Paul Nicklen is a world-famous wildlife photographer. He’s won pretty much every major award shooting polar bears, leopard seals, and other rare animals in some of the world’s coldest, most menacing climates for National Geographic. Naturally, he has a massive following on social media, particularly on Instagram where you can see his incredible, intimate portraits of penguins, narwhals, seals, and bears in their natural habitats. He’s lived an amazing life, but he’s also living a kind of double life; the Internet is teeming with impostors of Paul Nicklen operating hundreds of scams in his name. And he’s pretty sick of it.
“Why are these companies that are drowning in billions and billions of dollars, the biggest, best tech companies in the world with the biggest and brightest minds, not able to tackle something so simple?” he told me recently for an episode of The Perfect Scam.
Bear in mind, Nicklen often spends days…weeks…even years trying to make a rare image of an animal in her remote home. So he’s a patient man. But with social media imposter scams, his patience has run out.
Nicklen has been dealing with this for almost 10 years. Much of the time, the scams are garden variety: “Can you Venmo money to my account” and so on. But because Nicklen has a special relationship with his fans — people who are fans of animals, and of Mother Nature — the crimes can be much more intimate. And devastating.
“About six years ago … these kids called my office…and they said, ‘Just so you know, our mother has left our dad. They wired the ‘fake you’ the money,” they told him. “We know it’s not you, but she’s in love with the scam version of you, and she’s waiting for you in a city to go on this, this, you know, this journey of this love affair with you.’ And that’s when it just ripped my heart out. I mean we’re talking to the tune of almost $100,000 that was sent, like life savings. That just was a punch in the gut…And that’s when I started to get pretty angry about this.”
Angry, yes. But able to end the scams? Hardly. A few weeks ago, Paul was forced to post this picture on his Instagram account:
Criminals used Photoshop to attach an image of Paul’s head to the body of someone else who had suffered a skiing accident.
The imposter then started soliciting donations for Nicklen’s alleged medical bills. When the photographer heard that a fan had sent thousands of dollars in response, he took to Instagram to issue yet another warning post about scams. He’d recorded a video pleading with fans never to send money in response to social media solicitations six years ago.
The social media imposter problem is hardly new; but it is rampant. Facebook told us that they work hard to stop such crimes. The firm said that from April through June 2023 – that’s just three months – they’d removed 676 million fake accounts on Facebook.
But that’s not good enough, says Kevin Long, who owns a company named Social Imposter that exists just to help celebrities try to deal with the issue. We spoke to him for this episode, too. He’s very busy.
“If it was Taylor Swift, there would probably be thousands (of imposters) a day on various networks,” he said. “I mean last week for instance, I had a client that was normally in the 250-account range per week, and I had over 1000 accounts for that person last week.”
Nicklen might be the perfect target for such an imposter scam because…while he’s got millions of followers …his fans still see his work as deeply personal and emotional.
“I’m like, why me?” he said. “But the fact that I have such an intimate relationship with my followers, that they not just love me, but they love animals, they love nature….I’ve had people come up to me in the airport or my lectures or whatever it is, just crying, crying with love, passion, fear, concern for the planet, and they feel like they’re on this journey with you. It’s very intimate. And so I think what happens is when …the scammers write somebody…and say, ‘Thank you for your love, your support.’ … I think that they feel that connection.”
Celebrity imposters are not the only problem, however. Friends with only a few followers can also be impersonated and used for crimes. You’ve almost certainly experienced this yourself, if you’ve ever received a connection request from someone you thought you were already connected to. When you accept such a request, a plea for money often follows soon after.
Members of the military are often targeted for impersonation because their accounts can be used to facilitate romance scams. In this episode, we also speak with Kelly Anderson, whose husband recently had his Facebook account hacked and used in multiple scams.
“It’s incredibly stressful,” she said. “It’s…so very frustrating, and progressively more and more maddening. I was getting ready to throw the computer out the window because there is no option to talk to a person.”
This episode was fun to work on, as it was amazing to hear first-hand from Nicklen about his incredible adventures in wildlife photography — I wasn’t going to let a chance to speak with him go by without a bit of discussion about the many times he’s been in mortal danger just to make a photo. Please click play below, or click here, to listen to this episode of The Perfect Scam. Also, do yourself a favor and visit Nicklen’s Instagram account or view his stories on National Geographic and other publications.