Acting scams are made to appeal to the hopes and dreams of aspiring actors. They exist around every corner of the entertainment business. Seasoned actors know what acting scams look and sound like and so should you. Recognize the red flags: promises of instant stardom, amateur phrases like “no experience necessary,” and guarantees of work or representation. For young people who are just starting out in show business, the difference between the legitimate and the bogus is not so obvious, and scammers know that aspiring performers make the easiest prey.
Acting scams are always too good to be true
The best way to tell legit acting opportunities from acting scams is to educate yourself on the audition process. For an industry shrouded in mystery, the mechanics of casting are really quite simple. You book an audition, either through an agent or on your own. The person holding the audition, after seeing you, decides if you are right for the part. If you are what they are looking for then they ask you to return for a callback or you just might book the job then and there. If they don’t like you, better luck next time and that’s the end of it. It’s that simple.
Notice that at no time during this process has anyone asked you to break out your parents’ credit card. Agents earn a percentage of their income from the work they find for their clients, the standard rate being 10 percent. In other words, agents don’t make a dime unless you do. There are no fees to join a talent agency, and agents in New York must be licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs before they can legally represent talent.
Before they are licensed, agents must first meet a stringent checklist of requirements, including an office space, a business certificate and state-approved representation contracts. New agents are even fingerprinted before they are permitted to practice. If you want to verify the legitimacy of a particular agent, a quick reference check with the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) and the National Association of Talent Representatives (NATR) will reveal whether or not an agent is licensed.
Acting Scams Come In All Shapes & Sizes
Casting directors are kind of like the Human Resources Department of the entertainment world. Their job is to oversee the audition process, which is essentially a job interview. You wouldn’t expect someone interviewing you for a job as a waiter to ask you for money during the interview. Similarly, a legitimate casting director does not charge fees to audition. In fact, it is against the law for them to do so. If you come across a casting notice for a specific theater or film project in which the audition requires a fee, skip it. It’s a rip-off waiting to happen.
Acting scams come in many forms. Some have been around since the advent of show business, while others have only surfaced more recently. The Internet has served as a breeding ground for all kinds of shady business practices, including acting scams.
As is the case with any industry, scammers in the world of entertainment are always retooling their efforts to stay one step ahead of their targets, but the basic modus operandi for these shell games is often easy to recognize if you know what to look for.
In the guide below we break down five of the most common audition and acting scams in the industry. Although some jaded theater veterans may tell you that getting scammed is a show business rite of passage, there is no rule that says every young performer has to experience this unfortunate pitfall. Knowing what to avoid will help you transition more smoothly from amateur to professional as you look for acting opportunities.
Acting Scam # 1
“No Experience Necessary”
We’ve all seen the ads: “Local actors and models wanted; No experience necessary; Looking for fresh faces; Seeking all types; etc.” This common bait-and-switch swindle has been around in some variation for decades. Years ago, it reared its ugly head in the classified sections of daily newspapers and alt-weeklies. Virtually every newspaper in the country at one time contained one of these calls for local actors and models, followed by a 1-800 number. Like all other classified ads, however, acting scams like this one have since migrated to the Internet, where self-policed Websites such as Craigslist provide the perfect forum for phony ads to flourish.
How It Works
Phony agencies post casting calls designed to appeal to aspiring actors with little or no experience. The ads are purposely vague, with generic headlines such as “Actors and Models Wanted.” Rarely do the calls contain any specific information about the project being cast, although the more audacious ones sometimes try to lure you in with big-name actors (i.e. “Extras Wanted for Movie Starring Will Smith”). One thing these ads all have in common is that they are crafted to sell you a dream — namely, that your big break is awaiting you, and all you have to do is respond to the ad.
These bogus calls are usually very brief and accompanied by a phone number or website. But when you call for more information, you are not given details about the advertised opportunity. Instead, you are solicited by a high-pressure sales person trying to sell you something that will supposedly help your acting career. These services could be anything from a new set of headshots to a one-day intensive acting class to a subscription for a casting Website. But in the end, selling these goods and services is how the swindlers make their money. They are not in the business of finding or providing jobs for anyone.
How to Avoid It
Never respond to a casting call in which the poster is not specific about the project. Often times, the posters of these types of ads try to pass themselves off as talent agencies looking for fresh faces, but legitimate agencies don’t advertise. They don’t have to. They’re busy enough sifting through the countless cold submissions that they receive on a daily basis. If you do respond to a casting call and someone tries to sell you something, walk away. It’s not a missed opportunity if there was never one awaiting you in the first place.
Acting Scam # 2
“The Audition Farm”
The Internet is probably the first destination for aspiring actors in search of auditions, and the legitimate casting Websites do list some great opportunities. The downside of online casting notices, however, is the ease with which other Websites can pilfer and repost information. Over the last several years, casting sites have sprouted up on every corner of the Web. Every day, every hour, a new one comes along, and somehow they all seem to be the entertainment industry’s “number one” resource, despite the fact that they’ve only been online for about 10 seconds. Many of these sites exist exclusively on the backs of genuine services, swiping notices wherever they can find them and offering no original information of their own.
How it Works
These Websites troll the Internet for auditions, reposting headlines and character breakdowns as teasers, all with the goal of getting you to sign up for an overpriced casting Website containing out-of-date information.
How to Avoid It
With so many casting Websites out there, how can you identify the frauds? For starters, do your research. Bad news travels fast on the Internet, and a simple Google search will reveal if a Website is the subject of numerous complaints by angry customers. If you start to Google a Website’s name and the word “scam” shows up in the suggestions drop-down box, consider it a red flag. Another method for gauging the legitimacy of a casting service is to find out how long it’s been around. In the end, there are only a handful of sites for legit audition notices, and the rest aggregate and copy each other.
Acting Scam # 3
“The Mall Rat”
Scammers have long known that the best way to prey upon aspiring young performers is to go where young people hang out. What better place than the American shopping mall? This scam has been around for many years, and often the perpetrators target teenagers or parents of young children.
How it Works
You’re cruising through the food court with a few of your friends when someone approaches you who claims to be a talent scout. You’re told that you have a great look, that you could be a model. The scout asks you if you’ve ever worked professionally. He says all the right things and you are flattered by the compliments. Then he gives you his card, and asks you to visit his agency. The agency has a generic name, such as Star-One Productions or Top Talent, which makes you feel as if you’ve heard of it before. (Some of these so-called agencies, rather than approaching random strangers, will actually set up a booth to solicit passersby.) However, when you visit the agency, you soon discover its true motives.
Once you’re in the office, the agent informs you that, while you have a lot of potential, you are not quite ready for prime time. Before the agency accepts you, they tell you that you must first make a career “investment,” which usually amounts to over priced and useless acting or modeling classes. Maybe the agent tells you that you need better headshots, which he will be happy to provide courtesy of the agency’s in-house photographer. (Resist the agent’s pitch and you will often hear the response, “If you’re not willing to invest in your career, why should I?”) Once again we see a glaring conflict of interest: With such revenue coming in from classes and head shots, these hybrid “full-service agencies” have no real incentive to find work for their clients.
How to Avoid It
Be suspicious of anyone who approaches you in public. Legit agents don’t go trolling the shopping malls for new clients. While we hear stories of actors that are discovered in public places, such occurrences are extremely rare. Sure, lightning can strike anywhere, but how often does it strike when you’re out for a sandwich? Again, the easiest way to avoid this scam is to do your research. If someone claims they are a talent scout and approaches you, Google the name of the person and the agency. You’ll find out right away if they’re legitimate. Also, never trust anyone (or any agency for that matter) who uses phrases like, “I can make you famous.” A real agent would never make such a promise.
Acting Scam # 4
This relatively new variation on the standard fake-check scheme targets actors and models with online profiles on Websites such as Model Mayhem. Scammers send checks to talent for acting or modeling jobs that don’t really exist. The checks look so real that they may even fool bank tellers. Some are phony cashier’s checks, others look like they’re from legitimate business accounts. The companies’ names may appear real, but someone forges the checks without their knowledge.
How It Works
Someone claiming to be a potential employer contacts you. They state that they have viewed your profile and want to hire you for an acting or modeling job. They offer you an advance payment of, say, 20 percent, which is equal to several hundred dollars. The representative says the payment is in the mail in the form of a company check or money order. They tell you that you will receive the balance in cash on the day of the job. Eager for payment, you gladly provide your home address and personal information to receive the advance check.
A few weeks later, the company check or official money order arrives at your home. The check is made out for several thousand dollars more than what you were supposed to receive. An email from your new employer explains that she also wants to spring for new headshots, and the overpayment is meant to pay the photographer for your photo session. They tell you to deposit the check into your bank account.
When it clears, you are to keep your portion as your advance payment and send the remaining money to a photographer by check or money order. Several days later your bank contacts you and informs you that deposit is no good and worthless. Moreover, the bank explains that as the account holder, you are now responsible for reimbursing the lost funds to the bank and not doing so could result in criminal charges.
How to Avoid It
Recognize the red flags. First, it is rare for an actor or model to receive payment in advance. A producer or rep who is eager to do so is suspect. Next, producers are not in the business of paying for headshots for actors and models; they’re in the business of producing. Finally, never cash a check from someone you don’t know, and never send money to strangers.
Acting Scam # 5
“The Acting Guru”
Beware the self-proclaimed acting gurus, who claim to have all the answers but in reality know very little about anything. Since there is never a shortage of new actors trying to break in to show business, there is no shortage of people trying to take advantage of them by stiffing them for ‘insider knowledge’ or ‘secrets to success.’
Actor gurus don’t always call themselves gurus. They sometimes refer to themselves as a “master,” “mentor” or “life coach”. These smooth-talking charlatans tout themselves as seasoned professionals eager to pass on their experience to young performers. Nothing is further from the truth.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all profile for them, you can generally recognize them by their lack of credentials and glazed facial expressions. They all have one thing in common. It’s their willingness to profit from an actor’s unwavering desire to break into show business. Gurus make their money by claiming to have discovered “the secret” to success in the industry. A secret they will gladly share with you — for a price.
How It Works
Gurus go where the pickings are easy. They set up shop and hawk themselves anywhere young would-be actors might be. These charlatans offer up everything from homemade books, DVDs and demo reels to career counseling sessions and workshops. They make outrageous claims, such as having a 90 percent success rate in finding representation. Also, they’ll charge you whatever they think they can get away with.
Gurus set their prices by sizing you up. They ask personal questions, attempting to gauge how much you can afford, and they charge you accordingly. They will say and do every manipulative thing possible to get your money.
Gurus are Jacks and Jills of all trades, offering anything and everything that they think actors will buy. The only thing they don’t offer is results.
How to Avoid It
There are times when it’s necessary to invest in your acting career. However, it’s just as important to adopt a “Buyer Beware” mindset. When you put down your money, know what you’re paying for. If it’s an acting class, fine, but do your research beforehand. Make sure the school is legitimate and is with university-level instructors. In the end, if you work with someone who has a bad reputation it will only hurt you. Gurus are easily recognizable by agents and casting directors. They will immediately mark you as an amateur if they see a guru’s name on your resume. Do your research on anyone you intend to work with and if you watch out for anything that sounds familiar to anything you read above you should be well prepared to recognize that acting scams come in all shapes and sizes.
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