NZME reporter: My Instagram identity was stolen to sell porn

Author
Katie Harris, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 17 Jan 2021, 9:43AM
NZME Wellington reporter Katie Harris. Photo / Mark Mitchell
NZME Wellington reporter Katie Harris. Photo / Mark Mitchell

NZME reporter: My Instagram identity was stolen to sell porn

Author
Katie Harris, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 17 Jan 2021, 9:43AM

Katie Harris only realised her Instagram account had been copied when her friends said her image was being used to peddle porn images. She discovered it is the victim's job to tackle the online invasion - with slim, if any chance, of the perpetrators being punished.

"Is this a fake profile or have you started a new side hustle ;)".

That was one of the messages I received when I should have been relaxing on holiday.

But within minutes of hitting the dance floor at an event I was attending my phone was blowing up with messages about a fake Instagram profile.

Some were from concerned friends wondering jokingly if I'd turned to selling explicit content to fund my New Year's plans, others from voyeuristic men, hoping in vain that I'd made the switch to what could be a more lucrative media platform.

To make matters worse, the reception was so poor at the venue I was at that the Instagram profile I was being sent wouldn't even load.

A screenshot of the fake profile. Photo / Screenshot

A screenshot of the fake profile. Photo / Screenshot

When I was finally given a screenshot of the account I dropped my phone on the grass - the account was identical to mine, just with a different number of followers.

Grimmer than the replica profile was the Instagram Story, which depicted a pair of women's legs adorned in fishnets, and a countdown linking the public to a "free access promo" that expired the next day.

The post didn't explicitly state what "access" would be granted, but the promise of rude photographs was evident.

On top of the horrific tights (which, for the record, I would never wear) the person had followed many of my close friends and even my family.

Trying to keep a brave face I hid backstage, doing a YouTube breathing exercise, and unsuccessfully begging my friends who were about to perform to help me de-escalate the situation.

Because the internet was still patchy, I was struggling to report the page, but I got about a dozen of my friends to flag it - believing, albeit naively, the page would be gone by the time the gig was over.

I tried to go back out and enjoy the show, but there's something about losing your online identity to a scammer mid-way through partying that makes getting low on the dance floor seem juvenile.

One of many victims

All I could think about was, what if my boss saw it? Or even what if my mum saw the page - and then what if they believed it was me?

More troublesome than my own situation, however, was the number of my female friends who are also experiencing these sort of attacks.

After I told just a handful of people about the story I was working on, I also received several messages about other women who were dealing with the same issue in the past week or so.

Meg Stokes, a 24-year-old healthcare worker from Christchurch, had already been the victim of fake profiles but late last year the harassment ramped up a notch.

Someone had created an OnlyFans account (a subscription-based social media platform where users can sell and/or buy original content) using her name and image - but was posting unrelated sexual content.

"That made me feel super uncomfortable as I had no idea what images were being used online for people to make money, obviously I don't have risky images on my Instagram but people can manipulate others into thinking explicit images or videos are of other people."

Megan Stokes has had her identity stolen online. Photo / SuppliedMegan Stokes has had her identity stolen online. Photo / Supplied

Horrified by the discovery, Stokes clicked on the profile, hosted by a site infamous for homemade sexual content, and saw videos of a woman touching herself intimately.

"I couldn't do anything personally because they had blocked me, so I just had to screenshot the profile through people's direct messages and post a story asking people to report the profile for me."

Stokes says she constantly sees other women in the same position and believes there needs to be an easier way to stop it.

"Currently you need multiple people to report the account for it to be considered to be removed. A bit silly really."

Despite the multiple dupes she's had to deal with, Stokes isn't scared, but says she's anxious because it can feel quite "violating".

"You almost wonder what comes next, if your profile will get hacked or what their intentions are, or what people believe."

New Zealand online safety organisation, NetSafe, is also seeing a jump in the number of people reporting this type of digital identity theft.

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker told the Herald on Sunday you can have these accounts removed, but unfortunately, the person responsible for getting them taken down is usually the innocent victim.

"It's a little bit backwards in some regard but that's the process that people have to go through and we help with that."

Each week Cocker says Netsafe receives a handful of reports each week about images being stolen to trick online users into believing an individual is selling explicit content.

More often than not the victim is a woman, and Cocker says it is usually someone who has quite a few followers.

"You become more of a target, because people recognise that they'll be able to quite quickly generate a lot of followers, which leads to them being able to dupe people into paying for the content."

These days Cocker says it's unrealistic to expect people working in public roles to only use private social media accounts.

Many positions rely on having an approachable online presence and removing that access can be a professional impediment.

Because the perpetrators behind the attacks are often offshore, it makes pursuing those responsible quite complex.

"We can look at making some of these an offence and enforcing that more effectively, but the reality is the people that have stolen your Instagram profile are probably not based in New Zealand and so asking our local law enforcement to enforce that would be incredibly difficult."

The biggest gains, Cocker says, comes from educating users.

For many young women, the instances of copy-cat profiles are like a whack-a-mole game - as soon as one profile is blocked, another will turn up.

A Facebook spokesperson told the Herald on Sunday it has guidelines against impersonating others on Instagram and a dedicated team is tasked with detecting and blocking these kinds of scams.

Instagram reacted swiftly as soon as I alerted them over email to the fake account - however the profile remained active until I made contact, despite many of my friends previously reporting it as a fake.

'Why don't you just delete your social media? Or make it private?'

Those were the questions I was asked by a close male friend and, at the risk of sounding like a complete b****, he didn't understand the complexity of the situation.

Yes if I had a profile that was private, and only allowed a fraction of my friends into my online space, the likelihood of this happening again would be much slimmer - but that doesn't fix the underlying problem.

Akin to a woman being catcalled in the street, the onus of safety online shouldn't fall on the victim - we shouldn't have to self-censor our presence out of fear of reprisal.

As an NZME reporter I have made and developed close friends through the online space, made contact with amazing interviewees for articles and engaged with people across the globe for work and social purposes.

I couldn't count on my hands the number of stories I've done through the help of Instagram alone.

Like Cocker, I believe education must be the biggest gun in our arsenal against harassment online - and it needs to start young.

Instead of allowing girls to think this is just the way it is, how about we actively teach young people and adults not to be a**holes on social media?

The other comment I received is just ignore it, try forget the hurtful, persistent and sometimes creepy contact I've received online, "that's what I do" a guy friend said, but I can't.

It is different when you're not a man.

I don't want to reduce the suffering men go through, but when I receive a scary email my heart rate spikes, not because I'm scared the words will come out and jab me, but because I understand the reality of the world we exist in.

Although email and social media may not be "real life", what happens on the internet has offline consequences.

NZME Wellington reporter Katie Harris. Photo / Mark Mitchell

NZME Wellington reporter Katie Harris. Photo / Mark Mitchell

I know this because when I walk home alone and there's a guy wandering behind me, my thoughts aren't "I wonder where he's going?". They are "what if he is the one who sent me that nasty message?"

Are there any witnesses for when he attacks me? Should I call 111 now - or just type it in and see if I can get to safety?

I was home alone this year when I heard someone upstairs and then something downstairs flicking the lights.

If that were one of the boys I live with they would run upstairs, and see what was making the ruckus and why the lights were flickering.

I hid.

Crying behind one of the couches I waited for half an hour until my friends could make it back and then I collapsed in a pile of sobs in their arms as soon as they found me.

My reaction then was a culmination of my experiences- and nothing sticks out more poignantly than what I've faced online.

When I was in high school a guy sent me a photo of used tissues next to a moisturiser bottle. On top of the photo it said "I've just been on your Instagram".

Back then I was shocked, but now, if I was sent the same thing I wouldn't even bat an eye - I'd even be surprised they hadn't included an unsolicited genital photo for good measure.

Like most of my female friends I've faced harassment: men sending unwanted naked images, groping, abuse because of my work, stalking, creepy DMs even from people in my profession and sexualised comments on public photos.

As I stare down the barrel of another year as a woman online my only hope is that through speaking out and speaking up things will change.

They have to.

What to do if it happens to you
• If you have an Instagram account you can report the fake page to Instagram within the app or by filling out a form online.
• Instagram only responds to reports from the person who is being impersonated.
• You can contact NetSafe for support and advice.