Models frequently ask me if this or that agency is a scam or if it is legit. When there is a computer around, I can usually tell pretty quickly. If not, I can tell if I have worked with said agency or how the model has been treated. When contacted by an agency, every model should ask herself how legit the agency's claims are. Just use your common sense. Let's say you are 5'4" and 130lbs. - there is just no way whatsoever that a fashion agency will sign you. The same applies if you are 5'10", 32 years old, and have D cups. The mold for fashion models is very small and will not change anytime soon, no matter how high your hopes are and how great the things sound that the "agent" tells you.
Now let's say you are 17 years old, weigh 125 lbs at 5'10", and have a bone structure to die for. It's very plausible that an agency would be interested in signing you. Of course a scammer would interested in signing you as well, so aside from common sense, you should do your own research and know how to identify the legit agencies and to separate the scam agencies.
Use Google to identify the Scammers
When researching an agency, before I do anything else, I follow a little five step plan that will disqualify most scam agencies within a minute:
1) Open Google or any other search engine. 2) Type the name of the "agency" with quotation marks ("") into the search engine. 3) Follow that with the word "scam". 4) Click the search button. 5) Be enlightened.
This will probably yield pretty decent results for about 80-90% of all scam agencies and will give you a little background info about the problems that other people had.
If such a search does not yield any or only inadequate results, try searching for the name of the person that contacted you. Usually the scammers keep their own names and only change the name of their scam agency.
Even if your first search tells you that the agency is legit, you still want to research the person who contacted you to be on the safe side. I once did such a background check for a model I shot with in New York. She wasn't sure if the agency that contacted her was legit and asked me to take a look. The Google search on the agency itself actually yielded a very positive result and many models seemed to be very happy with them. By accident I stumbled across a profile from a model who was in no way good enough to walk the runway at the New York Fashion Week, but she ranted how that agency got her into Fashion Week and how great the agent is, etc. That made me curious, so I did another search on the agent and took a look around his MySpace and Facebook profiles. Both profiles made me reasonably doubt the legitimacy of his agency. Not only did he have numerous pictures of people humping each other on his profile, but all the positive comments that were made about the agency were written in the same tone and grammar as his own profile. When looking through his pictures, I saw him standing in dance clubs with bikini girls in his arms that matched the models he had listed on his agency website. I recognized one of them as a model I shot with in the past, so I grabbed my contact book and gave her call. Apparently she had left the "agency" immediately after the picture was taken and could only say bad things about it.
Agency License Some states such as Pennsylvania require that an agency has a license. Find out about the laws in your state and see if the agency is licensed.
Network Talk to other models and photographers in your area and see what experiences they had with the agency in question. There are numerous websites for models and photographers to network with each other and to share experiences. The internet is an invaluable source of knowledge and of people willing to share their experiences, so go ahead and don't be afraid of talking to people and doing your research.
Agency Myths Debunked Over the last few years, the rumor has spread that a model can tell if an agency is a scam if they charge you. For some reason, more and more people seem to fall for this, while in reality, it's absolutely not true. It is true that you can tell if an agency is legit or not by who they charge, as a model you should always be prepared to make an investment with your agency. As a general rule, if an agency makes its money money from their clients, they are probably legit. If they make their money from their models, they are probably a scam. That is not to say that a model will never pay the agency anything or will never be forced by the agency to pay someone else.
If you are a model, an agency will make you pay for your comp cards, for your portfolio pictures, for your actual portfolio, for your online portfolio, etc. This is completely normal and pretty much standard across the board. The only real difference between agencies is that some agencies make you pay for it out of your pocket, while others use it as a credit towards your future revenues.
To debunk another rumor: If an agency selects the photographers to build your portfolio, it's common business practice and not a scam. Agencies usually have a list of approved photographers from which you can choose to shoot with. Other times, your booker will select the photographer that he thinks will be the best addition to your book. Sometimes the agency will ask you to pay the photographer directly, but usually it's done through the agency. Hence, when you want to build your Portfolio before signing with an agency, make sure to go to an agency approved photographer so you don't waste your money. Since the guidelines for agency photographers are pretty universal across the board, the photographer does not necessarily have to approved with the particular agency you are looking at. Personally, I am an approved photographer with several national and international agencies, but there are some agencies whose business practices I do not agree with and hence will not go their route. I was contacted recently by an agency about being one of their approved photographers. They would have paid me significantly less than half of what my regular rate is and would have still charged the model my regular rate. While I believe in finders fees and giving back, that deal was just too outrageous to agree to. While I would have liked to be on their roster of approved photographers, sometimes we just need to stand up for ourselves and the value of our work.
Conclusion After an agent contacts you, do your research before you do anything else. Apply common sense, check on Google, and talk to people. You will be much happier having done your due diligence than falling for one of the numerous scammers out there.
I am usually a pretty helpful guy, so if you have done all your research and still don't know, feel free to ask me.