Big smile for the scammer
On Cameron Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, a young lady taps me on the shoulder and hands me her card. 'You have the perfect look to be a model. Are you interested in being one?' After paying me more compliments and informing me she was a scout, she asks me to come to their agency nearby. When we arrive, another woman takes my measurements, then quickly flips through some 1990s-looking photos which she says are the jobs they've booked for their models.
I can be one, too, the scout says, but I have to do a few test photo shoots, and I need my hair and make-up done. I could find my own make-up artists to work with on the shoots, but the beauty salon upstairs gives them a good discount. I can get four make-up sessions for HK$2,000 if I sign up for a beauty course.
For years, this is how naive, hopeful models have been tricked into parting with money to fund their supermodel dreams. But as the public becomes smarter about the scams, the scammers also change their tactics - from renting an office in an expensive location to decking out the walls with photos from professional-looking magazine spreads.
Sha Tin district councillor Dr Elizabeth Quat, who has warned of modelling scams for several years, says I experienced a basic scam. These days agencies use more subtle methods. For example, they won't ask for money upfront any more.
'They meet with victims, ask them questions, take a few digital photos. After a few days, there is a job, but the jobs are these red wine advertisements that pay a tiny amount, usually HK$300,' says Quat.
A small one-off cheque is often all that's needed to gain the trust of victims. 'We don't know whether the first job is a real advertisement or not, but after this they are told that they will have big jobs,' Quat says. 'But they should first get some facial courses, makeovers, a nice photo profile that costs them from a few thousand to over HK$20,000.'
Chris Chan is a victim of a modelling con. She lost HK$30,000 to an unscrupulous agency and now runs a blog dedicated to raising awareness about the issue. In 2003, Chan was approached on the street in Tsim Sha Tsui, an area that - along with Causeway Bay and Wan Chai - is a hot spot for 'model recruitment' by scam agencies. The scout assured her the agency would never ask for any money and promised her jobs that paid between HK$500 and HK$800 an hour.
But when she came into the office to discuss a prospective job, the agency asked for HK$30,000. They put immense pressure on her to sign a contract and even blocked her from leaving until she gave up her credit card. When Chan went to the police, they told her there was no case because she had signed the contract.
Chan went online to air her grievances and found 20 or so other modelling scam victims on an internet forum, which encouraged her to start her blog. When she first started posting, she would hear from victims almost every day, she says.
In the nine years she's spent observing scam companies, Chan notices they're not as aggressive as they once were. 'If the victim says they can't afford the amount, they'll just cheat you out of what you do have. The company will pretend to be very compassionate. If you can't pay HK$30,000, they'll ask for HK$18,800 and say they'll put up the rest for the time being and take it out of your pay cheque when it comes. If you still can't give them that much, they'll say 'OK, fine, HK$10,000.' They'll just lower the price until you can afford it.'
Another tactic involves bogus modelling competitions. Contestants pay out thousands of dollars for costumes, make-up and hair styling to take part in the competition. The winner is awarded a contract with the agency which - surprise! - also requires money to further the model's career. Along the way, the model hopefuls may be given a few low paid jobs, and they quickly deplete their bank accounts. 'No matter how many jobs you do for them, you'll never be able to cover what you paid,' says Chan.
Prosecuting a suspicious agency can be difficult because the victims don't typically have evidence they were conned into buying make-up or photo packages. Simon Young, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and the director of its Centre for Comparative and Public Law, says the usual charge in these scams is conspiracy to defraud. This requires proof of lies or misrepresentations made. 'The police find it difficult to proceed unless there is clear evidence of dishonesty. It looks more like a contractual dispute,' Young says.
Quat adds: 'You can't say they're not an agent. The company that sells you the facial treatment course, the body slimming package course or styling consultant work are other companies. It's very difficult to charge anyone. These fake agencies will just say: 'It's not that we don't have jobs; we just don't have jobs immediately, and I'm not charging them anything to be a model.''
According to police records, HK$91,400 was lost to modelling scams in 2009. It dropped to HK$49,900 in 2010 before jumping back up to HK$102,000 last year.
However, those numbers 'cannot reflect the reality at all', says Quat. Most of the victims she's talked to paid an average of HK$8,000 to HK$12,000. 'If you're talking about HK$50,000, that's only four or five cases.'
Chan says more than 1,400 victims have contacted her since October 2003.
She says many victims don't report it to the police for fear of looking stupid or because they know it would be difficult to prove.
The good news is that the number of complaints reported to the police is declining. Quat attributes this to better public awareness and education. 'The police are quite good. They do awareness campaigns about every two years to update the public on changed tactics.'
Maria Woo - senior booker at Dreamodels, an agency that represents more than 500 models and talent including celebrity catwalkers Balia Chan and Jocelyn Luko - says an agency shouldn't ask for payment upfront. 'Everywhere nowadays in the industry, the modelling agencies will give them [models] an advance. It's a kind of investment,' she says.
The main thing to remember is that if an agency really believes the model has potential and would like to promote her, then it will invest the money. 'If they ask you to pay, you really need to check whether the agency is trustworthy or not,' Woo says.