Facebook-owned social network Instagram is one of the most popular places to hang out online. Each of the major social media sites has its own identity, and Instagram’s is all about the glossy, carefully curated image you present to the world.
Unfortunately, scammers tend to congregate where everyone else does, and there are plenty of Instagram scams hiding behind the site’s camera-ready, envy-inducing facade. In fact, the FTC’s figures show a high percentage of all online scams originating on Facebook and Instagram. Here are some of the most common scams you’ll encounter and some advice on protecting yourself from them.
Online Shopping Scams
Online shopping was a booming category even before the COVID crisis, and it’s no surprise that it became even bigger as people stayed home. Many legitimate businesses and entrepreneurs took to Instagram to market their wares, and many an Instagram user has purchased products found on the platform. Unfortunately, many of those vendors are scammers and their “customers” seldom get their money back.
Even a quick glance at the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Scam Tracker tool will tell you that this fraud is a thriving industry on Instagram (just type “Instagram” into the keyword search box). It can take several forms: a product that never ships after your payment clears, a product that doesn’t match the description or photos you saw, or many, many other variations on the same theme. The one detail that’s consistent is the part where you don’t get your money back.
Instagram Romance Scams
Romance scams are a plague on most online platforms, and Instagram is no exception. They follow the same pattern here as they do everywhere else: You meet someone new, you hit it off immediately, you quickly find yourself getting attached. It’s such a shame they’re too far away to meet in person, at first — a few states away, or perhaps deployed overseas, or working on an oil rig somewhere inaccessible — but you feel like you know them better than the people who are actually in your daily life.
Then money enters the picture. It might be a sudden medical emergency, or a few dollars to fix a broken-down car, or “I’m in Kazakhstan and my phone isn’t charging properly and I can’t access my banking app,” or…something. The first few times it may even be cast as a loan which is duly paid back. It doesn’t always work that way, but it’s an effective trust-building tool.
That level of trust is what makes romance scams so dangerous and costly. A fraudulent merchant may only take you for $40 or $50, but romance scammers will often pillage their victims to the tune of tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.
Bloggers influenced their readers’ purchasing decisions before Instagram was ever thought of, but it was Instagram that turned the influencer role into a legitimate career option. Of course, for every successful influencer raking in serious cash there are plenty of “wannabes” trying to get into that position, and a corresponding number of scammers looking to take advantage of their ambition.
These scams can go in several different directions, but a couple of common ones stand out. The first is a variation on shopping scams, in which the Instagrammer is induced to make an initial purchase and promote specific products. The scammer’s supposed to in turn provide rebates, additional (free) products or some form of cash commission, none of which materialize.
Another scam offers, for a fee, to help would-be influencers gain “verified” status on Instagram (a key hurdle in arriving at the big-bucks promised land). Payment is often requested in gift card or cryptocurrency form, which can’t be canceled, challenged or reversed like more conventional payment options. This is always a scam because verified status can only be earned and never bought.
“Investment” Scams and Cryptocurrency Scams
Scammers know there’s always a market for a plausible-sounding “get rich quick” scheme, and the pandemic created a large pool of people who are stressed enough financially to take risks they otherwise might not. That’s made investment scams of various types an even bigger threat than they normally are.
There are several variations on the theme, but one of the most common scams in this category promises to multiply your money rapidly, often within hours, by flipping it in and out of various trading vehicles. Victims are shown screenshots or reports of their “gains” and encouraged to invest more, then hit again for a “processing fee” in order to cash out. Needless to say, none of the money ever comes back and the scammer promptly disappears.
Scammers will sometimes pitch themselves as consultants or mentors who will help you make a fortune by trading in cryptocurrencies. Relatively few people understand vehicles like Bitcoin and Ethereum, which creates a lot of latitude for scammers to operate.
Lottery and Prize Scams
Sweepstakes and lottery scams, like romance scams, are found across most social media platforms and Instagram is no exception. Like investment scams, these play on the universal human appeal of “something for nothing.”
You’ll receive a message telling you that you’ve won something of value in a contest, a sweepstakes, a lottery or something of that nature. The prize could be anything of value, from a holiday cruise to a new pair of shoes or the most recent, “can’t buy it anywhere” gaming console. It’s yours for free, you just have to pay a specific fee…and that, of course, is the whole point of the scam.
It might be described as paying taxes on the value of the product, or shipping and handling, or port/resort fees for cruises and weekend getaways, but the bottom line is you sending money to the scammer. The product is either wholly imaginary or a mass produced piece of gimcrack that costs them pennies on the dollar. Either way, you lose.
Instagram Phishing Scams
Phishing is also common across lots of platforms, but there are a couple of variations that seem to show up more on Instagram than other sites.
One is the “three of your pictures” scam. You’ll receive a direct message from another user, often someone you know, saying that they’ve practiced their photo editing skills to improve three of your own Instagram photos. The message includes a link to the supposed photos, which leads to a fake Instagram login page. If you log in, you’ve just given your credentials to the scammers…who then hit your friends with the same scam, except now the message seems to come from you.
Another is the “nasty list” scam, in which the DM you receive warns you that you’re on someone’s “nasty list” page of leaked photos or videos. Again, the whole point is getting you to click a link and sign into a bogus Instagram account.
Protecting Yourself From Instagram Scams
This shortlist barely scratches the surface compared to the number of scams out there, but there are lots of ways to protect yourself. The first is simply staying educated: Start with Instagram’s own guidance and the FTC’s Consumer Information Blog, or spend some time clicking through the BBB’s Scam Tracker (it’s updated as complaints come in, so it’s a useful real-time window to scams that are going on right now).
Next, take a few moments to read up on how to recognize these scams and others. Internet security companies’ sites are a useful resource for that, as is this humble blog.
Arguably the most valuable security tool you can bring to Instagram (or any other social site) is an attitude of healthy skepticism. Aphorisms like, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” and, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” are universal because they’re true. You’ll also be safer if you keep your account private and don’t allow random strangers to follow you just because they ask. Often those accounts are fabricated by scammers as a reconnaissance tool, so they can personalize their attempts on you and your friends.
Verify, Verify, Verify
We’re two decades into the new century and the new millennium, and the simple fact is that much of modern life takes place online. That calls for a fine balancing act: If you’re too trusting it makes you an easy target, and if you’re too paranoid you’ll find life becomes terribly complicated and constrained. The best approach is to think of trust as something you can proactively build, using the tools available. To put that another way, “Trust, but verify first.”
Don’t Fall Victim to Instagram Scams
Instead of clicking that link, call or email your friend to verify that they’ve actually sent it. Better yet, always log in separately to Instagram and then go looking for the page that supposedly holds your photos. When companies offer to reimburse you for touting their product on your ‘Gram, search that company’s name along with “complaints” or “scam.” If it’s a legitimate company, contact them directly to verify that the offer is aboveboard (spoiler: Scammers have been known to misrepresent themselves…).
If that new acquaintance seems bent on being your BFF (or more) in a hurry, use Google’s reverse image search to see if his/her photos were scraped from somewhere else on the internet. Finally — and most importantly — use Spokeo’s people search tools consistently to verify that the people you think you’re interacting with are actually who, and where, and what, they say they are.
Life is proverbially uncertain, but these simple steps can help you gain (and maintain) a measure of control over your online life.
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Scams Starting on Social Media Proliferate in Early 2020
- Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Tracker
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – What You Need To Know About Romance Scams
- IT Pro Portal – Recent Instagram Scams: How They Work
- BBC News – Investment Scam Targets Instagram Users
- Screen Rant – Instagram: How To Avoid the ‘3 of Your Pictures’ DM Scam
- McAfee – The “Nasty List” Phishing Scam Is Out To Steal Your Instagram Login
- Instagram – How Do I Avoid Scams on Instagram?
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Consumer Information Blog
- Kaspersky – Instagram Scams: How To Stay Safe on Instagram
- Google Search Help – Search With an Image on Google