There's a well-established agreement between brands and influencers: We send free products, you post about them on Instagram. Often it's a happy arrangement; influencer feeds fill with promotional material, followers click and merchandise sells. But sometimes the posts never appear.
When this happens, the brand's representatives may assume the "entitled" influencer has either kept the product or tossed it disapprovingly without so much as a "thank you." But now another possibility has emerged: The brand might have been defrauded by an impostor.
Scammers, using throwaway email accounts and fake websites, are pretending to be influencers (or their assistants), requesting free products in exchange for prominent billing on a highly trafficked Instagram feed. Some companies, unaware that the contact is a fraud, will send up to thousands of dollars worth of merchandise to a specified address. The deception comes at a cost to both the brand and the influencer.
Jeanne Grey, who posts about fashion and beauty as @GreyLayers, experienced this niche form of identity theft earlier this summer. "It has been made aware to my team and I that there is someone who is using my likeness and identity to reach out to brands," she wrote to her more than 461,000 followers via Instagram Stories in July. "I have received multiple emails from brands that I'm friends with and new brands of this, most of which have fallen for it and sent out products for free." (Grey declined, through her lawyer, to speak to The New York Times.)
Natalie Pinto, known on Instagram as @TheFashionablyBroke, was also impersonated this year. "A brand reached out to me and asked me when I planned to feature the item they had sent me," Pinto said in a phone interview. "I had never spoken to them before and asked them to forward me the email. I immediately realised that it was an impostor who made a similar email address to mine." She said that at least four more brands reached out over the next few months, all claiming the same thing.
Influencing is a full-time job that can yield big returns for influencers and the brands they choose to boost. Estée Lauder spent more than US$900 million on influencer marketing efforts in the United States alone in 2017, and the entire influencer marketing industry is set to reach US$15 billion by 2022, according to a research report by Business Insider Intelligence using data from MediaKix. Gifting efforts have become commonplace as the sector has grown, so much so that luxury brands like Christian Dior now distribute free merchandise in exchange for social media posts.
Influencers with between 50,000 and 500,000 are the most popular targets of impersonation schemes. If the influencer's following is any larger, the scam raises red flags; if it's any smaller, brands aren't as interested. Liraz Roxy, a beauty, fashion and travel influencer who has 146,000 followers on Instagram, said that she wasn't surprised when it happened to her.
"There's a lot of companies and brands reaching out to me on a daily basis to send me stuff, makeup, clothes," she said. "There's so much going on with influencer marketing these days. People are like, 'OMG these influencers get so much free stuff, why don't I get free stuff, too?' " Roxy said that, in the wake of recent influencer scams, bigger brands like Fenty Beauty, Artis Brushes and Givenchy Beauty have begun to confirm her identity via direct message before doing business with her.
Most influencers, especially those who aren't well-known enough to have formal management or public relations teams, conduct the majority of their business over email and Instagram DM. But emails are easy to spoof. Some influencers found that impostors had replaced the l's in their email addresses with capital i's. Others discovered that phony Facebook pages and websites had been created in their likeness, funneling brands to bogus contact information.
One impostor was able to obtain an Airbnb stay, a room at the Peninsula Hotel in New York and a stream of products, all at no cost, by impersonating Kirsten Alana Larsson, a photographer and travel influencer with more than 213,000 followers on Instagram. She only learned what had happened when one of the brands reached out to her verified account to confirm her identity. Afterward, she got in touch with brands she had established relationships with to inform them of the circumstances. "It erodes people's trust," she said, adding that the fraud has done irreparable damage to her career.
It's easy to think that if brands simply did their homework, impostors would be easy to spot. But managing a deluge of gift requests and sponsorships requires resources that many small businesses simply don't have. Cameron Murphy, a founder of the organic skin care line 10 Degrees Cooler, said that one impostor reached out when his company was just two months old and still producing products in small batches.
"Literally every dollar was of paramount importance," Murphy said. "This woman with hundreds of thousands of followers comes out of nowhere and is expressing interest in our products and telling us all the wonderful things she'll do to promote them. I was absolutely into the idea." Shortly after, he realised it wasn't actually the influencer who was reaching out, but an impostor. He did not send the free product. "I feel fortunate that the idea of losing a few hundred bucks or a thousand wouldn't break us," Murphy said, "but it would have been a really bad blow at that point."
For brands and influencers who have been targeted, there's almost no legal recourse. Larsson submitted a crime report to the United States attorney's office for the Southern District of New York but never heard back. Local authorities told her and others they couldn't help since most cases span multiple jurisdictions. "Anyone can create a Gmail address that looks like an official influencer's email address and reach out to a brand and have them send it to a P.O. box," said James Nord, the founder of Fohr, an influencer marketing platform. "There's no way to track it."
Some impostors even go so far as to deliver on a post, just not from the handle they promised. After one clothing brand sent a package containing a beige blazer to a woman they believed to be Grey to post on @GreyLayers, another influencer with a much smaller following posed in pictures on her own account wearing the garment. @TheSpicyCocktail, as she is known on Instagram, was not someone the company had intended to work with, and the clothing company's IT department confirmed that no online orders were placed for the blazer in her area.
The leather goods company Lidia May also sent a handbag to a recipient it had been led to believe was @GreyLayers, only for @TheSpicyCocktail to post about the bag once it had been delivered. Other brands told Grey, after she discovered her identity had been stolen, that @TheSpicyCocktail had pretended to be her in order to receive many more free items, including an iPhone case.
When reached for comment via Instagram DM, @TheSpicyCocktail, who is a minor, said that it was all a misunderstanding, but would not provide proof that she'd ever negotiated with any of the brands featured on her Instagram. First she said a family member must have orchestrated the exchange, then she said a family friend was behind it. She could provide no explanation for why she used the products in her own posts.
Nord said he would not be surprised if some of these influencer impostors were young people seeking to become influencers themselves, or disgruntled and covetous fans. "There's a lot of hate and jealousy in this space, and that hate comes out in strange ways," he said.
Miriana Rexrode, a publicist who works with influencers, said that most of the people impersonating her clients are between 9 and 15 years old. "When you're in high school or middle school, you're changing and you're trying to find yourself," Rexrode said. The internet is a place where they can try on new identities and gain clout.
"I guess they're trying to get free product to have something to post on their account, to make it look more legit," she said.
Written by: Taylor Lorenz
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES