“I was at work when my phone started vibrating in my pocket. Bzz. Bzz. ‘The group chat must be popping off,’ I thought to myself, wondering what my pals could be talking about that was causing such a stir. Bzz. Bzz. It went again. I decided to take a quick peek at my phone – I needed to see what all the fuss was about. ‘Have you made a new Insta, Kat?’ read the first message, followed by one, two, three, four and more messages all asking the same.
It wasn’t until I opened Instagram myself that I realised what they were talking about. There it was: an account with all of my photos. Selfies with friends, the photoshoot I did for my last stand-up show, everything. Even the username matched my own, except for a cleverly added underscore, and the account was following all my friends too. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought this was my real profile.
Clicking onto the Story, I scrolled through the carousel of photos. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Image after image of girls in their underwear, posing suggestively but with the face cropped out so that, from an outsider’s perspective, it could have been me. Everything was so realistic, it scared me to think someone would go to these lengths… and that they could do so hiding behind a mobile phone screen. Was it somebody I knew? Somebody I’d never met who had been to one of my shows? Or a complete stranger who’d stumbled upon my profile?”
Currently, there’s no official name for the sinister new trend that comedian Katerina Robinson (pictured below) found herself a victim of that day, but it could be likened to catfishing, wherein a person creates a fictional persona or fake identity on social media, using another’s images.
This newer variant of it, however, sees fake Instagram profiles being set up that use real people’s photos – and genuine details like their username and bio. Once the fake profile has been set up, it assumes the identity of the victim, following their contacts and DMing friends pretending to be them, almost in an act of ‘Instafishing’. In some cases, the victims photos are used to create fake OnlyFans accounts too, with the ultimate intention of scamming users out of money.
It’s becoming increasingly common; research carried out earlier this year found that, despite there being 1.3 billion Instagram users worldwide, almost half of the accounts on the platform are fake. In fact, the report revealed that only 55% of profiles on the platform belong to real people, begging the questions: Who’s behind the other 45%? What are they doing? And what’s the solution if your identity is stolen on social media?
Instafishing has IRL impacts
“I felt very overwhelmed and violated,” Katerina recalls of the moment she found the fake account, which on top of stealing her photos and assuming her online identity was promoting sexually explicit content too, via a falsified OnlyFans account created using Wix (a free website building platform).
Despite being in “a state of panic,” Katerina was able to get the profile taken down within a few days (first reporting the account on Instagram and then contacting the platform directly through the help section). But, she says the experience has had an impact on the way she uses social media. “Due to my line of work, I like to keep my Instagram very public so people can check out my stuff quite easily, but since this happened I definitely have more concerns for my privacy,” she explains.
“It’s impacted me in a way that now I have more worries and fears, especially if I post a sexy or revealing photo on my Instagram. I’m trying to be more censored about what I post, but that shouldn’t be the case.”
Like others who’ve been a victim of having their profiles duped, Katerina is still concerned about the impact it could have on her future, especially when it comes to her career.
Unfortunately, it’s a fear that could very much become a reality, as online safety consultant Jess McBeath points out. “There can be real financial implications for someone when there’s a fake online account which doesn’t sit well with a potential employer or client,” McBeath says, referencing how many employers now use social media to screen candidates applying for jobs.
For 29-year-old Leigh Woodman (pictured below), who has over 200k followers on Instagram, having her photos repeatedly stolen to make fake accounts means she often worries about how her reputation as an influencer might be affected. “I feel really annoyed that scammers are using my photos without permission, especially when it’s in order to con people out of money,” she says. “I worry that my followers [and brands] will think it’s actually me scamming them.”
As for the mental health impact of the experience, McBeath says this can be equally, if not more, devastating. “The emotional impact can be so much more, particularly regarding sexual content,” she says. “If someone’s personal content (whether genuine or not) is publicly available online, the shame can be debilitating. Imagine walking down the street and wondering if the people you pass have recognised you from what they’ve seen online? There can be a sense of powerlessness. Not being in control of the narrative is a difficult place to be.” It’s a feeling similar to that described by victims of deepfake pornography.
So what are Instagram doing to prevent this happening? When we reached out to ask them, a spokesperson for Meta (Instagram’s parent company) apologised for the distress caused to Katerina and Leigh, and were keen to emphasise that they’re quick to act when this happens.
“Accounts that impersonate someone else are against our Community Guidelines and we remove them when brought to our attention,” a spokesperson said. “The safety of our community is important to us and we do our very best to prevent users becoming victims of impersonation and fraudulent profiles – between January and March we disabled more than 1.3 billion accounts engaged in suspicious activity, with 99.8% before users reported them.”
As for Wix, whose platform was used in Katerina’s (and others’ cases) to host dupe OnlyFans accounts, a spokesperson told us that while their platform allows anyone the freedom to create and publish content online, they are opposed to all types of abusive and fraudulent content published on Wix and “are committed to resolving all complaints that reach our dedicated support channels.”
The spokesperson added that “all reports and notifications of abusive and fraudulent websites are taken extremely seriously and we work diligently to evaluate every claim and take the relevant actions as soon as they are received.”
As for how the platform plans to tackle the issue going forward, the spokesperson said Wix is “continuing to implement measures to ensure safety on the platform.”
But is enough being done to stop accounts like these appearing in the first place? The solution of how to tackle it at its root is more complicated than it might first appear. Both Katerina and Leigh think users should have to verify their identity when signing up to make an account, using a government-issued form of ID like a passport of driving license. “I think every person that makes an account should have to show ID so the name on their ID matches the name on the account,” says Leigh.
Katerina agrees, adding: “As a young woman on social media the experience felt very distressing. Ideally, Instagram should ask each user to verify their identity before setting up a profile, as it’s so easy to set up a fake account.”
Requiring ID to set up an Instagram account is something both women believe will prevent fake accounts from being set up to scam users, whilst simultaneously combating anonymous online trolling. But, the idea of enforcing ID verification for social media also has its drawbacks – particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable members of society for whom, in some cases, anonymity can be life saving.
Take the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement for example, which last year was propelled into the forefront of the world’s attention through protests organised on social media. While protesting is (just about still) legal in the UK, elsewhere this isn’t the case and people can face prosecution for arranging them – in these instances, the security that comes from remaining anonymous online is essential.
The same goes for other members of society who use these channels to connect with people they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, such as those within the LGBTQ+ community who, for whatever reason, feel it’s unsafe to ‘out’ themselves and therefore rely on using social media anonymously to reach out to support groups and others experiencing the same.
Similarly, sufferers of domestic abuse (some of whom have their IDs withheld by their abusers) can use social media to contact organisations who can aid in getting them out of unsafe situations.
While the solution to the problem remains unclear, for now McBeath reminds us there are some things that we as users can do to prevent our content from being used surreptitiously. “Be aware that any images you share online (including in private messaging) may be used by someone else, so be prepared for that,” she points out. “Think about the security of your online content. On social media this might mean checking your privacy settings, but also setting up 2-factor authentication (where you get a code on your phone as well as using your password to login).”
“Look at your social media profiles as a stranger would see them,” the digital security expert adds. “How much information is publicly available about you?”
As well as keeping on top of your online security, McBeath stresses the importance of reporting any fake accounts you come across. “If you discover a fake profile in your name, report it to the platform it’s being hosted on immediately. Don’t forget to report the issue to the platform that is being impersonated too (like OnlyFans). They may also be able to apply pressure.”
Although Katerina hasn’t been Instafished again since reporting the fake profile (nor did she find out who was behind the clone account), she’s made changes to the way she uses the social media platform, like those recommended by McBeath. “I’ve stopped tagging my location in my Instagram Stories, and I keep a lot of content limited to my ‘close friends’ list on the app,” she explains. “I’ve also considered adding a watermark to my images, especially when it comes to sexy or provocative content – I want to make it as easy as possible for users to identify a fake account when they see one.”
Only Fans did not respond to Cosmopolitan UK’s request for comment.
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