My Instagram drama started at exactly 11:37 p.m. on Sept. 10. I was in bed about to go to sleep, when a direct message alert from the 'Gram popped up on my phone. It was a message from an Instagram user who I do not follow or recognize, Justin_smith_26. It said: "Just wanted to let you know this guy is using your pictures to try to scam people into investing into a fake bitcoin company…"
My exact thought right now, "Uh-oh this is not good." Justin also sent a few pictures. I tapped the first image and it expanded to fill my phone screen. It was a screen-shot of someone's Instagram profile, and I immediately recognized the person's face on the account.
My first thought was, "Wait, what the f---? That's me!"
Under my face was the name Leon Ellis (likely not this impostor's real name). The photo was the same one I use for my own Instagram profile, only it had been turned into a black and white image.
I was looking at my face happily staring back at me from someone else's profile. OK, this was officially creepy.
The impostor account's username said energy_hashminer. The fake me had a bio too. It started with the words: "Bitcoin Mining Rig." The next line read: "Follow To Learn Trade Profit" and it went on "Foreign Exchange Trader" and "Financial Education Mentor…" It was mostly crypto-themed and focused on the computing power and hardware required to mine for bitcoins, something I honestly know very little about.
Beneath the bio was a link to a website that's described as a social trading crypto platform, and I'm purposely not mentioning/promoting its name in this article (CNBC has also blurred the web address in the photos shared in this article).
I'm not sure it was just a coincidence that the real me is a writer and executive producer at the business network CNBC, while my impersonator's account was pushing a crypto mining scheme and financial education in its bio.
And it gets worse, because it wasn't not just my profile pic being used on this bizarre account. When I scrolled down, the feed I found 55 posts, the first one dating back to January 2019.
Twenty of the pictures were images of me with my friends, co-workers family and dogs.
Among the photos ripped off of my real Instagram were a shot of me with my brother and my 12-year-old nephew at his racquetball tournament.
The post next to the family photo was a cartoon image of a rocket blasting off toward a bitcoin moon in the sky.
There was also a selfie of a friend and me sandwiched between an image of someone wearing a vest emblazoned with: "Buy bitcoin" and another image of gold letters: "Grow your bitcoin."
There was even a photo of me and my husband, Ben, holding an American flag at his parents' house; in the feed we were surrounded by pictures of electronics with lots of crypto-related hashtags underneath them. I clicked on our photo and read a caption I never wrote: "Made in America #vision #art #love..." In fact, all my photos had captions.
And as if someone stealing my face and images of my friends and family to grow followers for an account promoting crypto-mining wasn't bad enough, I spotted something even more annoying.
The fake-me had over 12,700 followers — way more than the real me. And fake me grew all those followers in just nine months.
Now I was not just angry someone stole my face, I was also bummed that my face got him more followers than it did me. I was starting to feel like I was in a bad episode of "Seinfeld."
Back in my direct message thread with Justin_Smith_26, my insta-good-samartin sent me another pic.
It was a screen grab of a DM conversation he had with the energy_hashminer account. Justin was fast becoming my Insta-hero:
Justin_Smith_26 typed: "Can't find any information on you. Big give away."
Energy_hashminer replied: "Oh really did you check the link I sent you."
Justin_Smith_26: "You are fake."
Energy_hashminer: "OK if [sic] say so no problem"
But my impostor was not ready to give up.
Energy_hashminer: "But you can try it out and see how it works to be sure"
When I saw the next thing Justin sent to my insta-impostor it made me laugh out loud. It was a screen grab of my real profile followed by...
Justin_Smith_26: "Try again dumb a--."
Justin told me he had no idea who was behind the account, and he only discovered it after energy_hashminer sent him a DM that said, "how's it going?," which Justin thought was odd coming from a person he had never met before. And when he looked at the profile, a couple of things stood out as fishy: none of the people with "Leon" (aka, me) in the posts were tagged, and despite having more than 12,000 followers, he received very few likes and comments on his posts. And that started Justin on a deep dive into google and Instagram to find the real me and warn me about my impersonator.
(Smith explains the techniques he used to expose my impostor in the video below.)
Inspired by Justin_Smith_26, I immediately started gathering evidence on energy_hashminer. I took screen grabs and recorded my phone screen while scrolling through my impostor's profile page.
Next. I started the process to insta-eradicate my impersonator.
First I clicked the three little dots on the upper right side of energy_hashminer's profile and it lead me through a gauntlet of drop down menus. In the first, I tapped "Report profile" and five more drop downs later, I was faced with three menu options: "me," "someone I know," or a celebrity or public figure.
I tapped, "me."
When I made the selection, I was delivered to Instagram's help page, where the real reporting process actually starts...
I made a few more selections and found the line I was looking for. It read: "If someone is pretending to be you on Instagram you can report the account with this form."
I filled out the digital form with my full name; my email; the name I had for my impersonator, Leon Ellis (again unlikely his real name); and his username: energy_hashminer. Then I clicked to confirm I was the one being impersonated.
To finish, the report wanted me to upload a selfie while holding a valid form of ID. I used my driver's license. And that was it! It was finally over, Leon was out of my life right... Wrong!
The next day I got an email with the subject line: "Report an impersonation Account on Instagram." When I read the email I was baffled.
"We can't... continue to with your request because we haven't received an acceptable ID that matches the information listed on the account." The salutation read: "Thanks, Arnold"
It took a while for me to realize the issue: My first name on my license is spelled "Raimondo," which is my birth name, and that does not match the shortened version of my name that I use on Instagram, which is "Ray." That little spelling issue prevented the report against my impostor from being processed. I thought it was kind of a big problem because all my IDs, including my passport use my birth name, and there none matched Instagram profile.
Arnold's email from Insta looked like one of those coded emails that you can't reply to, but I replied anyway and got no response. I did some google searches to see if I could find an Instagram customer service number, and as you might expect that search was futile. I wondered if I was seriously going to need to change the name on my passport to shut my impostor down.
Then I realized there's a painfully obvious fix. I hopped on my Instagram account and tapped edit profile and temporarily changed "Ray" to Raimondo in my profile. Then I filled out the report form again, and uploaded the same selfie with my license and in minutes... Voilá!
My stolen pics instantly disappeared, in fact Instagram vaporized my impersonator's entire account. Sadly I didn't inherit any of the fake me's followers.
Before energy_hashminer's account got scrubbed, I reached out multiple times via direct message and asked him to remove my photos from his account, he never replied.
I also sent emails to the website promoted in my impostor's profile (which according to WHOis.net is registered to cheapname.com). I asked to speak with a press representative or executive, but as of this publishing have not received a response. It remains unclear how, or even if, that crypto trading site is connected to my impersonator.
I reached out to the press department at Instagram with some questions including how many of its users are victim's of impersonation but a spokesperson for the company declined to comment.
I also asked if the photo-sharing platform had any security features in place to alert a user when another account is created using his or her same profile pic and a spokesperson replied: "At this time we don't have alerts when someone else has uploaded the same photo as you, however keeping our community safe remains a top priority for us," a spokesperson said.
As for the birth name versus profile name issue that I ran into, a spokesperson said, "We have internal protocols in place that account for this discrepancy... we'll review other available information such as your photos or bio, to ensure that your claim is valid."
"We do our best to respond to reports in a timely manner," the Instagram spokesperson said.
Ray Parisi is CNBC's senior executive producer of special projects.
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