- Influencers say that fake accounts impersonating them are rampant on Instagram and YouTube.
- These accounts copy the influencer’s profile and promote crypto scams to their fans.
- Insider spoke with several influencers about this problem and how it’s affected their businesses.
Hajer Alabi was scrolling through her For You Page on TikTok last year when she came across videos from Sara Rosalia, a personal finance influencer who goes by Sara Finance online.
The videos, which discussed various side hustles and doled out investing tips, hooked Alabi, who decided to follow Rosalia on Instagram. A few days later, an account with the same profile photo and a similar username followed her back, and sent her a direct message promoting a cryptocurrency that she could buy for up to $1,000.
“I thought this could be something good, and considering she’s an influencer for finance, Sara wouldn’t scam her followers,” Alabi told Insider. “I was ready to send them the money. But then I noticed little grammar mistakes in their messages, and the way that they were typing wasn’t professional.”
Alabi decided to do some investigating. She looked more closely at the account and realized it wasn’t the real Rosalia. Rather, it was a fake account with the a similar name, and the same profile photo and pictures.
“It had the same posts, but there were subtle differences,” Alabi said. “It was a little creepy.”
She sent Rosalia a DM to let her know that there was an account impersonating her on Instagram, and they each reported and blocked the fake account. Instagram later took down the account.
Still, the effects linger for Rosalia, who has a substantial online presence, with 723,000 TikTok followers, 335,000 YouTube subscribers, and 51,000 Instagram followers. Not only do these fake accounts impact her followers — who could potentially fall for a scam — but they’ve also had a negative impact on her business.
In April, her Instagram account was disabled for over a week for “pretending to be someone else,” according to a message on her Instagram Help Center. Her account is back now, but she struggled to get in touch with Instagram, she said.
Similar accounts impersonating Rosalia live on YouTube. These accounts target her audience in the comment section of her videos, with the fake accounts requesting her subscribers send them a message on WhatsApp and Telegram.
Rosalia isn’t the only influencer with multiple accounts impersonating her on Instagram and YouTube.
Insider spoke with eight creators who post content about personal finance, investing, and cryptocurrency who said this has become a big issue for them in the past year. These accounts use the influencer’s name, profile photo, and even content, including pictures of their family and children, to trick followers into thinking it’s actually the influencer.
“Historically speaking, these follow the old and tried trend of 411 scams, wherein a not-so-technically savvy user is tricked into thinking they are engaging in a legitimate interaction with somebody they respect,” said Santiago Torres Arias, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Purdue University. “These were somehow translated to social media in the mid 2010s, with the crypto scams on Twitter.”
In 2021, more than 95,000 people reported about $770 million in losses to fraud initiated on social media, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The influencers told Insider that the recent uptick in fake accounts had negatively affected their careers on social media, and the relationship they have with their followers, and said they wished Instagram to make the verification process easier.
‘It’s hurting our credibility’
The fake accounts that have plagued these finance influencers are typically on YouTube and Instagram.
“It’s hurting our credibility,” said Kelly Anne Smith, who is known as Freedom in a Budget. She has nearly 50,000 YouTube subscribers and 13,000 Instagram followers. “It really brings down the integrity of our brand, and it’s also just annoying. I get messages multiple times a day saying, ‘Hey, I think you’ve been hacked’ and have to tell them ‘No, it’s just a fake account.'”
On Instagram, these accounts have copied so many aspects of the influencer’s account — from photos and Stories to similar follower counts — that it’s hard to decipher which account is real.
Insider reached out to Instagram for comment, and the platform sent over more information on the verification process (which can be found here) and provided the following statement: “We’ve built reporting into the app and have dedicated forms for people to let us know when someone else is using their content without permission, so we can take action by removing that content and disabling the accounts of those responsible where appropriate.”
On YouTube, fake accounts often won’t steal a creator’s video content — which makes the scam pages less believable to fans — but they do copy the creator’s profile picture and username.
Content intended to impersonate a person or channel is not allowed on YouTube, YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi told Insider. Users and creators can report channels they believe are impersonating others.
In Q4 2021, YouTube removed over 24,000 channels for impersonation and over 950 million comments for violating policies around spam, misleading and scams, the company said.
These scammers are “savvy,” said personal-finance influencer Marko Zlatic, who has 826,000 subscribers on YouTube.
“They’ll block whoever they are pretending to be, that way I can’t see their profile to report them,” he added.
Insider found 20 accounts on Instagram impersonating Zlatic. The accounts used the same profile picture and a similar username. One fake account has over 94,000 followers and another has over 35,000 followers. That’s more than the 35,000 followers that Zlatic actually has on Instagram.
These scammers don’t just copy influencers’ accounts. They also actively pursue their followers by instantly following and sending a DM to someone after they follow the real account.
“The bot must have some code where as soon as someone new follows me, the fake account will message them,” said Rose Han, who goes by the username Investing with Rose. “The accounts will copy everything that I post, including my stories, which is so creepy.”
Insider found 17 Instagram accounts pretending to be Han.
Insider followed a fake account impersonating an influencer. Soon after, the account DMed the Insider reporter, asking “how’s your trade going” and sending a link to a fake crypto investment scam.
When asked if it was really the influencer, the fake account responded: “This is my supplementary account where I check on my fans and traders you’re lucky to come across me. Too many restrictions on the other one can’t even like nor text.”
“I’m really afraid that one day my account will get shut down and be associated with those other pages,” Han said.
The fear isn’t unjustified: One influencer told Insider that he was subpoenaed for scamming people on social media, and he had to hire a lawyer to show that the fake accounts aren’t actually him.
—Marques Brownlee (@MKBHD) April 8, 2022
‘Instagram really could do a better job at helping’
Tech creator Marques Brownlee, who has 15 million subscribers, shared his frustrations on the uptick of spam comments on YouTube in a recent video.
“You would think the comment section would be this precious priority for YouTube because it’s such a unique feature of the site,” he said. “This is one of the only places you can facilitate real conversations between the creators and the audience.”
Brownlee said that these bots are largely promoting tech scams, like a fake giveaway, on his channel, but that he’s seen comments promoting adult content sites or PC giveaways on other channels.
Eight days later, he shared on Twitter that YouTube is experimenting a new “increase strictness” content moderation tool and that he is “hoping it can make a dent in this comment spam we’ve been seeing so much lately.”
“We’re testing out the ability for creators to set channel guidelines so they can better shape the tone of conversations on their channel,” YouTube’s Choi said. “Creators can also choose moderators, blacklist words and phrases, pin comments and more.”
Since YouTube didn’t take action until this year, software engineer Andre Escudero founded a service to help YouTube creators filter their comment section. Escudero regularly watches YouTube, he said, and noticed many of his favorite creators opening up about this issue.
The startup, called Social Clean, is an automated content moderation service that removes scams, spam, and inappropriate comments below a creator’s YouTube video. The platform connects to a creator’s YouTube account to help remove and hide comments based on custom filters.
About 150 YouTube creators have signed up with service, Escudero said, which offers a free version and two paid versions.
Creators have also hired teams to help. Rosalia said she hired a virtual assistant to go through her YouTube comments.
“I have a setting where all comments are automatically held, and I have to approve the comment before it’s posted,” Rosalia said about YouTube. “I didn’t want people to continue getting scammed. That was the only solution.”
Instagram has been less proactive in solving the problem, according to influencers, who say that reporting these accounts and attempting to get verified can be fruitless.
“Reporting these accounts has been a nightmare, and trying to get verified has been a nightmare,” Zlatic said. “I’ve provided my passport, address, links to articles, and they still don’t verify me.”
Rosalia agreed, adding that Instagram could also hide creators “following” list and flag accounts that buy fake followers.
“Instagram really could do a better job at helping,” she said . “I’ve applied for check mark verification many times over the last year, and they haven’t given it to me. That would be one very strong way for followers to know that it’s really me.”
If you have been affected by a social media scam, or know more about this issue, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org