The fraud usually starts the same way: Someone claiming to be a lofty entertainment executive makes a phone call, sends a text or drafts an email offering an enticing job on the other side of the world.
Some of the unwitting industry professionals who receive the offers — photographers, writers, stunt performers, makeup artists, security reps and others — end up flying to Indonesia and spending thousands of dollars up front on flights, a driver and other services, believing they will be reimbursed. They never see their money again.
The FBI issued a warning on Monday, saying it was looking for victims in these cases. The Hollywood Reporter, which first broke the news last year, refers to the unknown perpetrator as the “Con Queen of Hollywood.” According to an article it published on Monday, several high-profile executives have been impersonated, including Kathleen Kennedy, the Lucasfilm president; Victoria Alonso, a Marvel executive; Amy Pascal, former chairwoman of Sony Pictures; Wendi Deng Murdoch, the businesswoman and film producer; and Sarah Finn, a casting director.
Todd Hemmen, assistant special agent in charge at the FBI’s San Diego office, where the investigation is centered, said potential victims need to be cautious about offers involving trips to Indonesia, the only country that has come up as a destination so far. Providing money up front is an arrangement that does not usually raise red flags in the entertainment industry, he added, so it is imperative to verify that a potential employer is who they claim to be.
“The fraudsters appeared to do a very thorough job of both vetting the background of their fictitious identity, so knowing a lot about the individual they’re representing themselves to be, and also a thorough job on vetting the work done by many of the defrauded victims,” Hemmen said in an interview with The New York Times.
“Please be advised this is an ongoing scam, and individuals who have plans to travel to Indonesia for a job opportunity in the entertainment industry should perform additional research and proceed with caution,” the FBI said in a news release Monday. The agency has an online form for people who think they might have been a victim of this swindle as far back as 2013.
Nicoletta Kotsianas, senior director of K2 Intelligence, an investigations firm with headquarters in New York, said in an interview on Monday that her company believed that the fraudulent offers were being made by an individual. K2 has been looking into the case since 2017 on behalf of some industry executives who say they have been impersonated.
As for the individuals being defrauded, if they are looking for work and have contact information available online, they can be easy for criminals to find, Kotsianas said.
While the FBI would not provide estimates of how many people had been duped or how much money they had lost, Kotsianas said K2 had spoken to about 100 victims. Some have lost around $3,000, which typically accounts for airline tickets and an Indonesian driver, she said. In other cases, the losses have extended to $150,000 for those who made multiple trips to Indonesia and believed they were deeply involved in projects that later proved to be nonexistent. On average, she added, the victims she knew about had lost $15,000 to $20,000.
Some of the phone calls have veered in a sexually explicit direction, Kotsianas said, which has set off warning bells for some targets.
“If things like that are going on, clearly that should be a red flag,” she added.
Performing some due diligence in trying to verify the caller’s identity prevented many others from getting caught up in the scheme, Kotsianas added.
“For every person that we heard from who went to Indonesia,” she said, “there were 20 who got the calls.”