It's easy to look successful on Instagram. Now, getting caught out is easy, too.
In February, an Instagram account called @BallerBusters cropped up and began wreaking havoc on the flashy Instagram entrepreneur community.
Its goal: to expose phony entrepreneurs. Using a mix of screenshot receipts, memes and crowdsourced information from followers, the account seeks out people who don't "act their wage."
Often, these are people who call themselves entrepreneurs and who brag about their money, cars, watches or influence, but seem as if they don't have the cash to back it up.
In many cases, these #FlexOffenders, as the account likes to call them, use this veneer of a lifestyle to sell mentorship, membership or online classes.
Recently, the account targeted a drop-shipping entrepreneur who says he is a teenager. He claimed to have bought an US$8 million ($12 million) penthouse; BallerBusters found photographs showing that the home was an Airbnb rental property.
Another target was a young thought leader who sold entrepreneurship courses and then blocked complaining critics, including those who said they were owed refunds.
BallerBusters also regularly calls out entrepreneurs for showing off fake watches and posing in rented private jets.
Instagram has always been good for all kinds of braggers. But the administrator behind @BallerBusters believes a new breed of scammer is running rampant on social media: the young business guru.
They are pervasive on Instagram. Their avatars feature corporate head shots or photos of themselves onstage, apparently mid-TED Talk. Their online following looks huge; that can be because they have bought a large number of followers. Their feeds portray a lavish life full of cars, money and women used as props.
All these spoils can be yours, they promise — for a price.
"It's a lot of rented cars, ride-share jet company photos making it look like they own the jet," said Buster Scher. He is the 19-year-old founder of Hoops Nation, a sports media publication, who has been an avid follower of the account since the beginning.
"Snake-oil salesmen is the best description for the type of people he's busting," said entrepreneur Jason Wong, 22, another fan. "They're preying on kids who want to become entrepreneurs and offering mentorship services in exchange for thousands of dollars and not delivering on their promises."
The person who runs the @BallerBusters account said he had heard from hundreds of people who believe they have been scammed. (The New York Times agreed to grant him anonymity; he believed he would be targeted if he revealed his identity.)
These teenagers know that making money on the internet is possible, and often they have friends who have done it. But they end up paying for bad advice.
"They're flaunting private planes, fake watches, posing with all this stuff and creating a life for themselves on social media that's not true," the administrator behind @BallerBusters said, of the people who the account chooses to expose.
"These young people share this common thought that school doesn't work," Stephen T. Johnson, an entrepreneur and a founder of Flipmass, a monetisation platform for social publishers, said of followers of the account.
He added that the fact that many faux entrepreneurs are young themselves just makes their sales pitch more effective.
"If me and my friends are following someone who looks like us, but has nicer things than us and says, 'I'm going to teach you to be like me,'" Johnson said, teenagers can't help but take that person up on the opportunity. "If you're all talking about him, like, 'Wow, did you see the new car he bought? Did you see he's going to teach only 10 people how to do this, too? We have to be those 10 people.'"
Victims pay for bogus entrepreneurs' courses and mentorship programs, or to be added to an Instagram account's "close friends" stories circle — a private group that receives exclusive content.
Wong said that often these scammers don't even teach their own classes. They create a script or slideshow and hand it off to subcontractors. "It's like claiming you're an expert yoga instructor, selling your yoga classes, then getting your sister-in-law who has no yoga experience to teach," Wong said.
The administrator behind @BallerBusters said his research methods are rigorous. He will comb through screen-shotted messages and legal filings, speak to industry sources, and conduct a social media audit before committing to exposing someone.
"We're not TMZ or a review page — we actually do investigative journalism," the administrator said.
The "busts" themselves generally take place on Instagram Stories and are done in a tongue-in-cheek nature with plenty of emoji. (The majority of content on the account's main feed consists of memes and parody videos.)
Ultimately @BallerBusters' administrator wants the account to be an educational resource. He has bought a URL to host a website and plans to create an online hub for information about avoiding common business scams on social media, creating a platform for people to review courses and mentorship programs.
"I'm not all about the busts, I really want to teach people," he said. "I'd like to bring experts in each field and talk on Instagram live. I want an attorney to teach people how to file claims legally, how to get legal counsel and their rights. I want to bring a social media expert to talk about personal branding, someone who knows Facebook ads. I would love to put them on and teach people for free."
While high-profile female influencers like Caroline Calloway have suffered public blowback for selling writing courses and creativity workshops, the account administrator said he believed these women aren't the real scammers.
"Ninety-nine percent" of the people perpetuating course scams are men, he said. And, unlike women, they're charging thousands of dollars, and in some cases tens of thousands, for their classes.
"I've been looking for girls to bust, and there's nothing. Maybe a few, but it's nothing compared to men," he said. "People can go bust models, like one was busted for the clouds in her pics being the same. I don't care about that."
@BallerBusters refuses to create a list of ballers it considers legitimate, but it does follow businessmen, including Richard Saghian, chief executive of Fashion Nova, and Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur.
As some have learned, however, a follow from the account can also be the first sign you're about to be busted.
Written by: Taylor Lorenz
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES