CNN  — 

Scammers claiming to be Wendi Deng Murdoch have swindled thousands of dollars in an elaborate sting involving a fake art project in Indonesia to celebrate the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, victims say.

Photographers Henry Wu and Carley Rudd say they were contacted by someone claiming to be the former wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. A screenshot of emails seen by CNN shows “Wendi” then requested a phone call to talk in detail, before offering a job in Indonesia to take photos “capturing the essence of China.”

“The person had a really strong presence,” Wu told CNN. “I don’t know how to explain it, it definitely felt that you were talking to someone important.”

Wu and Rudd’s accounts are remarkably similar, with a scammer praising their work and mentioning Pilar Guzman, the then-editor of Conde Nast Travel, as a referral.

The US-based photographers were told they would have to pay for flights to Indonesia, which would be reimbursed when the project was complete.

The photographers referred to precise details – about their work, dropped hints about Deng’s personal life – that checked out online and seemed to confirm “Wendi’s” authenticity.

“They had the domain, the timing was also legit – we had just finished working on something with Conde Nast,” Wu’s partner Zornitsa Shahanska, who goes by the name Zory Mory online, told CNN. Rudd’s email came from another domain

In one instance the scammer mentioned to Wu that Deng would be unavailable to talk as it was her birthday, which turned out to be accurate, while an email purportedly from the businesswoman to Rudd said that she was in St. Barts, which Rudd corroborated though checking Deng’s Instagram feed.

Money up front

The real Wendi Deng Murdoch at the 2017 Met Gala in New York.

After paying thousands of dollars for flights, both Wu and Rudd were told just before leaving the US that they’d need to pay up front for photography permits. With time running out to departure, they agreed – and after landing both handed over cash to a driver who picked them up at the airport.

Once on the ground, the scammer concocted roadblocks, such as invented issues with car companies hired to chauffeur them around – and, in Wu’s case, asked for even more money for other permits.

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Wu told CNN they had tried to do due diligence but “we overlooked the red flags. I did a DNS (search) on the ( domain, overlooked that it had been registered a couple of weeks previously. 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… I thought they referred us.”

Wu says he and Mory lost about $7,500 through the scheme. He eventually contacted a Jakarta-based friend who said that it was a well-known scam and sent him a link to a Hollywood Reporter story about similar plots using the names of other women in entertainment.

Long-running scam

Indonesian Chinese pray at Dharma Bhakti Temple in Jakarta, Indonesia.

K2 Intelligence, a New York-based firm investigating the overall scam, told CNN the fraud has been going on, in a number of forms, since 2013.

Nicoletta Kotsianas, the firm’s director, said the scam targeted creative and media industry professionals, including photographers and Instagram influencers, as well as military veterans who work as bodyguards, stunt men and makeup artists. K2 Intelligence is investigating the Deng Murdoch impersonations under the assumption it is linked to the previous scams.

Kotsianas said the firm knew of about 300 people who had been contacted by people impersonating Deng Murdoch or other prominent figures – often high-ranking women – in the media industry. “This is a particularly well-devised scam, they’ve found a way to combine a lot of elements and run with it,” she added.