“I’ve talked with the investigator [Nicole Kotsianis] who’s working on the case… She seems to think it’s just this game for this person.” One photographer, who spoke to the Hollywood Reporter in 2018 under the promise of anonymity, claimed that he lost his life savings to the woman. His analysis: "No doubt that if the mystery is ever solved, we'll learn she's not only brilliant, but probably is some sort of sociopath."
It seems that Instagram influencers are just the most recent target in a scam that runs much deeper. I ask Carley if she thinks Instagrammers are more susceptible to being scammed than other groups. “Certainly,” she says. “They know that as photographers, we’re hungry for work and I think they play off photographers like me in the industry that really want this type of job.”
In the following days there were logistical problems with drivers, accusations from Aaron that they’d breached the NDA they’d signed and eventually they were asked to pay $800 cash to their driver for an overtime fee. Carley refused. That's when things turned sour.
“They kind of bully you into thinking that you’re not good enough for the project. It’s almost like an emotional warfare,” says Carley. “She goes into this tangent about how I must not really want this job and I must just be this privileged white girl who doesn’t feel safe or comfortable traveling to Indonesia.”
This made Carley want to prove that she could handle herself, but ultimately it was just another ploy to keep her on the project and try to extract more money out of her. She refused to pay any more money and soon enough both Wendi and Aaron disappeared completely. Carley never heard from them again and never recovered the money.
"...a couple of photographers from San Francisco who have around 80K Insta followers each, were sent an almost identical email by "Wendi." Their experience turned out almost exactly the same as Carley’s: The scammers had intimate knowledge of their respective portfolios, they showered them with praise and offered a paid photography job in Indonesia.
(The photographers) found themselves in Jakarta feeling suspicious about the project, Wu snapped a photo of their driver and his license plate.
The next day the scammer called Wu in a rage, accusing him of being “racist” and “not in touch with [his] Asian side,” which was a particularly barbed comment as Wu is Taiwanese. This put the pair on the defensive, to the point where they agreed to pay another photography permit fee in cash to the driver. Wu says that this was a tactic to accuse them of wrongdoing, prompting them to defend themselves, then to casually ask for more money. “It totally worked,” Wu later wrote in a blog post.
For the past two and a half years, hundreds of unwitting victims around the world have been ensnared by a small but cunning criminal organization whose contours are only beginning to be understood.
Three of the producers impersonated have retained the services of a high-end corporate investigations firm, K2 Intelligence, run by Jeremy M. Kroll (brother of the comedian Nick Kroll; their father, Jules, founded Kroll, considered a foundational benchmark in the world of corporate risk management). K2 Intelligence won't reveal specific clients, but sources confirm that one of them is Pascal (she declined to comment for this story).
Hollywood companies also are getting involved. Earlier this year, when Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy learned that she had been impersonated, she informed Disney's internal security. A spokesperson for Kennedy says she refers all cases of fraud to law enforcement.
The imposter works by using a combination of deceit, charm and intimidation to manipulate her marks. The victims travel to Indonesia on a promise of work and, once there, are asked to hand over relatively modest amounts of money at a time, up to $3,000 in some cases, to help cover expenses for things like car travel, translation, tour guides and fixers. A designated Indonesian "moneyman" arrives on a moped to collect the funds. Needless to say, the promised reimbursements never arrive. Over time, these small sums add up. All told, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been collectively stolen this way. "Even if they're bringing in $300,000 a year, that's a huge amount of money in Indonesia," says Kotsianas, who believes the same group is behind all of the cases.
At the center of the organization is the impersonator — a woman whose sophisticated research, skill with accents and deft psychological and emotional manipulation have earned her the begrudging respect of her victims and trackers. K2 investigators believe the woman is the "talent" of an operation that, while relatively small, may have legs on at least three continents, including the U.S., Asia and Europe. The victims come from all over — the U.K., Europe and the U.S. primarily — and represent a wide swath of creative industries: hairstylists, stuntmen, military advisers, photographers and cinematographers.