National Geographic Photography Scam and Lessons Learned
When I started putting together this article, my initial topics were either going to be a Costa Rica trip report or an article on hunting wildflowers in Central Texas. And those will still be coming out but I thought it prudent to talk about something a bit different, a bit personal, and something that I hope will rank in the SEO high enough that others might not fall for it from the onset. I'm going to be frank and open with you in hopes that it saves someone else the headache and bit of heartache that I have now gone through.
National Geographic Scam 2023 - Enric Sala and Greenland Research
First off, I will say I am pretty savvy when it comes to email scams. Most are easily detected through poor spelling, poor grammar, and badly copied logos or email addresses. However, there are others that are more carefully crafted which can make it that much harder to see the red flags early on, especially if the recipient is busy or emotionally invested.
So I guess this scam, the National Geographic email "Consideration To Join National Geographic Research In [enter country here]", targeting freelance photographers and videographers, started several years ago in 2021. They use the names of actual researchers attached to National Geographic as the bait so that if an email recipient, such as myself, Googles the name plenty of legitimate websites with links to Nat Geo and related research work pops up.
In this case, this is exactly how it happened. I received the email while on the road for my North American Nature Photography Association's Texas Wildflower Photography Regional Event. Reading over it on my phone, I started getting excited and figured that, while I was probably pretty far down on Nat Geo's list (wishful thinking I'm sure) that maybe it was just one of those freak opportunities that freelancers, like myself, are always hoping will come along.
While Too Good To Be Real is a hallmark of a scam, there have been other opportunities that have been completely legitimate that have come into my inbox unsolicited so I usually start out with a trust but verify mentality. To verify, I Googled the name given by the contact, National Geographic Explorer Enric Sala. Typing that in and a whole host of legitimate pages come up as this is a real person, with real research, and real ties to Nat Geo. His work is extensive and impactful. Going to the first link, Enric's website, everything looks as it should. Another link below is his Nat Geo page and more follow. However, I only went to his website, not the National Geographic page since that came up second. Trying to do due diligence but on a truncated timeline. Had I visited the actual National Geographic page, this is where the story would have ended since they have a warning at the top of his page that his name and likeness has been used in scam emails. Yet, his personal website does not have any such warning, so onward we go.
With what seemed like a tight time schedule, I figured maybe this was a minor research project and there had been issues securing someone available (April is a very busy month for many of us photographers) and they were casting a wider net for newer/emerging talent. Being in a rush to take advantage of what seemed like a legitimate opportunity while still fulfilling my duties as a tour leader in the field, where the clients' safety and satisfaction come first over any email, meant that I didn't catch the small but present initial red flags, such as the email came from a Gmail account rather than an official National Geographic mail server. Hindsight 20/20 and all that.
Anyway, exchanging emails with this "professor" over the course of several days, I received a packet of information, a several page PDF, with National Geographic letter head and a pretty thorough overview of expectations and compensation plan. There they asked a few typical questions such as a CV, phone number, and two images. There is even a date for the "team" to have a pre-trip brief for further details. Unlike in the past (as I found out later) where they ask for money upfront from the perspective freelancer to help fund the research, that red flag was not there this time.
Again, at this point, everything still looks legit to me and when I receive the acceptance letter, I get super excited as really any photographer would if they had not already figured it to be a scam. However, at that point, "Enric" says I'm going to be dealing with a "Jill Schieffer," team coordinator. This came in just as I returned home from the tour I had been leading, which meant I had easy access to my large screen desktop and time to review the details more closely, for any potential questions I might have for the team coordinator.
To start, I wanted to know who I was dealing "at NatGeo," so I once again turned to Google. Googling "Jill Schieffer National Geographic" turned up almost nothing. This was the red flag being dropped over my head, impossible to ignore.
The few, very few, links that did pop up were blog articles, very similar to this, talking about a National Geographic opportunity scam based around a research trip to Iceland. Hats off and a big thank you to Janelle and Clayton of Bonnie Clyde Worldwide , for sharing their experience and having such strong SEO that it ranked for me to see it before I fell further into the trap.
Side note: Bonnie Clyde Worldwide has some really great articles beyond their post on a fake NatGeo offer. Originally from Texas and now living in in Costa Rica and teaching English, they have great travel stories, tips, and offer travel related services for places around the world. Check them out if you get a chance.
So, if they didn't ask for money, or personal information that shouldn't be found elsewhere on the internet (like SSN), what's the angle you might ask? Here is the other little flag I didn't catch in my initial read of the "paperwork" sent. They would pay me both an initial stipend and travel costs. From there I would pay for my travel to "meet" with the group. To make the payment, they need my account information. Had I not caught this before they asked for that information, they would have had my banking numbers and potentially other sensitive personal information. I may have even "booked" my travel with their "agent" before payment fully cleared, meaning their payment would bounce and they would have my actual money AND banking information.
Thankfully, it did not reach this point. When "Jill" reached out via text to set up a phone call to get the first payment set up, I had already found this information and called "her" out on it. The scammer then tried saying well "[she] works directly for Enric, not NatGeo," yet the email was signed NatGeo Research Coordinator. Not happy with that explanation I followed that comment with one of my own.
"Ah! Yet that doesn't explain why there is pretty much no mention online of you anywhere...except when it comes to NatGeo job scams."
No response to that. I guess I'm the fish that got away this day. The texts came from the number +1 (570) 565-9285. I doubt it is their actual number and just a proxy as is so common these days for both scammers and spammer alike.
1) Just as predicted in James Reason's Swiss Cheese model of accident causation, several check factors have to be bypassed to get to the final resulting crash. In this case that would have been me being scammed out of several thousand dollars. The Swiss Cheese model teaches us that each layer of defense has flaws and that accidents occur when the trajectory aligns with flaws throughout each layer (thus the Swiss cheese analogy). For scams such as this to work, the layers that have to overcome are the recipient's real world scheduling conflicts, attention to detail, and emotional response.
For me, my schedule for the perceived dates was rather flexible since I was mostly home and it would only overlap with a volunteer commitment. I would hazard to say there are very few who would say no to such an opportunity for a paid gig with a name like National Geographic for volunteer work.
My attention to detail was lacking due to trying to multitask on the road. One hundred percent on me and something I fully realize. So a very distinct contributing factor.
Playing on the emotional response that a small time freelance photographer would have to being offered a position to photograph with National Geographic was key to get the scam to work. That they unfortunately hit out of the park. It hurt, truly, when after almost a week of living with the lie, the realization came that it was just that, a lie, and no real offer was forthcoming (maybe one day).
2) Continue to ask questions and research. This is what ultimately saved me from being fully taken. My habit of wanting to know everything and making sure I know at least a bit about those I'm working with, especially when it comes to those I view as higher up the preverbal ladder. It is like researching a company before going in for an interview, because we all do that right?
3) Freelance work is filled with pitfalls and there are those who continue to try to take advantage of our situation. As a business owner based on freelance work, I don't have the luxury of just writing off every job offer email as a scam because then I would never be able to grow beyond my current commitments. Many of which came in the form of an unsolicited email that offered an opportunity.
4) Trust but verify especially in the case of "too good to be true." Once again these words of wisdom guide from a place of collective consciousness. Just like if the "bank" or "credit card" company calls asking for personal information you are support to hang up and call the number on the back of your card that you know to be the actual institution, the same applies here. Going directly to the National Geographic website after not getting any results for "Jill Schieffer," revealed the flag my original sloppiness had failed to find - the notice on Enric Sala's NatGeo page that his name has been used to scam freelance photographers.
In the end, I am thankful that it was only my pride that was bruised and not my financials that took the hit. I will still be watching my credit reports in the coming months in case they try anything with the limited information they were given (nothing that couldn't already be found online), but overall I consider it done. More email job offers will come in and I will trust but verify, this time making sure to take my time and not make decisions when oversaturated with current activities.
While this may not effect or be applicable to many of you, I hope that it might one day save someone from the same or similar scheme, much like the article by Bonnie Clyde Worldwide helped me.