How would you feel when you find out that there are about a dozen accounts using your name pretending to be you? And how would you feel when you find out that those accounts are actually pushing crypto scams? It doesn’t sound like fun, right? Well, this is the living nightmare for Jason Sallman for the past several years.
He calls himself a “crypto-evangelist” and most of his posts are connected with Bitcoin. However, if you type his name in the search box of Instagram, you will be surprised how many accounts pop up using variations of his name.
According to Sallman he has had more than 500 imposters over the past few years. He also says that he has seen about 25 active Instagram fake accounts who are active at the same time. He said:
“There’s a little function inside of Instagram where you can report an account. And then they’ll review it and sometimes it could take them as little as two hours to respond, sometimes it takes days, sometimes they never respond.”
One of the most striking facts is that all these imposters were using photos of Sallman and his family, even tagging his wife under another fake account, writing captions which look like they are real. Also, soon after Sallman posted his photo taken at CNBC where his fisrt interview took place, scammers reposted the photo and even tagged the staff who was behind the camera and were filming.
What is actually the scheme?
Most of the fake accounts seem to be run by scammers who are trying to engage with other Instagram users. The reason? Well, they are pretending to be Jason via direct messages with the aim to push deceptive crypto-investment schemes, trying to lure in unsuspecting users and steal thousands of dollars from them.
As a result, some of the victims track down his real account, demanding him to return their money. They even threaten to kill him, beat him up, etc.
Sallman even connected CNBC with a victim of one of his imposters, who wished to stay anonymous, because of a fear of being retaliated by the scammer who has all of his personal information.
His story started with the success from the impersonator’s side to convince him to invest $500 on a fake trading platform which show how his investment is reaching an enormous amount of money. However, when he tried to withdraw, he was asked for additional funds for some fake fees and commissions. That’s how he lost $20,000 in the scheme.
There is another story. Military veteran Bob Kurkijan first noticed his imposters while he was serving in Afghanistan as a Navy reservist in 2019. The only reason he used his profile was staying in touch with his family. He explained:
“On a very regular basis, I would find out, either via friends or just myself, that people were lifting my photos out of my account, and creating new accounts with a name similar to mine. And so that probably happened to me 40 times.”
According to him, the only reason for all of this is to scam people out of money. Obviously, the scammers are focused on different kinds of people. The Instagram influencer is also a victim of imposters whose aim is already well-known. Brandy Morgan said:
“There weren’t a ton of females showcasing programming or coding on Instagram so that was the original story behind the account,”
In Morgan’s words, she has had more than 50 imposters who are not even using her name. They use different names which makes them even harder to be found. She explained:
“A lot of times my followers will send me, ‘This person either just reached out to me or I just saw your photo on this account.’ and that’s usually how I find out about them,”
One of the worst parts of this is shutting down the real account. Kurkjian says that when he tried to log on his account, a message popped out, saying that his account had been shut down due to violence in the terms of service. After following some direction to prove he is the real owner of the real account nothing actually happened. He got his account back after CNBC reached out to the company’s public relations team.
A web developer Milly Berst was also forced to face the imposter problem. She is a freelancer and used her account to promote her work to prospective clients. She admitted that she was angry when she found out what was going on, especially when she realized that there is no way to talk to Instagram directly. That’s why she and her husband turned to LinkedIn. She said:
“My husband found people who work at Instagram, some woman there who was on the staff at Instagram and he sent them lots of emails.”
She got her account back soon after an employee connected with her with the intention to help.
However, is it hard to report imposters?
According to Sallman, Kurkjian and Morgan, the whole process of reporting and succeeding in removing the fake accounts is really frustrating. Yes, it is easy enough but the results of it are not always what they have to be. Kurkjian said:
“About 10% of the time, I couldn’t figure out why, but they would tell me that, no, in fact even though that was a photo of me, and it wasn’t my account, that was a legitimate account.”
“As far as getting rid of the accounts, there should be ways to escalate it to talk to a real person,” Sallman said. “If they knew that maybe people were going to lose thousands of dollars by this happening, you’d think they would maybe want to act on it.”
If you are wondering how much money victims have lost, the Federal Trade Commission reported losing more than $80 million between Oct.2020 and March 2021, which is ten times higher than the previous year. According to The FTC, victims have reported losing $2 million to Elon Musk impersonators alone. In some cybersecurity experts’ words, Instagram could solve the imposter problem with technology that already exists. Brian Vecci, who is a Chief Technology Officer at Varonis, a data security firm, said:
“It’s trivially easy these days to detect reposting of content, and platforms where reposting poses a risk are very good at it. The problem is that reposting in many cases poses no risk to the platform, and in fact increases engagement —more posts and more views mean more money from advertisers.”
Vecci also added:
“These companies make money from people using them, and they’re incentivized to reduce the friction to using their platforms.”
However, when CNBC reached out to Instagram with a list of Morgan and Sallman’s imposter accounts, the company deleted all of them. The company stated:
“Claiming to be another person on Instagram violates our Community Guidelines, and we have a dedicated team to detect and block these kinds of scams. We know there’s more to do here which is why we keep working to prevent abuse and keep our community safe.”
Unfortunately, days after CNBC’s action, Sallman had more than a dozen new impersonators, and Morgan found one as well. However, the scammers are expanding their fields and soon started doing the same at TikTok which is one of the most popular social media platforms among young people.
When CNBC reached out to TikTok with a list of Morgan and Sallman’s impersonators, the company removed all of Morgan’s impersonators and most of Sallman’s. The company stated:
“We strive to protect the integrity of our platform and authenticity of our amazing community, which is why we remove accounts that deceptively impersonate others and encourage people to report content or accounts they believe violate our Community Guidelines.”
Unfortunately, most of Sallman’s imposters are still active. A message from cybersecurity says that when social media users post content publicly, it can be easily stolen and your personal information is really valuable.