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As TV, film work increases, so do acting scams

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No one will confuse Albuquerque for Hollywood, but the Duke City certainly has established itself in recent years as a legitimate option for television and film producers.

Consider: During the 10-year period between 1990 and 2000, Albuquerque was home to at least a portion of 20 such productions, or about two a year, according to the city’s Economic Development Office. Last year alone, Albuquerque hosted 15, including Season 5 of “Breaking Bad,” the sci-fi thriller “Transcendence” starring Johnny Depp, and the Western TV drama “Killer Women.”

That means the market for aspiring actors, actresses and extras around here never has been better. Unfortunately, the same can be said for scam artists looking to exploit these would-be Leonardo DiCaprios and Angelina Jolies.

Earlier this year, when the Better Business Bureau released its “Top 10 Scams of 2013,” casting-call scams earned the No. 5 spot, behind medical alerts, auction resellers, arrest warrants and home improvements.

While noting it may not be as widespread as other scams, the BBB said casting-call scams had risen in popularity in recent years thanks to the success of talent-based TV shows such as “American Idol” and “Project Runway.”

In its simplest form, bogus talent scouts post bogus audition notices for bogus parts in bogus productions that never will see the light of day. Sometimes, it’s just a ruse to get people to pay for acting lessons, photography sessions or even the audition itself – a no-no among reputable casting calls. Other times it’s a deceptive way to gather personal information on an online application form to engage in identity theft.

Connie Quillen, executive assistant to the Albuquerque-based Better Business Bureau Serving New Mexico and Southern Colorado, said people should be particularly wary of what she refers to as “fly-by-night” groups that set up shop over a weekend in a local hotel.

There, they charge people a fee for a seminar on how to break into the acting profession, along with opportunities to pay additional money for such things as marketable head shots, she said.

Then, they promise to “promote” these fledgling acting careers by posting photos and background information on their website for all to see – at least in theory.

“I’d doubt that anyone actually visits those websites,” she told the Journal.

While it’s been a while since such an operation passed through Albuquerque, Quillen said it’s only a matter of time, especially with the growing popularity of New Mexico as a setting for feature productions.

“Everyone wants to be an extra in New Mexico right now,” she said.

The problem is that by the time people report these questionable practices to the BBB, she said, the group already has moved on to its next easy payday.

Casting-call scams are of such concern that the New Mexico Film Office publishes a clear disclaimer before listing available work on the bulletin board section of its website (nmfilm.com).

“The New Mexico Film Office does not endorse or recommend any workshops, seminars, classes, crew or casting calls, or any other Bulletin Board items,” the warning reads on its “Casting Calls” Web page. “We provide these listings as a public service, and neither the State of New Mexico nor the New Mexico Film Office warrants the legitimacy or repute of any of the companies or individuals contained in the Bulletin Board listings.”

The page also contains links to the Federal Trade Commission and Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists advisories on how to avoid acting and modeling scams.

Among the recommendations:

  • Never pay a fee in advance: This includes fees to interview and audition for shows, to “hold your place” in a particular production or to hire a talent agent. In the latter case, the agent only should get paid when you get paid.
  • Don’t pay for a part: The same holds true in this pay-to-play scheme. In this version, a producer may offer you a role in a project if you agree to contribute money toward it. If the film or TV series never takes root, guess what happens to your money?
  • Run a background check: Before agreeing to do business with a company, search for the firm’s name online with the words “scam,” “rip-off” or “complaint.” This is a good rule of thumb whenever you want to check out a company, acting-related or otherwise.
  • Get references: Ask the production company or agency for the names, addresses and telephone numbers of actors or actresses who have gotten work recently. Then contact them.
  • Don’t fall for ‘guarantees’: There are few guarantees in life, and the same holds true in the acting field. If the company guarantees it can get you work, don’t believe it.

“If they make guarantees, that would be a red flag for me,” Quillen said. “I don’t know how they could make guarantees.”

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.

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