Column: Scammers

by flaunt

On any given week at Flaunt we receive a barrage of emails, calls, and passers-by trying to get their foot in the door, sometimes literally, to be included as a model or contributor of the magazine. Often, regrettably, we are forced to politely squash these sincere yet misdirected/mis-timed/mis-informed/mis-calculated dreams. Other times though, we get the other end of the spectrum: people impersonating photographers, stylists and Flaunt staff in an effort to either a) ensnare young attractive girls into sexual schemes or b) siphon off large sums of money from the over-willing (and underfunded bank accounts of) young aspiring models.

About 90% of the DMs we receive on the @flauntmagazine accounts are the latter: well meaning individuals either notifying us about, or trying to check the validity of suspicious people parading as Flaunt. It’s a known epidemic on the portfolio website Model Mayhem with simply too many cases for us to address individually.

Early in March we got wind of a “Gary Smith,” who purported to be the Creative Director of Flaunt. Gary wanted to “take [the model’s] pictures in different posses [sic] to update our magazine front cover for the next edition” Gary assured his target that “the shoot will not contain any nudity” and that “anyone of [the model’s] choice can come along to the shooting venue, so [the model] can feel more comfortable and not lonely.” Finally, Gary got into the small print: “Your payment will be pain [sic] in two installments, we will be sending you a check of $3,750 which will include your part payment of $400. You are to deduct the sum of $400 as your part payment, then the remaining balance should be remitted by you the the [sic] wardrobe manager.” We decided that it was time to scam the scammer.

We sent an initial email under a fake account with a sexy photo – suspecting that he was of the sexual predator variety – complete with overwhelming excitement to be considered for inclusion in the magazine. The original plan was to lure the predator to a law enforcement facility or something of the like. Punk’d meets To Catch a Predator. At first, we were just trying to fuck with him but we realized quickly that it would make for a cautionary tale to all those eager hopefuls out there who were having their hearts broken by Gary Smiths everywhere. I was also curious about Gary.

Having been a dominatrix for seven years – with specific experience in blackmail and gaslighting scenes – this was most certainly my bag. I love finding out what makes someone tick and enjoy the alternative methodologies of BDSM. I’m an experienced role player – reveling in the consensual con-game, leading people down a long and winding path only to have the rug yanked from beneath them. Gotcha, motherfucker. My character was “Vera” – a young woman who recently moved to Chula Vista from Pittsburgh to chase her dreams of modeling.

It amazes me that people fall for these elaborate schemes – the amount of monetary back and forth via lengthy transfer processes made my eyes cross. It was easy to play confused and naïve as clues to his bogus front were littered about. In his first email to me, Gary even went as far as to say: “Take the courage to participate in this paid and legit opportunity as we look forward working with you soon.” I once had a neighbor that introduced himself to me by saying “I’m not an asshole!” Guess what he was?

Internet scams – like the grifters of the past – start by building trust and anticipation. As I would later learn, when promises and friendliness stop, working scammers will resort to intimidation tactics. After several emails Vera was prompted to send over an address and information to receive a check. We decided to use a particularly detestable Trump supporter’s old address and phone number, claiming it to be Vera’s mother’s. Mom would then process the “wardrobe” check and all would be good to go. Gary confirmed he understood and sent it off. He also stupidly and fastidiously gave me the tracking information for the parcel which revealed that it was coming from New York.

Not having any intention to deal with said check, I let it sit for a few days. He was growing impatient and sent a couple of angry emails, one including: “I WILL BE REPORTING YOU TO THE POLICE FIRST THING ON MONDAY MORNING.”

Monday Morning, Vera reached out again to apologize for her tardiness. I made sure to mention how “truly sorry!!!!!” Vera was and how much the opportunity meant to her. Avoiding the aforementioned check, I said that there were “complications” and that my mom had given me some cash up front to make up for the deposit. I asked if I could speak with him over the phone to coordinate and to my great surprise, he offered his bank account name and number for me to deposit directly into. Not only was he based in New York, his bank account was in Nigeria. Were there multiple Gary's?

In a rare moment of prudence, we called the FBI and attempted to report the incident. Agent 9157 informed us that the FBI get “thousands of calls per week” reporting cyber crimes and they simply cannot keep up with “the large scale crime organization.” We were told to fill out an IC-3 form online and essentially let it be. “They might look into it,” the Agent told us, “but I can’t guarantee they will.” Her voice had a slight southern twang as she dutifully answered our questions thoroughly. She referred to us each as “Sir” and “Ma’am” appropriately fitting her robot-like agent number namesake, kindly appealing to the good civilians reporting an incident to the data bank.

We weighed the options. We had access to his bank account and could easily transfer ourselves whatever stolen loot he and his cronies had collected from idealistic young women falling prey to the obtuse and elaborate scheme. There was discussion about donating the money to The Malala Fund which provides educational scholarships to young women in Nigeria, or simply to do it just to see if we could pull it off. After much deliberation, we decided against it. I, for one, didn’t want a money laundering overlord showing up at my house with a crow-bar after reading this missive. Despite that, I was genuinely curious if we could successfully scam him (and sincerely wanted to). Caution was never my strong suit.

In lieu of stealing from Gary, I decided to try to get him on the phone. Making it sound like I was getting cold feet and needing further proof – I even went so far as to mention that “I just want to make sure ur not a scam or something, lol ;)” On the phone he was very demanding. I could hardly understand him between a thick accent and his line cutting in and out, but I tried to press for more information.

I had stated earlier that my misgivings were based on my “friend in the industry” who advised me to proceed with caution. He responded “Well, maybe your friend doesn’t want you to work with us. Maybe she is jealous.” I rebuked this statement and he aggressively cut me off: “I am really unhappy and now you’ve pulled out at the last minute and it’s not really cool okay. You want to do it or not – you don’t allow someone to change your mind, it doesn’t work that way, it’s not cool, okay?!” I wept my best crocodile tears until he calmed down. He reassured me that “everything is fine” and that he was not angry with me but quickly got animated again as I stayed on the phone. His voice faltered and he seemed off-kilter as this cycle of anger and reassurance continued. It was in this moment I realized that the exchange of power, con to con, had been transferred – I successfully nestled him in my craw, confused. And then, silence. We were disconnected or he hung up.

The crackly phone connection and Gary’s very obvious act of half committing to being the authoritative Flaunt magazine coordinator provided my own personal scammer fantasy. I imagined Gary alone in his Harlem apartment, nervous, uncertain and trying to regain control. His attempt to play it cool was audible. He felt like the little guy in a much larger scheme just trying to follow protocol. And perhaps this is the state of most scammers, trying to claw their way out of poverty or some other less desirable situation, gotta play it cool, trying their best to be the “bad boy.” Their strength is not their person-to-person skills, but their twisted game, which frankly, isn’t that convincing.

I tried to call back as my intention was to get some sort of real statement from him – a confession of guilt or motive, but he was fed up with my questions. I decided to text. Going from pleas like “Will you call me back, PLZ?! I CAN make it up to you, I promise!!!!” I then asked if he would prefer that I call the FBI or personally drain his account. Confused, he asked me to explain. I sent him a crudely photoshopped image of him sucking a phantom dick and left it at that.

When the gaslighter becomes the gaslit, it makes for an interesting psychodrama of congames. My con was wanting to know Gary or at least figure out his motives. The chase is a thrill and the resulting information a lovely cherry on top. I was curious... Scammers – they’re just like us! I remember watching To Catch a Predator in my teens and feeling kind of bad for the sad saps, their guilty deer-in-the-headlights mugs broadcasted against Chris Hansen’s zen-like calm and his signature line: Why don’t you have a seat over there? A sad and strange inequality in television’s felonious theater. It’s too easy, though. We feel good because the bad guy got caught. Okay, fine, but take away the bad guy’s badness and what do you have?

I wondered, where does Gary live? Does he struggle to make ends meet? Does he have a wife and kids? Boyfriend? What does he do in the morning? What music does he listen to? Does he ever have second thoughts about scamming people? If not, why? Like Chris Hansen’s fifteen-minutes-of-fame predators, perhaps a scammer’s only defense is to remain hidden, avoiding the possibility of being misunderstood; a fully-fleshed profile far from view.

Written by Audra Wist