My phone lights up. I am on holiday with my mum, enjoying a cocktail in a gay bar in central Barcelona. Imagine my sheer panic when I see an Instagram account has been created, seeming to use my name and my pictures, offering exclusive, paid-for, adult-only content.
A good friend of mine had spotted the account and sent me a screenshot. I instantly felt sickened. This was unbelievable. How could this be happening? In this technological era, how could somebody be able to freely set up a profile posing as me without any form of verification?
Not least because of my job – a reputable journalist working for a regional newspaper. I worried about the potential repercussions of me being seen to be offering x-rated videos and pictures online to anyone who could spare a few quid.
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Of course, I instantly reported the account and encouraged many of my friends to do so too in a frantic bid to get it removed – and fast. I noticed there was a video story posted to the account, which featured a completely blurred video that appeared to be pornographic, inviting viewers to click a link to see the full clip of ‘me’ for a fee.
‘Follow me to see all kinds of exclusive content’
“Follow me to see all kinds of exclusive content” the profile advertised. “I promise you will not regret! Adults only.” There was a thick lump in my throat I struggled to swallow.
This new variant of ‘catfishing’ sees fake Instagram profiles being created using real people’s pictures in a desperate, but somewhat convincing attempt to seem genuine. In my instance they followed many of my contacts and close friends. Often, as appeared to be the case in my experience, the user then makes accounts on fan only sites with the intention of scamming people out of money.
I recognise I am not the only person this has happened to. Two friends of mine, both women, have faced a similar battle with Instagram in the last year. Profiles, both posing as them, appeared on the social media app, again appearing to offer adult content for a fee.
Thankfully, the account posing as me only had a handful of followers in return and was taken down within a day or so. But, in that 24 hour panic, I had to try and encourage as many people as I knew to report the profile and get it removed. Something I found myself becoming increasingly exasperated at having to do as I tried my best to enjoy what was left of my city break.
Having my identity stolen and used online is something, sadly, I have had to come to terms with more recently. The elated sigh of relief I let out when I saw the Instagram profile had been removed was very short lived.
Then came another message from another friend of mine that stopped me in my tracks. “Is this you?” they asked, followed by a screenshot of a profile on dating app Grindr.
Flattering? Not at all
No, it wasn’t me, but seemingly, it was. “Now?” was the tagline of the profile, appearing to offer other users of the app the chance to meet up with me. It included a selfie of me which I had posted to Instagram months before.
“now? hung.” was the message beside another selfie of me, on yet another profile that emerged weeks later, appearing to inform other Grindr users that I was… ‘well endowed’ so to speak.
At this point, I had to try to see the funny side to all of this. Letting it keep me up at night as I tried to navigate the many messages I was receiving about the accounts, begrudgingly repeating time after time that they were not actually me, had become extremely exhausting. Maybe I should have just been flattered that people wanted to use my pictures to try and meet up with other people?
But actually, it wasn’t really flattering at all. It was a complete invasion. Using my pictures, pretending to be me and catfishing other poor souls out there who had probably fallen for the empty promises of dates or hookups. It has happened so much now that I feel somewhat immune to it. I just tell people to report it and try to forget about it altogether, and I will continue to do so.
In September last year, another account emerged. This time, it was using new snaps of me taken on my recent trip to Lanzarote with a close friend. “Oh, another one?” I quipped as a friend sent me yet another screen grab.
Oh and in January this year – yes, you guessed it – my face appeared once more on Grindr’s small little icons. A new selfie was used again, with the name: “James/Now?” According to a false Facebook Dating profile, which was spotted just last week by a newly single friend of mine, I am also now called Alex and am living in Leeds. Neither of those are true.
That initial state of panic I used to feel when some anonymous being decided to rip my pictures from the internet and imitate me had almost completely worn off. Yawn.
What have Meta and Grindr had to say?
However, what my imposters did do was get me thinking about how many people this could have, or still is, happening to. I questioned how many people out there may think they are talking to the real me. What processes are sites like Instagram, Facebook and Grindr doing to prevent this happening to myself and others? I reached out to the Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, Meta, and immediately received an apology from the latter for what had happened.
Responding to my claims, Grindr said that they are constantly working to ‘create a welcoming environment for all users’.
A spokesperson said: “Grindr takes the safety and privacy of our users with the utmost seriousness. We are always working to create a welcoming environment for all our users, which includes ensuring good account authenticity while protecting users’ privacy.”
Grindr added that anyone can report a profile online by emailing or filling out a request form from the help centre and that screenshots of the fake account are enough for them to investigate.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, apologised directly after I made contact with them. They did not offer a comment for the piece, however the site does stipulate that accounts impersonating someone else are against their Community Guidelines and that any fake and inauthentic accounts should be reported so they can be reviewed.
I also discovered that to prevent ID theft, users can submit a form of identification, to ensure the identities of users are confirmed, helping the site to ‘detect and prevent risks such as impersonation’. I might just do that.
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