With the explosion of stories on Instagram and then bleeding into the news about An elaborate Instagram hoax scamming influencers and luring them to Indonesia, the revelation that hundreds of photographers had been targeted ,and the connection to the Con Queen of Hollywood - the story seems to be everywhere. It's a fascinating story, the further and further down the rabbit hole you read into, it's a mystery that seems too fantastical to be true, and it's the type of story that is easy to judge the victims if you aren't familiar with the industry - and the type of story that sounds all too real if you are.
And especially all too real to us.
Reading the details of what happened to Carley and so many others immediately brought back memories of our beginnings, the time on our first major trip when we were sucked into a scam that left us terrified and alone, thousands of miles away from anyone we knew. This is the full story of how we were scammed, extorted, and ultimately fled the country for our safety. It's a fun one.
Brandon and I left our jobs and New York to pursue full time travel as Away Lands in September 2016. We spent a few weeks in California, and then took off - we found $400 flights in and out of Singapore with 2 and a half months in between, so we booked them and worked on piecing a trip across South East Asia from there. With only our first two personal videos (see our first, and our second) and a couple of advertising projects under our belt, we set out to fill this time by trading video projects for hotels in exchange for free stays and board. We weren't too concerned with getting paid yet - we were just so excited to be free and traveling and to have the chance to build a portfolio.
We both had prior business experience (Brandon as a financial consultant, and myself as a photo producer) so we did our best to cover our bases in this new industry - we established an LLC, set up business accounts, and we had a lawyer friend help draw up a contract to send over before starting new projects. We did our best to do everything as professionally as we could, feeling somewhere between actual professionals and small children just playing pretend. We flew out to Singapore, stayed with a friend for a few nights, and then we were off! Our first couple of stays were great; we spent a week at an eco resort in Phu Quoc, Vietnam, and then a few nights at a luxury tower hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Our stay in Kuala Lumpur felt like a dream, I had never in my life stayed at a 5 star hotel and then suddenly we were in a marble-lined suite overlooking iconic buildings and being treated like celebrities. When we first got into our room here, we Facetimed our parents with excitement to show them where we had ended up, our dreams were truly coming true!
Then, we flew down to Lombok, Indonesia.
Leading up to our flight, we came to an arrangement with a new boutique property on the island - Anema Resort Gili Lombok, a week's stay in exchange for photos and a hotel film. The marketing director that we were emailing leading up to the project told us that she was not authorized to sign our contract, but agreed to the terms and the owner would sign upon our arrival. We agreed to that, she sent us a booking confirmation for the room, and we got on a flight. We arrived in Lombok late in the evening, and their driver was waiting for us at the airport as expected, a 2 hour drive around the island later, we arrived at the hotel. In the couple of years since, the details have started to become a bit fuzzy, but so many moments from our first few days here are burned into our minds as tiny red flags. The property was beautiful, but unfinished and felt almost deserted. There were hardly any guests around the entire hotel, maybe 2 or 3 couples total. The front desk had no idea who we were when we arrived. The electricity cut out at least once or twice every night. We tried to make contact with the woman we had been emailing and were told she was in Bali and would be at the property at the end of the week - no one seemed to have any idea what was going on, and we were starting to get a bit worried. Our emails went unanswered. A day or two went by before we finally found the hotel manager that the receptionists told us we needed to talk to, and he immediately greeted us aggressively. We considered maybe cutting our losses and leaving that day, but since we had worked so hard to save up money for this journey, and were not making any money at the time, every dollar really counted and we decided to stay and hope for the best.
The next day, everything seemed to be resolved. We met with the manager and the hotel staff and worked out a shoot plan, we scheduled a snorkel boat to the Gili Islands and a trip to Tiu Kelep Waterfall, they set up a cooking class and a candlelit dinner for us to film. The following day we went on the boat excursion, and we were getting to be friendly with the staff, particularly a couple of the receptionists. The electricity kept cutting out, and no new guests arrived, but we stayed the course and kept shooting.
Then things started falling apart fast. Excursions kept getting postponed and cancelled. Still no one would sign our contract. The kitchen stopped feeding us off the menu and would only give us the staff meal of Nasi Goreng. One evening, there was no electricity, wifi, or cell reception for hours and hours. The resort was empty except for us and the staff. One of the receptionists told us that the owners were "bad people." Brandon and I started realizing just how vulnerable we were - thousands of miles away from everyone we knew, and with everything valuable to us (computers, hard drives of our work, and all of our camera gear) at this hotel. Were we getting worried? Should we have known better? Should we have done things differently? Absolutely. But here we were, half-way across the world and having everything we had been dreaming of and working towards for the past couple of years coming to fruition. I just kept saying, this is fine, we'll figure it out, let's just finish the job.
We were reaching the last couple of nights of the week and the hotel manager started demanding that we show him the video - we explained that we film first and edit later, with video delivery coming 4 weeks after our stay. We explained that these were standard terms, that this was all in our contract, and what they agreed to, but the manager and the owner were starting to get intimidating. Finally, the receptionist that we made friends with came to our room one night panicking, telling us that the managers told her to secretly record us in our room, so they could have something against us, and that they were not planning on letting us leave without paying. She showed us their WhatsApp messages mocking us. Brandon and I decided that we would leave the next night, a day earlier than we were supposed to. He wanted to just leave, but I kept thinking that as long as we gave them what we agreed to, it would all end up ok.
The next morning, we filmed the rest of our shots, and I spent hours and hours editing a video with everything we had shot so far, to the best I could. It even turned out pretty well. We used some hotel points that Brandon had left over from his Finance days to book a room on a different part of the island and arranged for a driver to come pick us up. I finished the video, copied it to a flashdrive, and we gave it to the receptionist as we tried to rush out of the hotel as quickly and quietly as we possibly good - which was a comically terrible attempt considering we were rolling six suitcases across a stone path. Our driver was waiting for us, we got in our getaway car and thought that was going to be the end. We finished the video, we made it out, we were free!
That's when the fun really started.
We arrived at the Sheraton Senggigi - a funny, charming, dated resort that looked right out of a Full House Hawaii Special episode - and crashed. I think we slept 12 hours that night.
The next morning was November 10th, 2016. Which was the evening of November 9th in the United States. 2016. Election Day. To shorten this as much as possible, we spent the entire day glued in shock and horror to the television in our room, finally emerging around 4 or 5 pm when it was all over, realizing we hadn't eaten anything the entire day. We shuffled down to the hotel bar to get some food and the cheapest alcohol we could find. After a meal and a couple of cocktails, we were walking back through the hotel lobby when we saw a small commotion and a few police officers with large guns. We never found out exactly how they found us, but the only thing we can guess was that the driver that picked us up told reception where he was taking us.
My heart stopped. In just remembering this and writing this now, my heart skipped a beat. I knew that this was for us. I knew that this was trouble. Brandon and I looked at each other - we knew that this wasn't over. We saw the manager from the other hotel, and he saw us. We locked eyes and I knew there was no way to flee. The manager of the Sheraton rushed us, the police, and the other local men with them that can only be described as henchmen to a back conference room as quickly as she could, out of sight of the other guests.
In short, the hotel had told the police and the staff at the Sheraton that we had run out on our hotel bill, with no mention of our arrangement or the work we were doing. We tried our best to explain without panicking, and with most of the police officers speaking limited English at best. We showed them the emails, the contract, the promise that the contract would be signed, and the proof of video delivery, but nothing seemed to help. The bill they were showing us had a long list of inflated prices - including every meal they had us shoot and plenty we didn't and the excursions we never went on. The police demanded that we come down to the station, an idea that terrified me and that I tried to think of any way to get out of. But the police were telling us we had to, and the Sheraton managers were rushing to get the police and the entourage off of their property as quickly as they could (I can't blame them, it was not their problem to deal with), and when we were told that the police station was only 2 buildings down the street, we reluctantly agreed. Brandon assured me that the main officer that we were speaking with appeared to be a decent man (he prides himself on his judge of character.) We asked if we could go back to our room first to grab a computer so we could show them the final produced video, and everyone agreed. We had a minute in our room where Brandon assured me everything would be alright. I just kept envisioning the movie Brokedown Palace, and I sent a message to my girlfriends in New York saying "I am in Senggigi, Indonesia and we are being taken to a police station. If you don't hear from me in the next few hours, call the US Embassy, this isn't a joke." Thinking that in a worst case scenario, someone should at least know where we were and in trouble. Leaving our hotel room was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I had no idea where there were going to take us and what they were going to do. I was shaking and barely keeping my tears in.
We got into a police car to drive the one minute down to the station. I remember the seats were hard and plastic. The police station was open air, kind of like a big front porch leading into a concrete room. There was the one younger officer that was halfway trying to make us comfortable, while everyone else that surrounded us was doing the opposite. They took our passports from us. We were surrounded by at least 10 men. They filmed us with their cell phones, they blew cigarette smoke in our faces, they carried rifles with long barrels, they threatened us in half-English about calling immigration. One man in a turban started yelling in Brandon's face that he was "like FBI" and saying over and over (unprovoked) "You scared? You think I'm Taliban? I am not Taliban!" I was the only woman in the room and shrunk into my seat as much as I could. We kept trying to go over the situation as calmly as we could - saying that we did not owe them money, we had an agreement and we had completed it. But after a short period of time, we figured out that the only way out of this situation was to just give them money. It became obvious that this was the only way they would let us leave. Was this their plan all along?
The bill they presented to us came to over $2000, we agreed to pay it and they agreed to take our Credit Card. The manager called back to the hotel to run the card over the phone in a painfully slow process. Without even looking at each other, Brandon and I both knew that this was the best case scenario - we could report the extortion as soon as we got out of the country. After this, they gave us back our passports and let us go back to our hotel. It was after midnight I think, but we could barely sleep. As soon as we got back to the room, we called the US Embassy to ask what to do - the officer advised us to leave the country as soon as possible, or at least take a boat over to Bali. We told him about the immigration threats, and he assured us that the systems in Lombok were so antiquated that there was no way they could actually get any notes on to our immigration status by the next day. The only direct flight from Lombok to another country was back to Kuala Lumpur at 3 pm the next day, and we got in a cab to the airport at 8am even though the drive would only take an hour - we wanted to leave as quickly as we possibly could. We bought plane tickets in the airport and waited in the entrance until they would let us check in to our flight. Finally, we passed through immigration and started to feel safe - but neither of us could relax until we landed back in Malaysia a few hours later.
With no further travel plans and nothing scheduled until our next project a week later, we spent close to 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur airport, ultimately booking the cheapest flight we could find and taking off for Phuket, Thailand the next morning. We called our Credit Card and were refunded the thousands of dollars - and for good measure, we cancelled the card number in case they had copied it. We continued the next 5 or 6 weeks of our travels without an issue, but were waiting for something to come back to haunt us. Every time we passed through Customs we waited anxiously - but everything continued to be alright. With one exception - while filming snorkeling out in Lombok, I scraped my hip on some coral, and a few days later the spot had blown up to a red and inflamed area covering half of my thigh, and leading us to our first hospital in a foreign country experience - the never ending curse of Lombok. Finally, we made it home just in time for Christmas.
We never figured out exactly why the entire scheme happened like it did. Were they planning on taking advantage of us all along? If so, why were they so concerned about getting the film before we left? Did they intend to work with us, and then just seized the opportunity as a cash grab? Was there more they were planning on doing to us? It seemed like once we gave them the money, they were done with us and let us leave without issue. Maybe cash really was king here.
And the Coup De Gras of the entire ordeal? A couple of months later, we went back to their website and there was our video, front and center on the home page.
While spending a few days at airports, I recut the video without most of the hotel portions. I had already done all of the work, I thought, I might as well post it. It turned out pretty well for the situation, don't you think?
Also, I forgot to mention. On the day of our escape, we were shooting on the main road just outside of the hotel, which was full of cows, and a bull became agitated and charged Brandon. Luckily, he was on a chain, and when he was just 3 or 4 feet away from attacking, his collar pulled and he stopped. I am now terrified of cows. #TheCurseOfLombok
Learn from our mistakes:
Our top 6 tips to protect yourself while traveling or working abroad.
- Do your research carefully - this hotel had a number of good TripAdvisor reviews, but the closer we looked, the more apparent it became that they were staged, almost all of the accounts giving 5-star reviews had only reviewed this property, and the photos posted did not look authentic. The few 1-star reviews that were posted had a litany of complaints that we should have taken seriously. The hotel had our own 1-star reviews removed from the platform, which we tried to fight but ultimately TripAdvisor would not let us keep them online. We reported the fraudulent reviews, but were unsuccessful in having them removed.
- When traveling to a new place, look up common scams - anyone can be susceptible to scam when you're unfamiliar with an area. In Bangkok, people will tell you that the major city attractions are closed and rush you into a Tuk Tuk tour (they aren't, and they are just trying to get you to spend money in their friend's shops.) In Bali, police will commonly pull you over on a motorbike and say you have owe them hundreds of dollars in traffic violations. In major European cities, the Rose Scam has been around for decades. A little preliminary research can save you from wasting time and money.
- Make sure someone knows where you are - when you're traveling solo or spontaneously, it's easy to just hop a cheap boat or flight to a new destination, or follow some new friends somewhere. Make sure you have a trusted contact back home that you can at the very least tell where you are heading to and when you will be in touch next.
- If you are working in any capacity (paid or unpaid), have a signed contract - even the police in this situation were asking us why we did not have a signed contract. It might not protect you in every way, but it will definitely protect you in some ways, especially in your home country.
- Pay for everything with a good credit card - purchase and fraud protection matter, and can recoup money lost or items stolen in lot of situations. The gold standards in travel cards are American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve.
- Do some Social Media Stalking - if you are heading to a new hotel, or before booking any hotel you are unfamiliar with, look at their Instagram location and hashtags, to get an idea of what it's really like.
- If you fly a drone - make sure to be extra careful in cities, and always check laws and regulations before you take it to another country. We used to be much more bold with flying our drones, until we had our professional cinema drone seized in a foreign country - because there was an incident and law change 2 days prior to us being there. Unfortunately, it has become much, much more difficult to fly over the past couple of years, and we learned the hard way that the worst that could happen is NOT just being told to land it and leave. You can be arrested, fined, and even need to hire a lawyer in a foreign country. I would highly advise to be careful and researched on them before going anywhere - because we have been through the worst of the worst.