After a hiatus of several months, a sophisticated con artist is back at work.
A scammer whom The Hollywood Reporter identified in a cover story last June as the so-called "Con Queen of Hollywood" has resumed an elaborate pattern of deceit that has drawn in dozens of additional victims and, collectively, resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past several weeks.
As with the previous iteration of the scam, the con artist has been aggressively targeting victims by impersonating a number of high-profile people in media and entertainment, including Rupert Murdoch's ex-wife Wendi. The FBI, which began an investigation into the fraud in the wake of THR's initial story last summer, is pursuing the case, though no suspects have been named and no arrests made.
This time, the scammer is targeting the community of travel photographers and Instagram influencers, many of whom are associated with Conde Nast, which maintains a large and very visible social media footprint across its many publications. Many of the most recent victims have been based in Asia, Europe and especially Australia.
The uptick in the scammer's activity emerged more clearly last week when travel photographer and self-described "digital nomad" Carley Rudd, who has worked for Conde Nast Traveller and Travel & Leisure, posted a lengthy essay on her own website.
In it, Rudd detailed a recent experience with a woman purporting to be Wendi Murdoch that led her and her husband, a freelance writer, to purchase a first-class ticket to Indonesia, where, she had been promised, she would be working on a plush assignment for the media mogul's wife.
Only after the Rudds had arrived and forked over an additional $1,400 did the couple realize they'd been taken for a ride. They hadn't been talking to the real Wendi Murdoch. There was no work. And zero chance they'd ever be reimbursed for the more than $16,000 they'd lost.
When she realized she'd been duped, Rudd said she felt sick. "My heart started racing, my stomach sank," she said in a recent interview, "It was all this giant scam."
Upon returning to the U.S., Rudd filed a report with the FBI. She also got in touch with investigators from the corporate security firm K2 Intelligence, based in New York, which has been tracking the fraud since its inception after being hired by a Hollywood producer who had been impersonated.
Since Rudd published her story, hundreds of other people have gotten in touch. Many, like her, traveled to Indonesia recently under false pretenses. Others did not take the trip but reported that they had been contacted by the same impersonator with similar job offers. After several months of relative quiet, the scam has picked up to such a degree that in some cases multiple people have been in Indonesia at the same time. Some have even run into each other and swapped stories while still in Jakarta.
"We continue to represent clients in connection with the Con Queen of Hollywood and are working directly with law enforcement to bring them to justice. We can't comment further because this is an ongoing investigation," K2 said in a statement. The FBI, many of whose agents are furloughed due to the government shutdown, also declined to comment.
The pattern of the scam matches almost exactly the format used by the Con Queen over the previous two years: A famous woman gets in touch using an email account that seems legitimate. (In this case it was dengmurdoch.com.) After lengthy phone conversations, an elaborate contract is sent and the victims are asked to travel to Indonesia for a special assignment.
Once there, they are then asked to fork over substantial amounts of money — several hundred or even a few thousand dollars at a time — to cover costs for things like drivers, translators, fixers and the like. The ruse goes on in this way until the marks either figure it out, or run out of money, or both.
A few new wrinkles have emerged in the Con Queen's recent burst of activity. The scammer has also been impersonating a smattering of people in Hollywood and then asking willing men to participate in a "scene" that requires them to engage in phone sex.
One of the Hollywood people being impersonated is Deborah Snyder, an American producer married to filmmaker Zach Snyder. Snyder declined to comment for this story.
Previous Hollywood notables impersonated include former Sony chair Amy Pascal, producer Kathleen Kennedy and Homeland director Lesli Linka Glatter.