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How 'Instascammers' Exploit Social Media System's Weaknesses

Scammers are proliferating on Instagram by shutting down prominent influencers' money-making profiles and then demanding payment to reactivate them, ProPublica reports. These "Instascammers" often target accounts that are vulnerable because of content verging on nudity and pornography, prohibited by Instagram and its parent company Meta, and exploit the app's slow and often ineffective customer support services and easily manipulated account reporting systems. ProPublica worked to uncover the methods of one of the most prolific and notorious members of this booming underground community, OBN, who bragged that he "deleted multiple celebrities + influencers" and made about $300,000 in the process.

By allowing anyone to report an account for violating the company’s standards, Meta gives enormous leverage to people who are able to trick it into banning someone who relies on Instagram for income. Meta uses a mix of automated systems and human review to evaluate reports. Banners like OBN test and trade tips on how to trigger the system to falsely suspend accounts. In some cases OBN hacks into accounts to post offensive content. In others, he creates duplicate accounts in his targets’ names, then reports the original accounts as imposters so they’ll be barred for violating Meta’s ban on account impersonation. In addition, OBN has posed as a Meta employee to persuade at least one target to pay him to restore her account. Kristian “Murda” Murphy, a music manager, producer and entrepreneur who has worked with high-profile rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, among other artists, got caught in OBN's crosshairs. “I’m sitting home by myself literally watching TV, all of a sudden I see these texts started coming in,’” said Murphy. In addition to threatening bodily harm, the anonymous messengers told Murphy they were coming for one of his most valuable assets — the @murdamurphy Instagram account. It had more than 300,000 followers and brought in thousands of dollars a month thanks to people and companies paying Murphy to share sponsored posts. While they also target TikTok and other platforms, takedown-for-hire scammers like OBN are proliferating on Instagram because of its institutional weaknesses. A Meta spokesperson acknowledged that OBN has had short-term success in getting accounts removed by abusing systems intended to help enforce community standards. But the company has addressed those situations and taken down dozens of accounts linked to OBN, the spokesperson said. Most often, the spokesperson said, OBN scammed people by falsely claiming to be able to ban and restore accounts. “We know the impact these scams can have on people which is why we continue investing to protect our users, including updating our support systems and keeping the scammers out,” said the spokesperson, who asked not to be identified due to security concerns. “This remains a highly adversarial space, with scammers constantly trying to evade detection by social media platforms.”


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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