Dear Virginia, My 14-year-old daughter was stopped in a shopping centre and asked to enter a competition. It involves a photographer taking pictures of her, which are then put on the internet. People dial an 0845 number to vote, and if she wins she gets on some agency's book. My husband says she's far too young, but she's longing to do it. What should I do? Yours sincerely, Frances

Gosh, it sounds tempting. I can well understand why your daughter is dying to go ahead – and you must feel, as well as uneasy, rather excited that she was picked out of a crowd in this way and chosen as someone special.

No question, these kinds of deals are very seductive – and one is tempted to believe in them because one wants to believe in them. Indeed there was a time when junk mail came flying through the letterbox at my house like hail, shouting messages like "You've Won £50,000!" "You are the winner, claim your prize now!" "Free holiday in Florida for you and your Family!" and, the first few times, I, like every other gullible, greedy person, would tear them open, clamouring to get my hands on the goodies. I even remember, on the basis of some kind of telephone scam, actually attending an entire Time-Share seminar and finding it pretty difficult to get away without finding myself the owner of a week in a jerry-built flat on the Costa Brava.

There is no such thing as a free lunch – and your husband is right to suspect it of being a scam. The very combination of those numbers – 0845 – should be enough to set off alarm bells in most wise people's heads. Who's going to make the money from all of this? The dodgy "modelling" company. Who's going to lose money? You and your family and all your daughter's friends as they bump up the phone bill by voting for her. Then there are the inevitable photographs. Whatever happens, they'll obviously try to flog you a portfolio of pix, which could end up costing hundreds of pounds.

Anyway do you really want your daughter's picture plastered all over the internet? What if she gets to the modelling session and is persuaded to take off a few clothes? Photographers can be very persuasive and 14-year-olds are very gullible. And who is to say, anyway, that this company is actually legit at all? Quite likely there will be no winners and, if there are and, highly unlikely, she's chosen, the agency that's meant to take her on may well prove non-existent.

I'd compromise and tell her you're going to find a really good and reputable model agency. Then you can ask what they need in the way of a portfolio, what photographers they recommend and so on. If, on the strength of the pictures you commission, they're interested in seeing her, they'll have to assess all kinds of other things apart from the photographs – your daughter's height, her walk, her attitude, her versatility, her willingness, her general demeanour. Modelling is not just about being a pretty face. Even Helen of Troy would be useless as a model if she had feet like diving flippers or oven-glove hands, or gave the finger to everyone she met.

And a good model agency, if they really thought she had huge promise (again, unlikely, but you never know) would be shrewd enough not to pressure her during exams, try to fit in work in the holidays, and generally take a responsible role as regards her education and her future.

Of course she'll be disappointed... but the sooner you get cracking on finding a legitimate alternative, and the happier and more supportive both her parents are about taking this step, the quicker she'll dry her tears.

Readers say

Approach an agency

As "glittering" as this sounds, there is a false ring to it. No genuine modelling agency worth its salt would be sending a photographer around shopping malls, taking photos of young girls, then placing their photos on the internet for people to ogle and "vote" for.

I would want to know the credentials of this photographer and modelling agency, what type of modelling work they offered and also the website the photos were going on to would need serious investigation. If your daughter is interested in pursuing a career in modelling, there are much more convincing routes to follow with regards to trying to get her signed at an agency.

Ask yourself if you would want photos of your daughter emblazoned on the internet for anyone to look at and then to vote for. I know I wouldn't.

Hayley Todd, Flint, Flintshire

Warn her off this

You should tell her to run kicking and screaming from this offer. Warn her now that she is not going to become the next top model on the strength of some dodgy offer from a man in a mall.

If she's really interested in modelling then help her do some research and approach some reputable agencies when she's a bit older.

Linda Hine, Liskeard, Cornwall

Ask some questions

Treat this professionally and soberly, as you would with any "opportunity" for your daughter. Which internet site? At whom is it aimed? Where is it actually hosted? Which photographer? Which agency? Are they reputable?

Secondly, you must consider her safety and privacy. Ensure you will be present and have sight of your child during the shoot. Consult the police for child safety information and ask for the photographer's and the site's policy on data protection. Will her town of residence be on the website?

Thirdly, what effect will the experience have on her? If her image is criticised by someone, how will she cope? If you are satisfied that this is not going to damage her, nor put her at risk, and it is a genuine advantage for her, then perhaps you should go ahead.

Katherine Kaye, Oxford

Support her

Thoroughly check the terms and conditions of the "competition". If they check out, then support her with the interest – it may fizzle out, especially if she doesn't win. If the "competition" does not look legitimate then allow your daughter to explore other avenues if this is something she wants to do.

Joanne Bell, Bangor, Co Down

It could cost you

Check that the company are legitimate and that this is not a scam. I have heard of this before, and it involves your daughter, her family and friends ringing up dozens of times to ensure she "wins". The company make a fortune from the phone calls, and the winner does get on the agency's books. Then she has to pay a fortune for photographs, and will get very little work, if any at all.

Martin, Ilkeston, Derbyshire