I’m addicted to Instagram scams

Come for the photo, stay for the fraud

I moved to LA mid-pandemic and furnished my apartment almost exclusively from Facebook Marketplace, a luxurious garden of budget goods that exploits all my weak points: deals, online shopping, haggling with strangers on the internet.

One of the first things I bought was a table and four chairs that was not cheap, by my standards ($225!), but did look unique compared to the countless IKEA offerings.

When I went to pick it up, however, it was clear this was in fact an IKEA offering — one that had been shoddily hand-painted by the enthusiastic acting student who sold it to me. I no longer wanted to buy it (why spend $225 on old furniture that costs $120 new?), and I probably should have just told the guy I’d made a mistake and apologized for wasting his time, but instead I thanked him profusely and complimented him on the paint job.

I’ve been crippled by 28 years of socialization that has taught me it’s better to hand over all your money than to make a total stranger feel uncomfortable — which brings me to the thesis of this article: the patriarchy is the ultimate scam!

The paint has now peeled off, and one of the chairs is broken, but honestly I respect that guy’s hustle. He might not have been a true scam artist, but he certainly knew his audience, which is important for every fraudster (and, incidentally, every acting student). I will probably resell it on Facebook Marketplace in a few months, ideally to someone also trapped in a self-made prison of politeness.

So how does this tie in to Instagram? Over the past few years, scammers have been pulling a bait-and-switch on consumers, using Instagram ads to sell clothes, accessories, and home goods. The products look nice online, but when they arrive they’re often low quality knock-offs. When customers complain, the companies — many based in China — give them the runaround that essentially boils down to “you are never getting your money back for reasons that are totally out of our control.”

I first read about this on the Better Business Bureau scam tracker which has, despite its DMV-forward aesthetic, become one of my favorite places to hang out during quarantine. Type “Instagram” into the search bar, and you’ll see pages and pages of grievances from people who bought misleading products on the platform.

There is a complaint from someone who spent $400 on a rare pair of sneakers they never received, another from someone who tried to buy a “Recliner Luxury Camp Chair-camping chair” and received instead a “junky stool,” and one from someone (hopefully a parent!) who tried to buy “a reborn Weighted, life like baby doll” and received a “cheap product that is NOTHING like described” and arrived “very long outside of the delivery window.”

My friend Jessamyn experienced this firsthand when she bought a pair of boots she saw in an Instagram ad, only to receive shoes that were a different size, color, and material than the ones originally advertised. She emailed the company thinking it would be an easy fix. This is the era of quick-response, around-the-clock customer service, where companies exploit 23-year-olds continuously to get you cashmere sweaters by Christmas Day.

But not all companies.

Here’s the email Jessamyn received after she tried to return the boots:

Dear consumer,

We’re so sorry that you’re not satisfied with the items.

Will it be possible to give them to one of your friends as a gift? Or how about a discount as a way to make up for this?

If you return you will bear the expensive shipping fee. How about a big coupon code or 40% refund as a way to make up for this?

  • Missgaki Customer Service

This tactic — explaining that it will be too expensive to return the item, and offering a discount instead — is common in this type of fraud. I’m not sure how many people take the company up on its offer, but it’s bold to suggest that after getting mad about one shitty item, the solution might be to get another.

Jessamyn explained that she didn’t want a discount, she wanted a full refund. This time the company said:

Dear consumer,

We’re so sorry that you’re not satisfied with the items.

If you return you will bear the expensive shipping fee 20usd. Will it be possible to give it to others as a gift? Or how about a big coupon code or partial refund 20% as a way to make up for this?

Just a suggestion, if you prefer to return, we will go to the further step.

Looking forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

MJH

This went on for a while, with Jessamyn explaining that yes, she wanted a refund and the company asking politely if she’d consider a discount instead. Reading the email chain feels like listening to an automated voice message that’s caught in an endless loop.

After sending 30 emails, including side-by-side photos of the shoes in the ad and the shoes she received, she got $40 back — about half of what she’d originally spent. The company also threw in a 20 percent discount for her next purchase.

How much of this violates Instagram’s Community Guidelines? It’s hard to say. The platform has a policy against listings that misrepresent what’s being sold, but it’s unclear how different an item can be from the original photo for it to count as misrepresentation. (The company also bans ads that show a “person with clothes that are too tight” or sell human blood, but that’s a story for another day).

Even if a seller does violate Instagram’s policies, the company won’t do much beyond removing the ad in question and possibly shutting down the account. Once that’s done, it’s fairly easy for the scammer to make a new profile and try again.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the company said: “We want everyone on Instagram to have a positive ads experience. Counterfeit goods and fraudulent activity hurt our entire community and have no place on Instagram.”

At its core, the scam works by exploiting our own consumerism — the idea that everything we want should be readily available, and cheap, and delivered within days. The ads show up alongside photos from friends and celebrities, giving them an aura of authenticity they might not have on other platforms. We see something we want, we click. By the time we realize we should’ve done more research, it’s too late.

It’s also true that the fraudsters are getting more sophisticated. They’re hiding their identities through social media, and using payment methods that are difficult to track. As platforms like Instagram evolve and reshape consumer behavior, scammers adapt, and find new ways to gain peoples’ trust. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with no clear end. If we pay attention, however, it might tell us more about ourselves than the scammers.