl.

[00:16:00] Carley Rudd: I know. I hear some of these other stories, which I've heard hundreds, it's pretty wild...

[00:16:07] Michelle: What's the conversation like after this with your husband on the way back?

[00:16:13] Carley Rudd: Oh gosh, we were just mind blown. And, you know, he kind of knew it all along that it didn't feel right.

[00:16:22] Michelle: Psychologically...

[00:16:24] Carley Rudd: Yeah.

[00:16:24] Michelle: Now that you've had time to think about it, why do you think it worked on you?

[00:16:28] Carley Rudd: I think that the scammer is a very smart kind of evil mastermind and has studied, you know, this, my particular target market, um, very thoroughly. He knows that the gig economy and freelancers are eager for work, and that, you know, he thoroughly knew what a creative brief and NDA and, and potential scope of work for an assignment like this might look like.

[00:16:59] Michelle: So what do you do after that?

[00:17:02] Carley Rudd: Yeah.

[00:17:02] Michelle: Do you go right to the police?

[00:17:05] Carley Rudd: I landed in New York and went to a hotel that I was staying at there. I, um, the next day, shared on Instagram what had happened to me and wrote a blog post about it. And within 24 hours of going live with that, I heard from hundreds of people that something similar had happened to them.

[00:17:27] Michelle: Hundreds.

[00:17:29] Michelle: Carley finds out the FBI had already been looking into this scam, which had been going on for years. Years of this, and hundreds of hopeful creatives led on trips and wild goose chases just like her. The scammer has been impersonating Hollywood power players, and usually female ones, including former Head of Sony Pictures, Amy Pasqual, and Lucas Film President, Kathleen Kennedy, for at least the last 7 years targeting actors, production companies, talent managers, security people, chefs, athletes, influencers, the list by now is painfully long.

[00:18:09] It was the sort of thing where I could quit it if I tried, right, so we were hearing from people every week or so who uh were getting these calls.

[00:18:18] Michelle: That's Nicole Kotsianas, a private investigator who was hired to chase down these con artists. It was an October day in 2017, and Nicole was at home with her children when she got that first call, her first inkling of the Hollywood Con Queen. On the line was an attorney for a high profile Hollywood producer who was disturbingly being impersonated by this scammer. And that opened the floodgates. Nicole starts going deeper, learning about the scammer's MO and hears from people affected by it, a case truly like any other she had ever known with tentacles all over the world.

[00:18:58] Nicole Kotsianas: It struck me how people said the impersonation was so good. So typically with cases like this where a scammer is using either an individual, high profile individual, or more frequently, a company that they're pretending to be calling on behalf of, they're really not professionals. The impersonation aspect of it is pretty low grade, and what struck me was that everyone I was talking to said this, this is somebody who's done their homework.

[00:19:26] Michelle: And someone who is relentless. A master of accents, of excuses, of persuasion. Getting these professional people to go to extremes despite any suspicions or red flags they have. When the scam involves elaborate trips, it's generally to Indonesia.

[00:19:44] Nicole Kotsianas: There's definitely been people who have gone multiple times. Uh, and it was a, a longer running engagement. You know, months versus a one off trip. So those stories have been quite interesting because there's been just more of a, of a relationship essentially, and the artifice that's been built up there is really extensive, and so there's, you know, many more players and individuals, and you think you're dealing with people in accounting and different departments of a supposed company. So it's definitely been more extensive in some instances.

[00:20:24] Michelle: Some victims have given up their life savings, fronting money for what they think is the job of a lifetime that promises to lead to more work in the future.

[00:20:33] Nicole Kotsianas: There are a lot of people who don't have the money to lose, you know, somebody's wedding fund, their savings that they had intended to use towards a mortgage. I've really heard some awful stories about what this has done for people and how this disrupted their, their life. Friendships ruined, you know, people who had trusted each other that, you know, there's often a role of a referrer in this scam, so the scammer will talk to a first individual and ask for a list of names, and people that, you know, can you recommend someone for this gig, essentially, and so people have really gotten upset at the other person who brought them into this.

[00:21:12] Michelle: Oh, wow.

[00:21:12] Nicole Kotsianas: And what was really unique about this throughout is that there's such setup and the, the buy in from the impersonator into the entire situation is really uh, goes beyond what you would typically see or what would be necessary for these types of scams generally. It's really a personal connection that the impersonator's trying to make with these individuals, and you know, there has been a sexual component of this as well throughout where the impersonator has tried to engage in those sorts of conversations with, with people. And so, you know, that's clearly a unique aspect of that that I've certainly not seen in any other case I've worked on.

[00:21:59] Michelle: It's so strange and spooky, but Nicole feels personally invested in this case having spoken to dozens upon dozens of victims. She and her team were constantly working on this, as the individual cases keep coming in. They bring on a psychologist to try to understand this scammer that many believe is a sociopathy.

[00:22:21] Nicole Kotsianas: It doesn't appear to us to be entirely about the money. A large part of this and the motivation is the thrill, we believe, of the impersonation and the world building that goes along with the, the artifice that's created.

[00:22:36] Michelle: That's right. The scammer seems most of all to be enjoying this, the role-playing, the manipulating. Sometimes after a scam ends, the scammer keeps on calling the victim repeatedly day and night, pretending that the whole this is still legit. And things get even weirder in 2018 when Nicole starts getting repeated calls from someone claiming to have been roped in by the scammer to unwittingly participate in the plot. All anonymous calls from a blocked number.

[00:23:10] Nicole Kotsianas: It's definitely strange to find yourself on the end of the line of, of someone that you know to be involved in some capacity. So trying to make sense and fit it in with the grand scheme uh was definitely difficult. The individual was just trying to prove to me that they were, they were not involved.

[00:23:32] Michelle: Hmm, okay. Did, was any of that believable to you?

[00:23:36] Nicole Kotsianas: There were things about it that were not believable.

[00:23:38] Michelle: It is quite possible that those strange calls that one day just suddenly stopped were actually from the Con Queen herself. But then, as Nicole learns more and hears recordings that victims have made of their conversations, with characters like Aaron.

[00:23:55] Aaron: Well let me talk to the...

[00:23:57] Michelle: Wendi.

[00:23:57] Wendi: When you get back to New York...

[00:23:59] Michelle: Nicole and her team reach an aha moment. They realize that all of these supposed players seem to be one person. And the Hollywood Con Queen seems to actually be a king. They now believe this scammer is a man with at least some accomplices on the ground in Indonesia, but who is single-handedly playing all these roles, and apparently, loving every minute of it.


[00:24:28] Michelle: So what do you think this person wants ultimately? What are they after? Is it about the money?

[00:24:35] Nicole Kotsianas: I think the, the money has certainly been a, a very big piece of this, but I think the role playing aspect of it certainly plays a really big part, and the manipulation of people and, and using people as a plaything.

[00:24:51] Michelle: Wow. It sounds, it sounds like a dangerous person.

[00:24:59] Nicole Kotsianas: Yeah.

[00:25:00] Michelle: So...

[00:25:00] Nicole Kotsianas: Emotionally dangerous, for sure. He's taken a combination of scams and methods that are not new, but combined them altogether in a way that really hits on people's vulnerabilities. I'm not sure I'll ever have a case like this again.

[00:25:18] Michelle: Nicole and her team go public with this troubling case in 2018, and still more victims come forward. The FBI gets involved, and Nicole turns over everything she knows about it to them. This is currently an active, federal investigation.

[00:25:34] Michelle: With so many calls and voice recordings, and people who are on the phone for months at a time with this person over and over again, why has this person not been caught?

[00:25:46] Nicole Kotsianas: I'll decline comment on that one.

[00:25:48] Michelle: (chuckle) Okay, got it. What do you think? Do you think this person will ultimately be found?

[00:25:56] Nicole Kotsianas: We're hopeful.

[00:25:57] Michelle: Because it's still an open investigation, Nicole and the FBI can't really go into detail too much. But victims like Carley who have spoken to both investigators and other victims tell us some of what they've learned through this ordeal.

[00:26:12] Carley Rudd: The scam artist was one person, it was, is a man that is impersonating women, and also played this Aaron character, this assistant for me, which was shocking, because the voices of Aaron and Wendi seemed so different.

[00:26:31] Michelle: (laugh)

[00:26:31] Carley Rudd: And I learned that the perpetrator was living in London. They were of Indonesia descent.

[00:26:40] Michelle: Wouldn’t you love to see what this person is like, what their life is like? They live in London. Expensive city.

[00:26:46] Carley Rudd: Well yeah. Yeah, I mean...

[00:26:48] Michelle: So they have some money.

[00:26:49] Carley Rudd: I've heard from the investigator that this person comes from an affluent family of um, wealth and that they themselves have tried to create a influencer kind of personality online. And as soon as I found that out, of course, initially, I was spending hours on Instagram trying to figure out who this person might be, but I had to give up on that and realize that, of course, you know, the photo that they might have as their profile photo or the, you know, bio that they might describe themselves as, could all be completely made up and false, and how could you ever find this person, even with the information you had? They could be impersonating somebody.

[00:27:36] Michelle: So this is a wealthy guy, with a wealthy family, living in some sweet pad in London. He's doing it just for the thrill.

[00:27:46] Carley Rudd: Yeah, you have to, you have to think about the motive of it all, and that's, you know what the motive is right now, is that it's just this mind game and the thrill, and they just get off on this whole thing, and it's disturbing and frustrating.

[00:28:00] Michelle: What would you say to this character?

[00:28:04] Carley Rudd: Oh gosh. I don't even know. I, I would just enjoy seeing them put in jail and, and stopped.

[00:28:14] Michelle: What do you think about this person?

[00:28:17] Carley Rudd: I, I'm angry that they've gotten away with everything they've done. I would like to see justice. I feel sorry and upset about you know, all of these freelance photographers and, and other freelancers that have been caught up in this. Yeah, I'm, I'm upset and angry and I, I want this person to be caught. It's been years that they've been able to get away with it. Um...

[00:28:46] Michelle: The psychology that they use is pretty, pretty impressive and, and terrifying at the same time.

[00:28:54] Carley Rudd: They're an evil mastermind, and it's the perfect Hollywood movie, this whole scam. I, I, like I said earlier, this person's a professional. They know what they're doing. They, after every, you know, person they impersonate and target market they go after, they learn more and more about people and, and the psychology of it is fascinating but terrifying, and, and yes, scary what people, uh, what people can do with it.

[00:29:24] Michelle: So this guy is now based in the friendly UK. Why no arrest years later?

[00:29:33] Carley Rudd: Yeah, you know, that's a good question. It's a question I've been asking and, you know my contacts at the FBI and the uh private investigation company is that they have identified the person, they know who he is, and they are just waiting for the right time to be able to um, arrest him. And I've been told, you know, there's all of this cross jurisdiction um, that's happening. The crimes are happening in Indonesia to Americans, Europeans, Australians, uh, the perpetrator's in London, and so I guess that makes it more difficult. I've also heard that, you know the actual crime is not a major red flag for the FBI. It's small amounts of money being taken from people. There's no harm being done to people, so clearly the scammer, you know, is, is flying under the radar, and kind of getting away with it.

[00:30:35] Michelle: Unbelievable.

[00:30:37] Carley Rudd: It's wild.


[00:30:38] Michelle: Another thing that bothers investigator Nicole about this, the way this guy is impersonating women.

[00:30:45] Nicole Kotsianas: The caricature that this person has painted of high profile, powerful women, and the tactics, the manipulation, he sort of, you know, presents these women as shrill, um, difficult, and you know, that's, as a woman myself that's, I found that frustrating. You know, that that he's playing to those worst characteristics that people have about women in power, um, and using it, you know, for the setup of a scam.

[00:31:15] Michelle: When Carley and her husband got back from their awful trip to Indonesia, flying home in coach this time, she immediately posted a blog about what happened, trying to warn other people, and she immediately heard from others. She's been a sort of sounding board for victims and potential victims ever since.

[00:31:34] Michelle: Do you think there's something that could have prevented it? Anything you could have done in retrospect?

[00:31:41] Carley Rudd: You know, I've thought a lot about that. And one thing that I ended up realizing and figuring out after the fact was if you had done a, a search on the email domain that uh Wendi was emailing me from, it was That particular one that she was emailing me from was created within the last few weeks, so...

[00:32:10] Michelle: Aha.

[00:32:10] Carley Rudd: That's, you know, kind of a red flag that if somebody like Wendi is, is using a fairly new email domain is, is odd.

[00:32:20] Michelle: You would think, you would have to be...

[00:32:21] Carley Rudd: I don't know if I would have put the pieces together though.

[00:32:22] Michelle: Right. You'd almost have to be looking for a scam to, to go that far, you would think.

[00:32:27] Carley Rudd: Yeah, yeah. And then also looking back at some of the language in the NDA, there were a couple of typos, things that didn't feel completely polished, but again, in the moment in 72 hours and you want this job, those types of things I made excuses for. And, and didn't, um, really look into. So now I'm, I'm pretty careful about um, addressing and, and noticing those things. But it's so hard. I, this person is such a professional at what they do, and the thoroughness is really, really hard for people to, to pick up on.

[00:33:10] Michelle: What is the most head-slapping thing about this? What to, to this day still makes you go, oh man!

[00:33:18] Carley Rudd: I think one of the biggest shocks of it all was that the scam artist was a man when this whole time I was speaking to a voice that sounded like a woman, and that they were playing both characters, a man and a woman with completely different accents. And then just the scale of it. I cannot still believe how many people are affected by this, and how long it's been going on. It's mind-blowing.

[00:33:48] Michelle: But it gets worse. This scam is still going on to this day. When we spoke to Carley, she'd just gotten an email from yet another victim, and new one saying they had just been scammed by this person one week prior. And even now, amid the COVID crisis, people aren't traveling to Indonesia for these kinds of jobs, but the scammer is, yes, still working it, trying to get people to wire money for this or that. So he's tweaked the scam to fit the current circumstances. He hasn't stopped.

(replay of phone recordings)

[00:34:28] Michelle: It just brings back bad memories for people like Carley of how relentless this character was when she was dealing with him several times a day, and all the horror stories she's heard since.

[00:34:41] Carley Rudd: I mean the amount of people that are, that he has to manage is crazy. I mean there were, there were stories that I heard of individuals who were both, you know, shooting in Chinatown and ran into each other, and you know, stood out as two Westerners with expensive camera gear. And then later found out that they were both there as part of this scam. It's funny though because all the people I've talked with have had the same driver that I had and still, to this day, even with the photo of the driver published online, still are having that same driver. I actually had another female photographer contact me while she was in Jakarta and said that she was in the car with the driver when her friend, with the same driver that I had, and her friend forwarded her my blog posts, and she realized in that moment that she was caught up in this same scam. Was able to, you know, get out of the car, and get back to the airport safely and, and she emailed me right away. And, and I ended up talking with her while she was in Indonesia.

[00:35:44] Michelle: What did you say?

[00:35:44] Carley Rudd: And I tried to, you know, let her know that I, I thought she was safe, and that she wasn't in, in any sort of harm. You know, that was the first thing I tried to let her know, and then, yeah, I, I just explained what had happened to me and was able to kind of console her and...

[00:36:02] Michelle: Were you like, get the hell out of there right now.

[00:36:05] Carley Rudd: Yeah, yeah, I was. I mean, you know, she was just completely mind blown, yeah. I think as soon as she saw the blog post and read through everything, it, it becomes pretty apparent quickly that you know if you're going through this same exact thing that, that you're, you're caught up in this. And she was going back for a second time with the same scam person, so the stories like that that I have heard from all of this are, are wild and I have had so many people tell me that they, you know, read my blog post and shared it with a friend of theirs who they thought were going on a similar trip. I've had people at the airport ready to fly on their way to the airport to fly to Jakarta, and, and catch onto it, you know, in that last moment, and...

[00:36:52] Michelle: Incredible.

[00:36:53] Carley Rudd: It's a, it really is incredible.

[00:36:55] Michelle: It's a little way to get back at the mastermind. You must, for every person that says you saved me, you must feel like, ha-ha.

[00:37:03] Carley Rudd: Yeah, there's definitely a little bit of that and I, it's, it's created this kind of community of victims that we all have now, and um, another thing that a lot of the travel photographer community has been talking about is putting together some sort of art exhibit with all of our photographs that we did take while we were, and I think it would be the ultimately silver lining in it all.

[00:37:26] Michelle: The art of the scam.

[00:37:29] Carley Rudd: Yeah.

[00:37:31] Michelle: Great, well good for you. It's such a pleasure.

[00:37:34] Carley Rudd: Yeah, thanks.

[00:37:35] Michelle: All right, take care, Carley.

[00:37:38] Carley Rudd: Okay, bye.


[00:37:41] Michelle: Whew, imagine flying across the planet, strung along for days, getting to know this person you think is a well-known celebrity, telling them your life story, spending tens of thousands of dollars only to realize in the end it was all for what? For some wealthy wannabe influencer guy's thrill? It is spooky, and if it is true that investigators now know who this scammer is, his real identity, imagine the satisfaction for so many to see him finally stopped after nearly a decade of doing what is essentially the same elaborate scheme. I wonder what will come first? The arrest or the movie? Either one will be fascinating.


[00:38:28] And he's very caring to you, he was very (inaudible)

[00:38:30] Carley Rudd: Thank you.

[00:38:32] Thank you for your call.

[00:38:34] Michelle: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call 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.


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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