Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard’s podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.
A scammer managed to temporarily lock the Instagram account of Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, by pretending that the executive was dead, Motherboard has learned.
Mosseri’s Instagram account was locked because of Instagram’s memorialization feature, where users can report to the company that an Instagram account holder has died. In response, Instagram will block anyone from logging into the account, and stop the ability to make any changes to already uploaded content.
“I find it ridiculous how Instagram lets such things even happen on their platform in the first place,” the scammer who claimed responsibility for the lock on Mosseri’s account, and who used the handle Syenrai, told Motherboard in an online chat. “The entire banning community needs to be discovered and reported to Instagram so they can put an end to this—it’s basically the dark side of Instagram.”
Syenrai provided screenshots of emails they said they sent to Instagram to trigger the memorialization. In those, Instagram requested a death certificate or an obituary or news article that includes the full name of the deceased person. To target Mosseri’s account, Syenrai said they created a fake obituary online.
Instagram confirmed that the lock on Mosseri’s account happened in September and that the company quickly resolved the issue. But Syenrai said others they’ve targeted don’t get their accounts back so swiftly.
The news highlights the continued leveraging of relatively obscure features of Instagram and other social networks to harass victims, such as purposefully getting certain people kicked from the site. Some scammers offer bans from Instagram as a paid-service.
For less high-profile accounts, such as those that have less than one million followers and are unverified, Syenrai said they just grab a recent obituary of any deceased person online and use that as the proof.
“I have a method which is as simple as finding an online obituary of a person who recently passed away,” they explained. “I then submit a memorialize request for the victim’s account using the random obituary I found, and it takes 1-2 days for support to process.”
“As long as the obituary is recent (within same week) the target will be memorialized,” Syenrai said. “It works 98% of the time.”
Do you know anything else about banning or restoring accounts? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, or email email@example.com.
Syenrai said most of the accounts they ban or memorialize are based on requests from paying customers. Motherboard previously reported that Instagram banners offer their services for as little as $60.
“For ordinary users who get memorialized, some people take days or maybe weeks to come back,” Syenrai said.
An Instagram spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that “Like other internet services, Instagram has online forms to help people report suspicious activity or to let us know a friend or family member has passed away. Unfortunately, some people abuse these forms, so we hire investigators and cybersecurity specialists to detect scammers’ tactics so we can improve and make it increasingly difficult for them.”
Instagram said that the teams that review memorialization requests look at things such as matching the image, name, and date of birth in a submitted obituary with the respective account.
Instagram offers a form to people who believe their account has been memorialized incorrectly when they open the app. “We’ll only be able to grant you access to this account if we’re able to verify that you’re the account owner,” the form reads.
“It’s very important to have your correct date of birth, and at least one picture of yourself archived, this helps prove you are the account owner in either instance of being memorized or being banned by someone,” Syenrai said.