Imagine logging into Instagram and searching your name to find more than a dozen imposter accounts pushing crypto scams while pretending to be you. That’s been Jason Sallman’s nightmare for the past several years.
Sallman describes himself as a “crypto-evangelist” and a lot of the content he posts includes images of Bitcoin.
Sallman estimates he’s had more than 500 imposters over the past few years and said he’s seen up to 25 active Instagram imposters at once. He says going through the process of finding and reporting them all to Instagram can feel like a full-time job.
“There’s a little function inside of Instagram where you can report an account,” Sallman said. “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.”
Imposters have brazenly stolen photos featuring Sallman with his wife and family, and have even tagged his wife in new posts under a fake account.
“It’s super creepy and they’ll even sometimes make up their own captions for things like, “Oh, I’m so happy with my family now that I made all this money from mining.”
After Sallman posted a photo with producers taken at CNBC’s first interview with him, scammers have reposted the pic and have been bold enough to tag the network’s staffers who were filming with Sallman while covering the imposter story.
But the stolen picture problem is bigger than just copyright infringement. Many of the imposter accounts appear to be run by scammers who engage with other Instagram users pretending to be Jason via direct messages. Hidden behind pictures of Sallman’s face they push bogus crypto-investment schemes with the intent to lure in unsuspecting IG users and steal thousands of dollars from them.
Sallman told CNBC victims of the impostor accounts track down his real account several times a week demanding he return their money.
“I’ve gotten threats like, ‘I’m gonna kill you, I’m gonna beat you up.’ Sallman said. “They’re like, ‘I know where you live.’ and all these type of things.”
Sallman connected CNBC with a victim of one of his imposters. This victim agreed to speak to the network as long as his name wasn’t publicly disclosed, for fear the scammer, who has all of his personal information, might retaliate.
The Texas resident said one of Sallman’s impersonators started by convincing him to invest $500 on a bogus trading platform that showed his investment sky-rocketing to over six-figures. When he sought to make a withdrawal he was asked for additional funds to cover bogus fees and commissions. In the end, the victim lost $20,000 in the scheme.
Military veteran Bob Kurkjian first noticed his Instagram imposters while serving in Afghanistan as a Navy reservist in 2019. Kurkjian said he used his account to stay in touch with his wife and children almost daily when overseas.
“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,” Kurkjian explained. “And so that probably happened to me 40 times.”
Kurkjian said the imposters often stole photos of him in uniform. Based on information in the account bios, he believed they were being used to scam people out of money.
Instagram influencer Brandy Morgan said she has been dealing with imposter accounts for years. Brandy said she started her real account, @MsBrandyMorgan, to connect with other women in tech.
“There weren’t a ton of females showcasing programming or coding on Instagram so that was the original story behind the account,” Morgan said.
Throughout the course of CNBC’s interviews with Morgan for this story, she said she’s had more than 50 imposters on Instagram. Although Sallman’s and Kurkjian’s imposters often use some variation of their names, Morgan’s imposters often do not, making them much harder to find.
“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,” Morgan said.
The problem has become so pervasive, she added a highlight section to her Instagram account labeled “fake” with videos explaining the issue to her more than 56,000 followers.
One day when he logged on to Instagram from his iPad in Afghanistan, Kurkjian learned that his real account had been shut down.
“A message popped up saying Instagram believes you violated the terms of service,” Kurkjian said. The account closure was particularly stressful for Kurkjian because he used it to stay in touch with family while serving overseas.
He followed Instagram’s instructions to prove he was the real Bob Kurkjian by providing a copy of his passport along with other documentation, but he said nothing happened until CNBC reached out to the company’s pubic relations team explaining the confusion. Less than a week later, Kurkjian said his account popped back up as active with no explanation from the company.
“So super ironic that I’ve been battling imposters this entire time and my account is tied to an 11-year old Facebook account,” he said. (Facebook, which recently renamed itself Meta, owns Instagram.)
Milly Berst, a web developer in the Netherlands, who said she has reported hundreds of imposters to Instagram for more than three years, also had her real account suspended in 2019 after flagging a steady stream of fakes.
As a freelancer, Berst used her account to promote her work to prospective clients and said she was “angry” when she found there was no way to speak with Instagram directly, so she and her husband turned to Linkedin.
“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,” Berst said. When one employee replied that she was willing to help, Berst got her account back after six weeks of frustration.
Berst told CNBC that since she’s been targeted so many times by crypto-scammers she’s added a disclaimer on the website for her business explaining that her images have been stolen to create fake bitcoin accounts adding, “I am not a trader or investor.”
A year ago, Berst started adding watermarks with her website address, millyberst.com, to every photo she posts, in hopes that when scammers re-post her photos, potential victims will go to her website and see her warning. Butshe said it doesn’t always work.
“I have seen images where people put something over my watermark, so in that case, it doesn’t help,” Berst explained.
Sallman, Kurkjian and Morgan all said Instagram’s process for reporting impersonator accounts to get them removed from the platform is frustrating. To report an account on the platform, the first step is to click the three dots next to the account name and there’s an option to “report the user’s account” for one of three reasons, including “it’s pretending to be someone else.” The process is easy enough, but it doesn’t always lead to the results one would expect.
For instance, Morgan recently went through the process to report Instagram account @Ariella_f_x_ for impersonating her. Instagram replied it was not able to remove it “at this time” because “we only remove content that goes against our Community Guidelines.”
Kurkjian said he has received the same response from the platform after becoming obsessed with reporting every imposter account he could find while overseas.
“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,” Kurkjian said.
There’s no easy way to escalate problems, either — Instagram does not offer its 2 billion users a helpline or a way to speak with some sort of customer service representative.
“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.”
It’s difficult to know exactly how much money victims have lost through Instagram scammers, although the Federal Trade Commission has said consumers reported losing more than $80 million in various crypto currency investment scams between Oct. 2020 and March 2021, an amount ten times higher than the same period the previous year. The FTC says victims have reported losing $2 million to Elon Musk impersonators alone.
Some cybersecurity experts say Instagram could solve the imposter problem with technology that already exists.
“It’s trivially easy these days to detect reposting of content, and platforms where reposting poses a risk are very good at it,” explained Brian Vecci, Chief Technology Officer at Varonis, a data security firm. “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.”
In other words, more users, even if they are opening fake accounts, mean more money, and free social media platforms have no reason to proactively shut imposter accounts down even though they could.
“These companies make money from people using them, and they’re incentivized to reduce the friction to using their platforms.” Vecci added.
When CNBC reached out to Instagram with a list of Morgan and Sallman’s imposter accounts, the company deleted all of them.
In a statement, the company said, “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.” (Instagram did not respond when CNBC asked about the discrepancy between the company’s statement and their response to Morgan that the imposter account she reported, @Ariella_fx_, did not violate their Community Guidelines.)
Regardless, it appears that team is not very effective. Days after CNBC provided the company with a list of imposter accounts, Sallman had more than a dozen new impersonators, and Morgan found one as well.
Now, the crypto-scammers appear to be expanding their reach beyond Instagram. Sallman has dozens of impersonators pushing crypto on the TikTok app and Morgan also says she’s uncovered several active impersonators on the platform.
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.
In a statement, TikTok said: “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.”
Though several of Sallman’s imposters remain active and more have emerged since TikTok’s review of the accounts.
The message from cyber security experts is simple: when social media users post content publicly, it can be easily stolen and your personal information is valuable.
“We live in a world where the content you create is more identifying than your SSN or even phone number,” Vecci said. “We deserve strict privacy regulations and should demand that all companies treat personal data with more care than they do.”