A Near Miss

Here’s a story I don’t think I’ve told. The time I almost fell for a scam as an actor. I’ve just watched a video on YouTube about how scammers operate, and how you can keep your phone number from being data mined. (Hint: You can’t.)

That video reminded me of when I was just starting out in the theatre. I was still working a part-time job at a bookstore, and got a message on my calling service from a casting company at a motion picture studio.

Back then, most actors had a calling service. It was before cell phones, before the internet, back when you would submit for work by checking Backstage each week and sending off headshots and resumés in the mail.

Everyone said that you would never be called in for an audition if your area code was outside of Manhattan, which mine was, as I was living in Jersey City. The truth was that I was only one subway stop away from Christopher Street, and could be in midtown faster than people who lived on the upper East Side, but try telling that to a director who sees a Jersey area code and thinks you’ve travelled into the city by horse and buggy.

The message was for a job on a movie that happened to be filming in New Jersey, starring Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid. The casting person I spoke with explained that I looked like the actor who was cast to play a waiter who had no lines, but who was in a scene with both of the leads.

“That actor is not available, and we need to cast a replacement right away, as the scene is filming tomorrow.”

That sounded plausible, but to be fair, I had no idea how movies worked, and had no frame of reference. Is that how the casting of walk-on roles happened? I didn’t know.

He was thrilled that I could do it.

“Great! Someone from production will call you with the details.”

Someone did call, and started to give me a call time and go over wardrobe, but then something occurred to her.

“Are you SAG?”

“No, I’m not.”

That was bad news. The movie was SAG, and I would have to be in the union to take the job. Sorry.

“Oh, wait… would you be willing to join?”

Now, I’d heard how difficult it was to join SAG, and here was this woman asking if I wouldn’t mind becoming SAG. Was she joking?

“Yes, of course I would be willing to join!”

The problem was that it was after six o’clock, and the SAG office was closed. Sorry.

“Oh wait… Los Angeles is three hours behind. Maybe you could join through the LA office?”

“How would I do that?”

“Here, I’ll give you the number. You can speak with them and then get back to me after you’ve gotten your SAG card.”

Okay, this was a lot of pressure. Get all this done in the next hour or so or lose the job. I called the number she gave me and got a somewhat annoyed woman who said that this was unusual, but under the circumstances, yes, I could wire the membership fee and they would clear me to work on the movie tomorrow. She gave me an address and suggested I send the money by Western Union. (Way back in the nineties, that was how you could send money. Pre-PayPal.)

I didn’t have a car at the time, and so I called my landlords who lived upstairs, and asked for a ride. Michael was a lawyer, and when I explained everything, he said, “SAG is the hardest union to join. You’ve gotten really lucky!”

He gave me a lift to Western Union, and I wired the money. I don’t remember how much it was, but I think it was somewhere around three hundred. I doubt I would have had more than that in my bank account. Not when I was working in a bookstore and cleaning offices in the middle of the night.

On the way home is when I began to think the whole thing sounded suspicious.

Before calling the woman from production back, I decided to call the SAG office in LA and confirm everything with them. Instead of using the number I’d been given earlier, I dialed information (remember having to do that?) and was connected to the real SAG office in Los Angeles.

“You’re the fifth person to call with a story like this. It’s a scam. We would never ask for money to be sent right away. If you were offered union work on a movie, you would be able to join later on.”

As soon as I heard that, I knew I had to act fast. You only had a certain amount of time to cancel a wire transfer, so I raced back to Western Union and was able to stop it. It cost me the original fee as well as the cancellation fee, which probably came to somewhere around thirty dollars. Still, that was better than three hundred dollars. So I had gotten lucky, after all.

Then I called the fake casting director, got an answering machine, and left a message.

“That almost worked. You almost got my money. Now I’m calling the police.”

The detective was extremely helpful. He knew immediately who the guy was, and said they’d been trying to catch him for months, but he worked very fast and so far had gotten away with stealing thousands of dollars from actors.

“That wasn’t a woman you spoke with. That was him. He’s an actor himself, and uses different voices.”

The phone numbers I’d been given were already disconnected, and the address was a PO Box which was no doubt already cancelled. The whole operation had been set up just for this one scam, which targeted dozens of actors in a single day.

It turns out that he got our phone numbers from Backstage! Once a year, they used to do an agent showcase, in which actors who were looking for representation would pay a small fee to be included, with the promise that the issue would land on the desks of all the agents, managers, and casting directors in the business.

I’d joined that year. My headshot was printed with my contact information and a little blurb about me. So, the conman got the issue, went through the headshots, and called all the actors with a similar story to the one he tried on me.

After getting off the phone with the detective, I decided to write a letter to the editor at Backstage to let them know what had happened. Maybe they could prevent the same thing from happening the next time. First, though, I went through the headshots myself, and called a few of the actors to find out how many had fallen for the scam.

About five or six returned my call and told me how much they each had lost. One guy I still remember. He’d borrowed six hundred dollars from his family, and was devastated. It’s an awful feeling, to have someone in the industry take advantage of you in that way. Without any shame. That creep probably got away with it for years.

The surprising thing I found was that none of the five or six actors I spoke with thought to call the police. I don’t know if they were able to catch the guy, but every piece of information could have potentially helped. It would be just a matter of time before he slipped up and gave the cops a solid lead to follow.

Lessons learned, for all of us, I hope.

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About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
This entry was posted in Acting and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Near Miss

  1. gormaycaterer says:

    Actually, yes you can Christopher. Get a Google number. Not just the text time but the boys kind but it also receive texts and it cannot be scammed.

    Sent from my iPhone so pls scuze typos due to clumsy thumbsy or fabulous auto correct Or Siri not understanding my dictation. If the Email (or text for that matter) doesn’t make sense – you know why!

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