Con artists taking on the identity of Wendi Deng Murdoch, an art collector and ex-wife of newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch, duped two American travel photographers out of thousands of dollars in an elaborate scam that involved a trip to Indonesia.
The photographers, Henry Wu and Carley Rudd, say they received an email asking to set up a call to discuss a job in Indonesia to take photos “capturing the essence of China” in celebration of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Describing the call to CNN, Wu said, “The person had a really strong presence. I don’t know how to explain it, it definitely felt that you were talking to someone important.”
The caller said that she had been referred to the photographers by the then editor of Conde Nast Traveler, Pilar Guzman. The photographers were told they would have to buy their own flights to Indonesia, but would be reimbursed after finishing the job.
Everything seemed normal, the photographers said. “They had the wendimurdoch.com domain, the timing was also legit—we had just finished working on something with Conde Nast,” Wu’s partner, Zornitsa Shahanska, told CNN. Meanwhile the email to Rudd came from the domain dengmurdoch.com.
The scammers carefully considered every detail. In one part of the email exchange, the person purporting to be Deng insisted she would be unavailable for a call because it was her birthday, which was accurate. Meanwhile, the scammer mentioned to Rudd that she was in St. Barts, which matched the activity on Deng’s Instagram account.
Shortly before traveling to Indonesia, Wu and Rudd were told they would have to pay up front for photo permits, which are required to conduct photo shoots in many foreign countries. With just a few days before their flight they agreed to give cash to the driver who picked them up from the airport.
In total, Wu estimates he lost about $7,500 on the plot.
A friend in Jakarta told him that he fell for a well-publicized scam. According to K2 Intelligence, a New York-based company investigating the fraud, the scheme has been running in various forms since 2013. It targets media professionals ranging from Instagram influencers, bodyguards, stunt men, makeup artists, and others. She says she has heard of about 300 people who had been targeted by similar plots.
In hindsight, Wu admits that he “overlooked the red flags.” For example, he says he did a search on the wendimurdoch.com domain, but failed to notice that it had only been registered a couple of weeks earlier. “It was a combination of we were thinking this would be a great project for us, it would open so many doors, plus, the Conde Nast referral, the timing,” he said. “I thought they referred us.”
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