Painting on an easel

Instagram scam promises money in exchange for your image

We’re seeing a number of complaints on Reddit and elsewhere regarding a scam which flares up every so often. It’s called the “Muse scam”, and targets users of Instagram.

Let’s hear from one of the Reddit posters impacted:

An artist approached me on Instagram asking if they could use one of my photos for their up and coming project at a legitimate art museum. The profile looked good too. Actual photos of the person messaging me and photos of their work in a well laid out time line as well. I told them they could use my photo but they had insisted I needed to be paid in order to show the museum the proof of my consent. And that my payments were through the museum as well. I was a bit uncomfortable but they assured me everything was safe and even showed me screenshots of other people doing this as well. I thought “what could go wrong?”

What could go wrong, indeed.

Then a third party started messaging me after I had given the artist my phone number and full name. The messages were coming from an email. They quickly pressured me into doing a mobile check deposit and that everything was legit. It all happened so fast. I didn’t even have time to fully think it through but I guess that is exactly what they want. I did the deposit.

“Luckily” for this person, the payment amount in this example ($100 for art supplies) is not typical for this scam, and significantly lower than usual. The most common approach involves the scammer sending you a check, often in the region of $2,500. This is supposed to be your “payment”. From this, you’re supposed to take something in the region of $500 and forward this money on to the artist for the cost of materials. From another recent Reddit example:

Someone said that they’ll want some muse for an art thing, and so she send me a check of $2500 to pay me $500 with the remaining $2000 sent to her. Is this a scam?

It is indeed. At this point, if you pay up then you’re $500 down from your own money. You also have a check pending against your account. After a few weeks, with the scammer long gone, the check will eventually bounce and you’ll absorb the cost of the remaining check money from your own finances.

Some of the scammers also include attachments with their messages. Some recipients were convinced they’d received some sort of malware and have, in extreme cases, formatted their device just to be on the safe side.

She sent me an email with an image of a cheque, I stupidly opened the image and 5 seconds later my email closed the image and sent it to my junk folder. I checked windows virus protection and it said threat detected, I tried resolving the treat but the button wasn’t doing anything, so I promptly shut down my computer and unplugged my router.

This scam is all a spin on the much older fake check scam, covered in detail by the FTC. Some of the variations include:

  • Personal assistant scam. Fraudsters make you think a personal assistant job is for the taking, then send you a check to buy gift cards for your “boss”. They get the card codes, you’re left with the remnant of a fake check.
  • Car wraps. Fraudsters offer to cover your car with ads, for a price. Sadly, that price is “You’ve been ripped off”.
  • Overpayments. If you sell items online, people will occasionally send you too much as if by accident. If they do this by check, beware: it may well be a scam.

Avoiding the fake muse scam

  • Beware of uncommon art practices. It’s tough out there for an artist. Nobody is going to randomly approach you with the promise of free money and work for the cost of materials alone.
  • Avoid checks. The moment someone offers to send you money by check and have you forward some of that cash somewhere else, it’s high alert time. If you see people warning about this type of attack online, they usually reference somewhere in the region of $2,000 to $2,500 as the scammer sweet spot. While the actual amount referenced could be anything, this does serve as a useful first glance indicator.
  • Fix the damage. Call whichever wire transfer company was used to send the money and lodge a complaint. You may be able to get the money back so it’s worth asking, although very unlikely. Do the same for money orders. Contact your bank and let them know what’s happened.

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Christopher Boyd

Former Director of Research at FaceTime Security Labs. He has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for threats like you.