The “White Hat / Black Hat” phenomenon isn’t limited to venues and agencies. There are serious professional scam artists who have immersed themselves into this lucrative sector of the market.
I’ve encountered some of the best in the business personally and I make it my business to partner with the authorities to weed them out where ever possible. I use the word “weed” because when we manage to shut one down, its mere minutes before 3 more pop up. Where there’s money, there’s organised crime under the surface. School formals, by their nature, seem cute and fun but like any industry, if there’s a way to make a fast, slick buck, you can bet your school’s reputation that they’re looking right at you as you’re reading this.
To the scammer, the perfect target avatar looks like this…
- 16-17 Years Old
- Metropolitan school
- School doesn’t have anything to do with the formal
- Probably a single student or part of only a small committee of less than 3 people
- Very active on social media
- Operates internet almost entirely on a mobile device
These metrics, believe it or not, are all easily available online for free to any tech-savvy person.
These scammers will pinpoint these inexperienced teenagers and employ several well-conceived strategies to coax them into any one of many different scams.
The “Not Do The Formal” scam.
This is where the scammer offers a major popular venue, like a city branded hotel for an outrageously cheap price.
The students apply, the scammer arranges a meeting in the lobby of the hotel. The kids turn up. They take them on a walk around all the public areas of the venue, lobby, pre-function lounge areas, if a ballroom is available, they’ll walk right in, if not, they’ll open the door and give them a peek inside. All of this is done wandering freely around the property because these are all unrestricted spaces.
All the while, the scammer pretends that they somehow work with, or represent, the hotel. The kids have no reason to dispute this and are more focused on, and distracted by the amazing surroundings.
They sit back in the lobby, maybe even have some drinks, and discuss all the additional features of the package. Again, it’s all really inexpensive compared to any other research they may have done. The scammer tells them that there’s only one date available so they can only have it if they agree on the spot. So they agree to take the package. The sale is made.
The scammer then hands over a large pile of specially printed envelopes. The envelopes are then handed out at school to everyone in the year group. The printed parts of each envelopes are forms that need to be filled out with every attending student’s personal details, name, email address, mobile number, social media identity – everything. Then they’re supposed to place the ticket money inside, seal the envelope and give it back to the committee member.
When they’ve collected all the money and envelopes, they call the scammer who comes and picks them all up.
On the day of the formal, all the nicely dressed students arrive at the venue to discover that there’s no booking. The hotel has never heard of the scammer company and there’s no formal. The phone number and email address of the scammer is by this time disconnected and they realise that there’s no documentation that connects anyone to anything. The money is gone, and so is any chance of re-booking a formal anywhere at this late stage.
As if this isn’t bad enough, the scammer gets a second bite of the cherry by selling the database of everyone’s personal details to offshore marketing companies so the students spend the next year being bombarded with marketing offers that remind them of the rip off they were victims of.
The “Not Pay For The Formal” scam.
This is where the scammer offers a major popular venue, like a city branded hotel for an outrageously cheap price, however the scam takes a different direction.
The exact same process is followed, however he does book the venue on the correct date. He doesn’t book it as a formal however, he books it as a corporate party under his fictitious company name so there’s no compliance checks and little regulation to look at.
He books DJ’s, photographers, security guards, decorators, the whole deal.
On the night, the venue doesn’t realise it’s a formal until all the guests are seated, by which time it’s too late. The scammer hasn’t attended so he’s nowhere to be seen.
The formal goes ahead and the students have a nice time, however, when nobody is paid, the venue and all the suppliers come to the school seeking payment and civil claims start happening all over the place.
The extra slap in the face is that the scammer uses the photos that were taken at this formal to sell other formals.
The “Photography” Scam.
This is where rogue photography companies troll social media to discover the location and dates of formals around the city. They show up at the entrance to the venues and snap all kinds of photos of the students as they get out of their limousines and meet up out the front of the venue. They delay them intentionally by pretending to be the official photographers for the formal when the REAL photographers are waiting for them inside the venue.
They hand out business cards to everyone they take photos of. Later they post all the unauthorised photos on a web-based gallery without anyone’s consent and charge people to buy the downloads.
The worst part is that the students don’t know the difference and just want the shots so they pay. Meantime nobody buys the photos from the actual photographer who was authorised for the job and all the images are out in the world unrestricted.
The “Venue” scams.
Scammers aren’t limited to unauthorised activities. The less prestigious venue operators are equally guilty of scamming students. We see this on “budget” venues and function centres every year.
They market pictures of harbour views and show the students big beautiful ballrooms with picture windows. They offer them menus containing things like “Seafood Cocktails” and “Braised Angus Beef”, but when the students arrive, they’re shuffled off to a smaller room out the back somewhere and presented fish fingers and sausages.
If you read the fine print on their booking papers, you’ll see that they reserve the right to switch rooms and substitute menu items however they please. When they see that the school is not involved, they know that no adults will attend and they invoke these conditions so that they can re-sell the better offerings to someone else.
The other thing venues like this are very frequently guilty of is “bumping”. This is again mentioned in the fine print but what it means is that they’ll take your booking and payments but if they get a better offer, they can either bump your formal to a later date, or cancel it altogether. In either case, it will always be done at a time when it’s far too late to switch to another venue and you’ll have zero chance of getting any refunds.