A prolific scammer posing as different celebrities is flying Instagram influencers across the world in an elaborate scheme to steal their money

Travel photographer Carley Rudd was the victim of an elaborate scam that flew people to Indonesia to steal their money.

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Travel photographer Carley Rudd was the victim of an elaborate scam that flew people to Indonesia to steal their money.
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Carley Rudd/Instagram

  • A scammer posing as Wendi Murdoch has been flying influencers and travel photographers to Indonesia in an elaborate scheme to steal their money.
  • Carley Rudd, a photographer targeted by the scheme, told INSIDER she was manipulated by a person who sounded convincingly like Murdoch on the phone, as well as her male assistant.
  • The unidentified scammer has been operating since 2013, and has shifted from tricking Hollywood people to travel influencers.
  • They allegedly sometimes still pose as powerful movie executives to fool people into having phone sex with them.

Carley Rudd didn’t realize something was wrong until she was halfway around the world.

Rudd was on a photography job she’d been hired for just days earlier. It was a big one. On January 2, Wendi Deng Murdoch, the Chinese-American millionaire ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch, reached out to Rudd and asked her to contribute to a photography exhibit she was putting together in advance of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Could Rudd come out to Indonesia and take some photos?

Now it was Tuesday, January 8. Rudd was in Jakarta, on a shoot with her husband, who’s also her assistant. Murdoch was on the phone. Rudd had already followed some requests she found strange – she’d paid $15,000 for airfare through Qatar Airways with the promise she’d be reimbursed, as well as another $1,400 in cash for what she thought was an Indonesian photography permit. But Murdoch’s next request set off alarm bells.

“She said, ‘Carly, can you just do something for me? Can you split up for your husband today?'” Rudd told INSIDER. “And that was immediately a red flag for me.”

It was then Rudd realized she wasn’t actually speaking to the real Wendi Murdoch. Rudd was caught in a scam run by a master psychological manipulator, a reported prodigy at voice acting who could sound like a man or woman, and had the ability to closely mimic a number of female Hollywood executives and other powerful women.

Since 2013, the scammer has allegedly been impersonating powerful female executives with two goals.

In one version of the person’s scam, they manipulate people into flying to Indonesia under the pretense of giving them a freelance job, only to milk them of cash.

In the second version, they seduce their victims into having phone sex, and then disappear.

After The Hollywood Reporter published a blockbuster investigation into the scammer – who was at that point impersonating Hollywood producer Amy Pascal – in July 2018, they appear to have switched gears. No longer targeting people connected to Hollywood, the scammer is now going after Instagram influencers. They particularly target travel influencers and photographers, like Rudd, who have significant Instagram followings (Rudd has 60,000) but who aren’t big enough to have a professional vetting infrastructure in place.

The FBI and New York Police Department have open investigations into the scam, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and are also working with the boutique corporate investigations firm K2 Intelligence, which has tracked the shift to influencers.

“For a long time, they were going after people in Hollywood,” Nicoletta Kotsianas, a director at K2 Intelligence, told INSIDER. “[Now, they’re] routinely targeting influencers – Instagram stars, travel photographers, people who do stuff that involves them travelling all over the world.”

A master manipulator

The scammer is skilled at reproducing specific details about the person they’re impersonating, as well as gaining the trust of their victims. In Rudd’s case, they sent an email citing her work with an editor at Condé Nast Traveler, which she had worked with before. They also sent emails from convincingly real URLs – they emailed Rudd from wendi@dengmurdoch.com.

Rudd still tried to vet the fake Murdoch, excited yet surprised that someone of her caliber would reach out to her directly rather than through an intermediary. They spoke on the phone, and Rudd looked up old interviews on YouTube to see if the voices matched. As far as she could tell, it sounded like Murdoch.

An email sent from the fake Wendi Deng Murdoch to Carley Rudd.

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An email sent from the fake Wendi Deng Murdoch to Carley Rudd.
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Carley Rudd

There were still some red flags, like the rushed timeline for the photography shoot, a non-disclosure agreement with a few typos, and the request that she pay for a photography permit herself with cash.

But Rudd brushed them off. Rudd, like many established photographers or influencers with mid-sized followings on Instagram, are well-known enough to do high-profile projects, but don’t necessarily have an infrastucture of managers and agents to do vetting on their behalf.

The scammer has been impersonating Wendi Deng Murdoch, the millionaire socialite, to target travel photographers and influencers and luring them to Indonesia.

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The scammer has been impersonating Wendi Deng Murdoch, the millionaire socialite, to target travel photographers and influencers and luring them to Indonesia.
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Taylor Hill/Getty Images

After The Hollywood Reporter’s initial article about the scammer, they went relatively quiet for around two months, Kotsianas said. From there, they started moving away from targets in the movie and television industry and went after more influencers and photographers.

“People just like Carley, [with] 20 to 70 thousand followers, definitely influential in their niche sphere, but are just kind of running things on their own,” Kotsianas said. “Maybe they have an agent, but they don’t have the infrastructure in place for vetting, and they’re directly dealing with brands they’re working for and stuff like that. And that’s why I think they’ve been a particularly vulnerable group.”

In addition to the fake Murdoch, Rudd was also in contact with someone going by the name of Aaron, who said they were Murdoch’s assistant, and who closely managed the logistics for the trip.

In reality, the scammer used fake voices for both Aaron and Murdoch, switching between male and female voices to pull off their scheme, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

After Rudd declined to split up with her husband for the day, fearing she’d be kidnapped, Murdoch said Aaron would call them back. But when Rudd tried to call his number, the voicemail revealed it was a VOIP service instead of a real phone number.

“When we didn’t get that phone call from ‘Aaron,’ it just all sinked in. Because he was very diligent about calling us. He was calling us constantly,” Rudd told INSIDER. “The final moment is when I called back the phone number he had been contacting us from and it went straight to this automated British accent voicemail. And that’s when I knew they had disconnected the phone.”

Rudd and her husband left the hotel and rebooked their flight back to their home in the United States as quickly as she could.

The scammer allegedly juggles multiple targets at once

But Rudd wasn’t the only target of the scammer in early January. There were at least three other travel photographers they had lured to Jakarta around the same time.

Rudd wrote about her experience for her blog, where she posted a photo of her driver, who she believed was working with the scammer.

One of her friends, the photographer Jesse Evans, recognized the driver as her own. She, too, booked the next flight she could back home.

Carley Rudd said her driver was also part of the scheme.

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Carley Rudd said her driver was also part of the scheme.
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Carley Rudd

And around the same time, Henry Wu, another travel photographer, also wrote a post about being subject of the same scam. He flew to Indonesia with his partner, Zornitsa Shahanska, also under the false pretenses that he was being hired by Wendi Murdoch for a project related to the 2022 Olympics.

Wu also ultimately realized it was a scam. One red flag is that, while in Indonesia, he ran into a German photographer who also said he was hired by Wendi Murdoch.

“He had apparently been in Jakarta a day or two before us and was about to cancel the project because they kept giving him the runaround everyday when it was time to move to the next city,” Wu wrote. “They’d find ways to drive him to the wrong airport or make excuses to ask for more permit charges all while threatening legal action for violating the NDA and contract.”

Wu, too, seemed to have the same driver Rudd did, and posted a photo of him on his blog.

Henry Wu's driver in Indonesia turned out to be the same one Carley Rudd had.

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Henry Wu’s driver in Indonesia turned out to be the same one Carley Rudd had.
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Henry Wu

The scammer seems to be operating on the premise that it’s the quantity – not fiscal quality – of the scams that will make the difference. Rudd gave the scammer only $1,400 for a fake photography permit. And the scammer doesn’t see any of the $15,000 Rudd paid for Qatar Airways. (Qatar Airways declined INSIDER’s request for comment.) But by scamming so many people at once, they can pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, which is a huge amount of money in Indonesia.

More recently, the scammer has shifted to targeting influencer couples. And though the scammer hasn’t gone so far as to kidnap anyone, according to K2 Intelligence, they do try to string people along for larger amounts of money. Rudd said the scammer also asked her to pay $800 to a driver, which she refused.

“I think they tried to drag it on. And with other people they have dragged it on and asked for another permit, or another form,” she said. “I think once they realized I wasn’t going to go along with it, that’s when they just disappeared.”

A representative for the FBI declined to confirm or deny the existence of the investigation, citing Department of Justice policy.

They don’t just want money. They also want phone sex.

Lately, the scammer has been impersonating Murdoch for their Jakarta schemes. But they’ve also continued, on a lesser scale, to impersonate powerful women in Hollywood.

People close to the investigation say the scammer has pretended to be several other powerful women in Hollywood, including Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, former Sony Pictures executive Amy Pascal, and former 20th Century Fox Film CEO Stacey Snider.

When the scammer impersonates these women, they’ll allegedly go after mostly younger men in Hollywood and try to lure them into having phone sex.

“They’re going after buff, young actors or stuntmen or former military guys who are consultants on Hollywood films with combat and stuff like that, and really that is about just having phone sex,” K2 Intelligence’s Kotsianas said. “Those conversations are pretty quick. No follow-up there.”

Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy.

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Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy.
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Kevin Winter/Getty Images for BAFTA LA

Investigators believe that one individual is the mastermind behind the entire scheme, and has a team of people in Indonesia working for them. K2 Intelligence has been hired by some of the women who have been impersonated to investigate the scam and work with law enforcement, though Murdoch isn’t among their clients. A representative for Murdoch didn’t immediately reply to INSIDER’s request for comment.

K2 Intelligence declined to discuss the scammer’s gender or any other identifying information about them, citing the importance of the ongoing investigation. According to the initial Hollywood Reporter story, the scammer is a woman. But later reports cast doubt on that assumption.

Former Sony Film executive Amy Pascal.

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Former Sony Film executive Amy Pascal.
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Michael Kovac/WireImage

The scammer’s motivations, too, are ambiguous. It appears that they’re not simply trying to get rich. They’re also putting on a performance.

“It’s about convincing some people that there’s someone else, and manipulating them, being into that, and world-building around the whole thing,” Kotsianas said. “They’re making some money off it, but it’s really about the ride along the way.”

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