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Isa's Story

isa photoWhen she handed over her debit card number during a call with a Talent Palooza '06 promoter, Isa, a 21-year-old college student from the Bronx, thought she was paying for a posh trip to Florida and a shot at a career as a fashion model. Instead, she ended up out $1,300 and unsure what to do about it. Think you'd never fall for such a scam? You may be wrong.

Isa is a bright young woman, ambitious and motivated, with her sights set on a successful career. She studies hard, gets good grades, and still finds time for student government and community service. In fact, she even manages to blend her seemingly discordant interests in fashion and service. Recently she helped organize a community-wide dress drive to make going to the prom more accessible to high school girls in her area. "Prom is a rite of passage," she says when asked about why she organized the drive. "But the cost of the gown and all the trappings makes it too expensive for some girls—I wanted to help."

Isa doesn't seem like the type to get conned online. Like most people her age, she's grown up familiar with the Internet, and while she admits she's still got a lot to learn about the world, it’s fair to say the Bronx native has a measure of street smarts.

"I learned the hard way that you can't believe everything you see online," Isa said, "If my experience helps encourage people to think before they click, then I'm glad to share it."

Then again, at first glance anyway, Talent Palooza seemed legit. Their Web site boasted celebrity judges and corporate affiliates ranging from Classmates.com to T-Mobile to the South Beach Diet. The event itself, which was scheduled over the Labor Day weekend in Orlando, Florida, was to be an extravaganza where "over 5,000 models, actors, comedians, dancers and musicians will gather together to perform in front of 100 judges in hopes of becoming the next Grand Champion." More than $100,000 in prizes and contracts was supposedly up for grabs and contestants were to be treated to a guest concert and a Saturday night after party, where they would have a chance to "mingle with and impress industry professionals, agents, scouts and casting managers."

The Talent Palooza '06 Web site peaked Isa's interest, so she plugged her name and phone number into the Web form, and within a few days she received a call from Mike, a Talent Palooza promoter. Mike recapped the information from the Web site, interviewed her about her interests and talents, and described for her the "all-inclusive Talent Palooza package," and how it included the hotel, airfare, meals, the party and other "extras." Over next few days other Talent Palooza staff called her: One called about her itinerary, providing details about the competition, the concert and the after party; another wanted to discuss protocol and decorum, offering suggestions about what to wear and how to behave; and still one more called to talk more about the "package."

brochureIt all sounded like a fun weekend, a good deal and a great opportunity, so Isa decided to go for it. During her last call with a Talent Palooza person (she would soon leave many unreturned voicemails) Isa gave out her debit card number and agreed to pay $1,300. As a bonus Isa qualified to receive a complementary photo shoot during her stay at the hotel—a 600 value, she was told. Soon after she paid, a package arrived in the mail with pamphlets for the hotel she would be staying, a voucher for her free photo shoot and a welcome letter on Talent Palooza letterhead.

Despite the Web site, many calls and the corroborating mail, Isa did have a moment of doubt. When a close friend asked how they could consider her for a modeling competition without asking for pictures, she got worried. Her concerns were allayed, however, when she called the hotel in Orlando and they confirmed that Talent Palooza '06 did indeed have space booked for the competition.

Sadly, Isa's problems started just when fears were put to rest. A letter arrived informing her that Talent Palooza '06 had been cancelled. The letter, which offered no explanation for the sudden cancellation, went on to say that Isa should call her bank to secure a refund. Unfortunately, when she called the bank informed her there was nothing they could do, that the money had already been withdrawn and that she'd have to contact Talent Palooza if she was due a refund. Isa called again and again but never spoke to a person and never had her messages returned.

It was then that Isa Googled "Talent Palooza Scam" and found postings from dozens of other people who had fallen victim to the same con job. "It was like getting punched in the stomach," she said about the moment she realized she'd been scammed. "I wiped out my savings for nothing." Like many of the victims she found online, Isa felt humiliated and foolish. She also felt at a loss for what to do next. Her bank wasn't much help at all and, while she knew she should call the police, she didn't know which police and didn't want to face the embarrassment. Isa couldn't bring herself to tell her friends, let alone some stranger who might judge her, and probably wasn't going to get her money back anyway. So, her rip-off went unreported, like so many other Internet scams.

Isa is a lot more careful on the Internet these days. She still shops online but only through well-established sites and only after she's done her research. She's allowing us to share her story here because it may help other people avoid similar scams and frauds. "I learned the hard way that you can't believe everything you see online," she said, "If my experience helps encourage people to think before they click, then I'm glad to share it.