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Warning of scammers impersonating women on Instagram and posting links to pornography

“But when I saw that it followed my dad, my heart sank. And he was like ‘who did this?’ And obviously I didn’t know, I still don’t know.”

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

AN INTERNET MONITORING website overseen by the Department of Justice has warned of an “emerging trend” of intimate image abuse from scam accounts on Instagram.
Hotline.ie has warned of an increase in what they call cloned Instagram accounts in which scammers will impersonate real women and post links to webpages of pornography claiming to be of them.

 
Hotline.ie is Ireland’s national reporting centre for illegal online content, including child sexual abuse images and intimate images of a person which have been shared without their consent.

These scam accounts and the webpages associated with them violate the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020 also known as Coco’s Law, which carries a maximum penalty of a €5,000 fine and/or 12 months imprisonment.

Nineteen-year-old student Mia Connolly, whose name has been changed, was out for a meal with friends three months ago when she first noticed that someone was impersonating her.

At first she was asked by a number of people if she had made a new account on the social media app.

“But then after a few hours it posted all these photos of me with creepy sexually suggestive captions, and I noticed it was following dozens of men that I knew from Instagram. The fake account would mainly post on an Instagram story which disappears after 24 hours, and I think that made it easier for them to avoid people reporting it,” she told The Journal. 

Scam Insta The fake account set up showing Mia's photos

This impostor had scoured Mia’s real account to find friends and acquaintances, and at one point had followed over one hundred men to draw their attention before blocking Mia, to prevent her seeing and reporting the fraud.

The fake account used some photographs of her alongside photos showing other women with their faces hidden or obscured. 

“It would show a nude woman from the neck down, so that they could make people think it was me. There were emojis barely covering her nipples and genital area. At the start I thought it was a joke, but then with that type of content with captions telling people to click a link to see more, appearing next to real photos of me I started getting worried, and then it started to follow my family members.”

‘A few people refused to believe it was fake’ 

This harmful phenomenon is so under-researched that it doesn’t have an official name but it’s been occurring on Instagram for almost half a decade.

Many victims of this crime are primarily concerned with the Instagram accounts themselves and don’t report the sites linked with them to Hotline.ie, according to a spokesperson for the centre.

“Thus, it is possible that Hotline.ie is only seeing a small sample of these incidents which might not be indicative of the true scale of the issue,” they said.

Mia was terrified that she could get removed from her college course if the account was able to get enough attention. Her fear was that university staff or potential employers might search for her name online and assume that this highly sexualised account was run by her.

“I know a few people my age who asked me about it and they just refused to believe it was fake and they would go around spreading rumours I was doing porn,” she said.

Dr Maggie Brennan, assistant professor in Dublin City University’s School of Psychology specialising in online safety and revenge pornography, says that sites like this generate revenue simply by having people visit them.

“Anyone that visits from that link is seen as a potential customer and they often send you to several different websites. So even if you don’t spend money the website will pay these perpetrators for the traffic they’ve generated from their links.”

“I don’t think that the people operating these accounts have any scruples about age at all. There are factors that they use to determine who to target, like someone’s amount of followers because that makes the most money. But occasionally they’ll use the profiles of underage girls and even if they know that they’re using a child’s identity for the purpose of selling pornography, they don’t care,” Dr Brennan added.

‘When I saw that it had followed my dad, my heart sank’ 

Mia’s experience is far from unique.

Aoife Hughes was making dinner in her student accommodation when she received dozens of messages from people telling her that her online identity had been stolen to sell pornography.

Aoife Hughes is not her real name; she didn’t want to link her identity to the porn industry any more than the perpetrators had already done.

“My phone started going off like crazy and it was from a load of different boys I knew letting me know that the account had followed them. It didn’t follow any of my female friends,” she said, several days after the incident.

“It followed my little brother and he had to see these perfectly innocent selfies of me that were stolen from my account and then put next to captions like ‘I’m ready to get naughty.’ But when I saw that it followed my dad, my heart sank. I had the most awkward phonecall of my life, almost in tears. And he was like ‘who did this?’ And obviously I didn’t know, I still don’t know.”

Like in Mia’s case, Aoife’s impersonator had blocked her so that she couldn’t even see this account herself.

She describes that day as being both terrifying and infuriating because she had to rely on messages and screenshots from her friends about what was happening.

Despite the high probability that the link on her account would be a virus, one of her friends took a risk and clicked on it, finding that it brought them to a profile on a porn website which also used Aoife’s full name and one of her photos as the profile picture.

Directly behind the profile picture – an inconspicuous selfie she took in her bedroom to show off a new hairstyle – was a photo of a collection of sex toys.

“I wanted to burst out in tears at that stage. I’m not sure how many people clicked the link but considering about one hundred people got a notification that this account was following them, at least a handful of them must have clicked it out of curiosity,” she said. 

“Out of all the people that texted me to make me aware of the account, some of them were like ‘is this real?’ or ‘why did you make this?’. It was depressing to know that some people had actually fallen for it.”

‘They target ordinary young women because they have no resources at all to fight this’

Another woman who had to deal with this requested that only her first name be used.

Sarah, a 20-year-old student from Dublin, was appalled by what was written under photographs of her.

“It said like ‘if you’re nagging and wanting a gagging’ and disgusting stuff like ‘dirty little whore’ and it was so stomach churning to see someone not only writing that next to photos of me but doing it in a way to make people think I had written it.”

She has had fake Tinder accounts made of her in the past and feels as though this predatory behaviour towards women is treated as something they are expected to just accept and move on from.

“We shouldn’t have to put up with this. It’s so tiring,” she said. 

“The fact that there was someone going through any photos where I was going out for the night or something and trying to choose which photos to make me look like a sex worker is so unnerving. It definitely makes me worried about what I post in future.”

Mia and Aoife’s only way to try and have their impostor accounts deleted was to ask their followers to report it, which forced them to bring even more attention to their existence: the exact opposite of what a frightened young woman would want to do in such a humiliating situation.

“The perpetrators of this often target people with thousands of followers, internet celebrities or models who already have a high level of people interacting with them,” Dr Brennan explained.

“But targeting ordinary young women is easier because they have no resources at all to fight this. They don’t have the lawyers or the connections within the social media companies to make these things go away in the blink of an eye which makes the whole ordeal so terrifying for them,” she added.

Dr Brennan considers this activity to be a form of image-based sexual abuse due to the emotional distress and humiliation caused to the women who fall victim to it. 

This makes them targets as their follower counts translate to more traffic to the site and more money for the fraudsters.

Aoife reported the site to Hotline.ie and it was removed shortly afterwards.

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‘Nowhere near enough people are aware of the scale of this or that it happens at all’

Reflecting on the situation weeks later she felt disheartened about how women are treated online.

“The internet has had creeps on it for a while but the fact it’s impossible to avoid people trying to use you for sexual reasons is very depressing. I wouldn’t have even known it existed if people hadn’t pointed it out to me. I think the account was only active for a few days before it was brought to my attention but it could have been longer.”

Aoife pointed out that many women already feel unsafe in day-to-day life “and now Instagram isn’t even a safe place for us to be because someone could use your name and photos for something like this and not care about what damage it does to your reputation or self-esteem,” she said. 

Mia Connolly managed to rally enough friends and sympathisers to report the account impersonating her, and it was subsequently deleted by Instagram.

But days later another account appeared, and as of the time of writing has not been removed yet.

“People thought I was hacked or whatever and it’s been reported loads, maybe twenty times and it’s still up. At least twenty people reported the second one. But if Instagram knows it happened to me before then why is it so hard for them to take action again?” she questioned.

She fears that whoever made these accounts has a stockpile of photos of her and that she’ll be stuck in a never-ending game of cat and mouse, forever trying to report new accounts when a friend brings it to her attention, only for another to appear.

Dr Brennan believes that an untold number of women and girls across the world find themselves in the same distressing situation as Aoife and Mia and Sarah, often with little recourse.

“I have no idea how often this occurs, which is a problem in and of itself. Nowhere near enough people are aware of the scale of this or that it happens at all. And if we can’t see the problem then we can’t respond to it.”

Is it possible to stop this happening? 

One potential way to deal with this is to seek prosecution against the perpetrator -  which is often incredibly difficult due to the anonymity provided by the internet, and the difficulty that large entities like Instagram have with cooperating with gardaí on case-by-case issues.

Jamie Klingler co-founded the Reclaim These Streets activist group in the UK to bring attention to violence against women shortly after the initial disappearance of Sarah Everard, but since found herself campaigning for a different but related cause.

She also fell victim to the same pornographic impersonation on Instagram and had to resort to asking her eighteen thousand Twitter followers to report the account.

When Klingler brought the matter to London’s Metropolitan Police in February, she was told there was “no realistic prospect of identifying suspects” and the case was closed.

After backlash on social media Klingler’s case was reopened, leading her to remark that “there’s got to be a way other than making it go viral. It shouldn’t be that I get special treatment for this because I’ve been on the news.”

The Department of Justice has urged anyone who has been a victim of this crime to report it to Hotline.ie or to contact An Garda Síochána.

Speaking about Coco’s Law specifically, the Department added: “The new legislation is intentionally silent about the types of technology that may be used to commit the offences so as to cover all forms of online and offline communications that cause harm to a victim.”

The closest any of these women have come to finding out the identity of the people responsible for their shame was Sarah, who attempted to log into the pornographic Instagram account and selected the ‘Forgot Password’ option.

This sent a code to the phone number used to make the account.

While the number itself was hidden on her screen she was able to see that it began with the number 63, the national telephone identifier number for the Philipines which means her imitators were likely based there.

This information was of little comfort to her.

Despite their best efforts, there is little that can be currently done to prevent this from happening to these women again, or to other women on social media. 

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