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Faked Out: Con artists copycatting social media profiles lure family and friends into scams

Experts say the best way to protect yourself is to freeze your credit and report these accounts  
Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 2:15 PM MST
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(InvestigateTV) - Your pictures, your videos, your memories – all come together to create your social media identity. InvestigateTV has uncovered scammers targeting your online accounts to create a whole new you, all designed to scam your closest friends out of their money.

In the tech world it’s called “spoofing,” a hacking technique where scammers take your online content and create a duplicate fake profile with the goal of drawing your friends and followers into a web of deceit.

According to Facebook’s 2019 data, 16% of all Facebook accounts are fake or duplicate accounts.

The hackers even target the experts.

Boise, Idaho resident Brooke J Lacey said she never thought she would fall victim to spoofing. Lacey started her own computer repair business “Tech Savvy” in 2010. Six years later, she said she decided to go virtual and use her social media platforms to educate followers on all things tech, including cryptocurrency, NFTs and cybersecurity.

Brooke Lacey explains NFTs in one of her Instagram videos. Lacey’s videos have garnered 55...
Brooke Lacey explains NFTs in one of her Instagram videos. Lacey’s videos have garnered 55 million views on TikTok, and she is now dealing with hackers impersonating her various accounts.(Brooke Lacey)

Over the years she amassed more than 300,000 followers on TikTok and several thousand on Instagram. She said the online notoriety caught her off guard.

“As a 45-year-old single mom, who knew that people would love me on TikTok? But it poses some scamming problems,” Lacey said.

Those “scamming problems” showed up recently, as Lacey said she found multiple duplicate accounts copying her content and faking her identity. Lacey said she first learned about the issue after friends reached out asking if she was trying to sell them Bitcoin.

She’s tried to get the fake accounts removed. She said TikTok and Instagram have taken down a few, but with the sheer number of fake accounts, she said she can’t keep up.

“It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. TikTok… I’ve taken screenshots and I’ve done recordings of it, and I just can’t keep up. So, there’s probably been hundreds,” Lacey said. “On Instagram, I think right now there’s been four, two of which I think were taken down.”

Lacey said she followed up with Instagram for help, going through all the steps to report the imposter accounts. She even enlisted her friends to help.

“I had to get other people to send me the information, and I went in and filled out the report, all of it, and nothing happened,” Lacey said. “I don’t even think I got a response.”

So, she said she took matters into her own hands. On January 1, Lacey made her first post exposing one of the fake accounts. The duplicate Instagram account was using her photos and copying her content. The account even had more followers than her real account.

“My username is brookejlacey, so they’ll do ones with zeros as O’s or and I for the J,” Lacey said. “It’s just, it is bizarre, like what world do we live?”

An account impersonating Lacey (left) vs. Lacey’s real Instagram page (right). The fake account...
An account impersonating Lacey (left) vs. Lacey’s real Instagram page (right). The fake account has more followers than Lacey’s real page.(Brooke Lacey, Daniela Molina)

Lacey said now she’s focusing on presenting herself “as the most authentic version.” She said she hopes friends and family will be able to quickly tell the difference between her account and the imposters.

According to Facebook’s transparency page, in late 2021 around five percent of monthly active users worldwide were fake, which means there were around 140 million fake accounts at any given time. Meta, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, said it took action against 1.7 billion fake Facebook accounts during that same time. According to its website, the actions could include “removing a piece of content from Facebook or Instagram, covering photos or videos that may be disturbing to some audiences with a warning, or disabling accounts.”

Facebook’s community standards don’t allow duplicate accounts impersonating others and using their content. If Facebook administrators come across identical accounts, policy states action will be taken against the duplicate account. On Instagram’s transparency page there’s no available data released yet on the number of removed fake accounts. TikTok touts on its page that it had removed 70% of fake accounts in 2021, even before they were reported.

Social media companies combat the increase of duplicate accounts by removing them.
Social media companies combat the increase of duplicate accounts by removing them.(Facebook Transparency Center)

These duplicated accounts and account takeovers are no surprise to James Lee, COO of Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC). ITRC is a nonprofit based in Southern California that helps victims all over the country when their social media accounts are hacked or stolen.

“Whenever you see any kind of dramatic rise in any one particular form of identity crime, you can be sure that the bad guys have figured out a way to make money,” Lee said. “And there is money now and in ways there has not been historically in social media.”

One of the latest iterations of this activity is scammers attempting to get cryptocurrency from people interested in those types of investments.

Lee said once scammers create the fake account, they will post on Instagram about Bitcoin investments to attract other users. Anyone who clicks on certain links in that post automatically shares their credentials. At that point, hackers can step in and message the followers of anyone who clicked on the link to join the Bitcoin scam.

“They’ll hold you for ransom, and they’ll go to everybody in your contact list to do the same sort of scam,” Lee said. “We’re seeing a lot of imposter accounts there. They’re opening accounts, and then once that account opens, then they move the money into Bitcoin, or it disappears.”

Hackers aren’t just using fake accounts to run these Bitcoin scams. Hacked or stolen accounts are also being employed at an increasingly higher rate.

According to cybersecurity firm Digital Shadows, the cost of a hacked Instagram account on the dark web is $45. ITRC said it received 316 complaints about social media account takeovers in 2021. Already in 2022, the organization has seen 201 complaints, an 11% increase from this time last year.

Lee suggests the following steps consumers can take if their account has been hacked or spoofed to prevent further issues:

  • Report the duplicate account to the social media company and follow the steps listed on its website
  • Go into Settings and make your account private (for the time being)
  • Set up two-factor authentication on all your social media devices
  • Freeze your credit (even your dependents and children too)
  • Report identity theft to the IRS to prevent hackers from committing crimes under your name

InvestigateTV reached out to the parent company of Instagram and Facebook (Meta) and reached out to TikTok to find out what actions they are taking to make sure people’s videos, pictures, and content don’t land in the hands of a scammer. We have yet to get a response.