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The Latest Scam That Preys on Moms and Their Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

We live in a world where reality TV creates household names, superstars and even the next president—all of which has changed the narrative for how a little nobody can get discovered and eventually make a fortune.

In the world of child modeling, this shifting narrative has created a little know industry that flipped the terms, so to speak, on wannabe supermodels and that industry's gatekeepers. Instead of discovering your chubby-cheeked, well-tempered baby at the park, or your smooth-skinned, leggy teen at the mall, these companies promise modeling gigs to just about anyone who signs up.

There's a catch, though: a fee. You pay them to let your kid work.

Pay-to-play companies require parents to cough up anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars to get their kids into small runway shows or photo shoots. It’s hardly surprising that parents shell out the dough: Paying for kids to take music or dance classes or participate in youth sports isn’t always about the fun of it all. Plenty of parents will admit they’re hoping that Pee Wee football now will lead to a Division I scholarship by the end of high school, or their little Beethoven will go from banging out Chopsticks to playing concert halls.

Paying to get kids into modeling may not be as popular, but it’s certainly tempting. Kid models can make $100 to $125 an hour—that’s 17 times minimum wage. And while a portion of that must go into a trust fund for the child, thanks to an age-old law named for child actor Jackie Coogan, that portion is just 15 percent, leaving a substantial amount of money for families of the more successful kids.

That's what modeling scammers prey on: the promise parents that, by writing a check, they will be helping their kids achieve their dreams.

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There’s also the vanity component—you know, the one driving moms who post on Facebook begging for “likes” to help their baby win a “most beautiful” photo contest. Parents are supposed to think their kids are beautiful, and we find it validating when other people agree with us. Even better when it makes some money.

That's what modeling scammers prey on: the promise to parents that, by writing a check, they will be helping their kids achieve their dreams. Kids put on clothes, often from the company they just paid, and get to work. Not necessarily for magazine shoots, more like to hand out fliers or swag at a conference or event. Meanwhile, the company gets free labor, a free model and pile of cash from the free models' parents.

The government agency’s best advice: Google the company along with words like “scam” or “rip-off” to see what has happened to other kids.

As pay-to-play gets more attention, it's also getting more criticism, with industry experts weighing in to warn parents that you can’t pay your kids’ way into stardom.

Though for many parents, it’s a warning that comes too late. One mom recently told the Los Angeles Times that she paid an Indiana company, Little T’s, $1,000 to get her 8-year-old daughter into the Academy Awards gifting suite, where she was supposed to be seen by VIPs who could give her work in the fashion industry. Instead, the mom said it was a half day of work with nothing to show for that $1,000, except for a few outfits.

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Child model scams are so rampant the Federal Trade Commission dedicated a section of its website to arming parents against them. The government agency’s best advice: Google the company along with words like “scam” or “rip-off” to see what has happened to other kids. Also, check the company's reputation with state and business agencies. Finally: get everything in writing.

Bottom line: If it sounds too good to be true, it could cost you a lot of money if you don't believe that it also probably is.

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