What happens when an email from Condé Nast isn’t from Condé Nast?

Scammers have been impersonating Condé Nast editors.
A screenshot of a Vintage Vogue Magazine Cover From 1930 by Georges Lepape.

Lauren Krouse knew something was off when she got an unsolicited email from “Condé Nast” to cover fashion.

It wasn’t that Krouse wouldn’t write for Condé Nast. Krouse, a freelance writer who covers women’s health and domestic violence, thought something was off: she doesn’t really cover fashion. 

Krouse isn’t the only one receiving unsolicited fake emails. Scammers have been impersonating Condé Nast editors to gain the personal information of freelance journalists and to swindle them out of money. The Objective spoke to at least four freelancers who were targeted. While job scams are reportedly on the rise according to the Federal Trade Commission, freelancers are vulnerable to contract job offers because of the unstable nature of freelance writing and the current precarity of the journalism field.

“Freelancers are their own bosses and scouts, so we’re always on the lookout for more work and clients, and we have to vet them ourselves and manage our own security — an additional job among many jobs many people don’t really think about or have the time for,” Krouse said. 

“For many, cybersecurity isn’t even on the list of to-do’s because they’re just trying to survive. We shouldn’t have to be so on-guard, but the internet’s a real Wild West and there just aren’t enough protections and laws.” 

The impersonators emailed their targets from a Gmail account as opposed to an official Condé Nast address, posing as British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enniful, whose identity and professional position can easily be confirmed online. Someone claiming to be Jill Schieffer was cc’d into the email with the subject line “Vogue Talent Recruiting Team,” where freelance writers were invited to “[join] the rest of the team as a Writer in our upcoming fashion project on August 30, 2022” in Canada. If interested, the targets were instructed to email back for more information.

A PDF document was sent back to the journalists once they expressed interest for more information. Like the original email, the PDF had many typos. The Vogue logo was in the wrong font. It contained a budget breakdown of what the freelancer would receive up front ($1,000 USD), how much the trip would cost ($3,950 USD) and how much the freelancer would receive after the completion of the job ($3,500 USD). The PDF also asked journalists to provide their CV, their full name, address, state and city, zip code, cell phone number, and whether they’re a US citizen.

According to cybersecurity specialists consulted for this article, the scammers could be trying to send a bad check to the victims to “reimburse” them for the costs of the trip, which would result in the victim losing out on around $3,950 USD. In 2020, scammers used the freelance platform Upwork to target freelancers with a similar scam. At the time, NBC reported that scammers were scouring websites like Freelancers.com and Upwork to find their targets. 

However, cybersecurity specialist Joseph Steinberg said scammers might have multiple reasons to get the trust of freelance writers. 

“If they can get you to fill out an application that’s got your social security number on it, and potentially other information, they could steal your identity,” he told The Objective. “I would say that’s probably goal number one. Goal number two could be financial. They could try to sell you something, they could try to get malware on your computer for stealing money. There’s many things they can do once they’ve established trust.” 

All of the people targeted by the scam interviewed for this article are freelance writers who publicly advertise themselves as looking for work online. Prior to reporting this story, I was also targeted by the scammers. It is unclear how the scammers got a hold of the freelancers’ contact information. There is at least one report of a similar National Geographic Iceland Expedition scam that seems to be connected to the name Jill Schieffer, where writers were invited to go on an expedition to Iceland, with similar intentions to the Vogue scam.

Samantha Ponzillo — who was similarly confused as to why Vogue would contact her out of the blue — said freelancers’ vulnerability comes from being “more desperate for regular work” than staff writers and reporters. The solution, she said, would be to make the journalism field less contract-based. 

“Media companies could actually hire freelancers as writers and stop with the freelance bullshit,” she said. “Just a thought. Not pointing any specific media company out at all here.”

Krouse said being targeted renewed her commitment to her own cybersecurity protocols, which she encourages all freelancers to be on top of, no matter how annoying and laborious that may seem. 

“Do an inventory of the platforms, products, and apps you use; could they be more secure?” she said. “Are you aware of common forms of phishing attacks and scams? It sounds like a lot, and it’s boring work, but it only takes about an hour or so to build a cybersecurity shield of sorts, and it’s well worth your time when you consider the potential losses that can come from not assembling a stronger defence.”

Being aware of certain scam giveaways can also go a long way in protecting yourself, according to Steinberg. He explained that cross-checking email addresses and googling the people getting in touch with you are essential tools in vetting potential opportunities. “The main thing is just be aware that you’re being targeted, if you act like you’re aware, and you’re suspicious of everything, you don’t open the attachment,” Steinberg said. “I don’t think the British Vogue Editor is going to email directly looking for writers, but you call their office and say, Hey, I just got an email, I want to make sure it’s legit.” 

The Objective asked British Vogue for comment about ways to identify impersonators, but received no response. 

When asked about this particular scam, the Industrial Workers of the World Freelance Journalists Union provided The Objective with a statement that said that freelancers are more exposed to this kind of threat because their communication networks are often restricted.

“Their only point of contact at a publication might be a single editor, and occasional contributors in particular are rarely given access to resources such as company chat systems,” the statement said. “This means that freelancers often rely on an informal grapevine to find out about what’s happening with any given publication, but there’s still a social taboo about discussing potential commissions.” 

Joining a freelance union with its own active communications channels can be a huge help when cross-checking information and discussing potential opportunities. However, the Freelance Journalists Union also emphasized that media companies should strive for transparency about their process for working with freelancers, including sharing pitch guidelines, rates, editor contacts, and how to set up regular contract assignments. 

“I think freelancers also need to be vigilant, trust their gut, and take care of their mental health,” the statement said. “We might be more vulnerable to scams when we’re in a bit of a slump workwise or when we feel pressured to say ‘yes’ to any and all offers of work.”

This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Omar Rashad. 

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