A dangerous new scam targeting young women on Instagram has cybersecurity experts warning anyone could be a victim.
Criminals use the real names and photos of women to make fake accounts that look nearly identical to the original. The copycat account links to a website that looks similar to OnlyFans, a platform popular with sex workers, and promises sexually explicit content in exchange for credit card information. While the X-rated content does not exist, the damage done to victims is very real.
“It definitely is scary,” said San Diego State University sophomore Sophie Rokaw. “It is kind of embarrassing to explain to your family and friends what it is.”
Rokaw is one of many young women on Instagram who have had their accounts impersonated by scammers trying to make quick money. Recently, she awoke to dozens of messages from friends she hadn’t heard from in years alerting her that her photos and likeness had been stolen for this fake account.
“If you didn’t look at the bio and you just looked at the posts they had, it could be believable,” she said.
If it weren’t for the friends who reached out to her, Rokaw may never have known she was a victim. The scammers behind these fake accounts often block the original account and their closest friends and family.
Reporting the fake account was difficult, but ultimately Rokaw and her friends were able to file a complaint and Instagram removed it within a few days. But to prevent long-lasting reputational damage, Rokaw thinks the social media platform should be more proactive.
“I think Instagram should create a system where they flag similar posts and similar names and check: Is this actually them?” she said.
Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, thinks social media platforms need to do more to protect their users.
“We’re hearing about it on a daily basis,” Velasquez said. “And it’s across all platforms.”
Velasquez points out this scam has more than one victim, as followers hoping to buy explicit content end up getting their banking information stolen instead.
“The reality is it is very hard to investigate these types of crimes and figure out who did it,” Velasquez said. “And once you figure it out, the chances that they are in a country where we would extradite them is very small.”
Velasquez said the best way to keep your account safe is to make it private, and only accept followers if they are friends or family. People who notice their own or someone else’s identity has been stolen can also access the Identity Theft Resource Center’s Help Center for free advice.
To monitor if your own likeness has been stolen, Velasquez recommends running a reverse image search. Clicking the camera icon in a search engine box and uploading a photo of yourself is a quick and easy way to check all the online locations using your photo.
In a statement to NBC 7, Instagram stated they do their best to remove accounts which violate their policies:
Scams and impersonation attempts violate our rules, as does fake engagement and spammy behavior. We’ve built reporting in-app for people to let us know when they see suspicious or fraudulent content and accounts...We regularly monitor for trends and are always improving our systems to provide a better experience for our community.
More information on how to report fake Instagram accounts is available in Instagram’s Help Center.
NBC 7 also reached out to OnlyFans, who in a statement reiterated the phony accounts are not legitimate OnlyFans pages:
"These web pages are not affiliated with the OnlyFans social media platform and we urge users to report any fake websites to the relevant website hosting companies. OnlyFans offers a free DMCA service to all users and we are actively investigating and reporting these fraudulent web pages posing as OnlyFans accounts."
Velasquez used to say the odds are most people won’t be victimized, but now thinks it is rare a person will go through life without experiencing a cybercrime.