“I just had to make sure you were real,” Francoise Isaac, a financial operations manager in Plano, Texas, says when she answers the phone.
Isaac’s concern is legitimate. A day earlier, I reached out to her on Messenger, the same place where she’s received messages from fake accounts masquerading as some of her favorite celebrities. Isaac started noticing a pattern: When she liked or commented on one of the real actors’ posts, she quickly received a message from the corresponding faux A-lister account.
“They would ask me personal questions about myself,” Isaac says. “My concern was, what is their intention?”
Imposter accounts are nothing new, and that’s part of the problem. The fraudulent profiles have been around for years, and although they fall under the banner of malicious accounts — the kind social media platforms vow to fight — they’re still prevalent. In the past year alone, Chris Pratt, Robert Downey Jr, and Chadwick Boseman, as well as Parkland activist Emma González, have taken to their own accounts to warn fans about imposters who try to get money, spread false messages, or, in Pratt’s case, hit on female fans. As The New York Times reported last week, even fake Mark Zuckerbergs and Sheryl Sandbergs have popped up on Facebook and scammed unsuspecting users out of thousands of dollars.
Celebrities still hold the power to decide where and how they connect with fans. The issue with imposter accounts is beyond being just a nuisance, they threaten to drive A-listers away from the very platforms they helped legitimize. And that's a problem for platforms too: Remember how Kylie Jenner’s single tweet about not using Snapchat reportedly led to a $1 billion drop in stock value? Whether it's fair or not, users care what celebrities think of social platforms. And for them, fake accounts are a very real problem. According to insiders, it's not crazy to consider the question: What would happen if there was a mass celebrity social media exodus because of fake accounts?
PERVY DUDE ALERT!!! (Not a joke) It’s confirmed: somebody is trying to pretend to be me on Facebook (and maybe other social media platforms) apparently hitting on a lot of different female fans, trying to get their numbers and who knows what else. I’m not joking. Please know, I find this behavior reprehensible. If I find out who it is I’ll have their account shut down and seriously would like to punch them right in the GD mouth. You hear that imposter!? Stop. My message to any fans who are contacted by someone claiming to be Chris Pratt: Look for the BLUE “VERIFIED” CHECKMARK next to the name. If there is no checkmark by my name that person is an imposter. I’m sorry. Tell your siblings. Educate our young ones. It’s probably mostly kids who would fall for this. Makes me sick. It terrifies me to think someone could be hurt, their feelings or much worse, by this imposter/potential predator. I’ve had many, many people tell me about this. It’s not an isolated incident. If anyone is in contact with this person block them immediately. If it’s you doing it, I’m warning you. Stop right now or you will@be very unhappy with the outcome. Go find Jesus. 🙏 praying for you.
As the social media manager to several A-listers, LaQuishe “Q” Wright is on the front lines of dealing with imposter accounts on a daily basis. She’s the one responding to fans who DM her clients, asking if another account is real, and reports the imitators to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Wright, who asked her clients not be named, has devoted much more time to the issue since the beginning of the year: One of the actors she represents appeared in a blockbuster movie this winter, and as their star has risen, Wright has had to deal with an unmanageable influx of fake accounts.
“Every day, there are new imposters trying to con people out of money for charities or meet and greets — even to fund the next version of the film,” Wright says. “It’s almost impossible to stay on top of it. It’s everywhere.”
The rapid increase in imposter accounts is alarming, and Wright is frustrated that the social media platforms her clients frequent still haven’t solved problem.
Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat are well aware of the issue: It’s the reason every major social media platform has a version of the verification check. (Snapchat only deviates slightly from the standard blue badge by using emoji to denote public figures.) They were introduced as far back as 2009 for Twitter, and 2014 for Instagram, to fight the imposter problem by helping users differentiate between the real deal and a fake account. Unfortunately, impersonators are getting smarter.
Wright says imitators will claim their account is a celebrity’s private account, and go so far as to find — or steal — photos of an actor’s friends and family, to convince fans they’re real. She’s even seen accounts with fake (but real-looking) verification checks. These accounts usually have the same profile photo as the celeb they’re impersonating, and almost identical posts, with one word changed here or there. Once the set-up is in place, finding fans is the easy part — all you need to do is look at who is commenting on a celebrity’s photos or liking their posts — and Wright says followers are “sitting ducks” for the impersonators who want to exploit them and their desire to connect with a celebrity.
For rising stars, Wright says the fanbase is the most susceptible. “With a new fan set, they’re excited to connect with a celebrity and are getting fooled,” Wright said. “If somebody walked up to them on the street, they’d know, but in the social space they just don’t know any better.”
For celebrities who don't have a social media presence, there are no posts to copy, but online imposters are still a problem for them. Jennifer Lawrence, for example, has been outspoken about not having an Instagram account. Yet, when you search her name, you get more than 20 accounts, together amassing hundreds of thousands of followers. Some are clearly labeled as fan accounts, but many are not, and include posts with captions written as if they are coming from Lawrence herself.
Not all celebrities experience such high levels of impersonation. Allison Peters, a social media manager for Kerry Washington, says she only spends about two hours a week dealing with fake accounts, often finding 10 to 15 new ones at a time. Instagram is a bigger issue for her than it is for Wright, who has the most problems with Messenger, but she attributes the lower total number of impersonators to Washington’s strong, longtime presence online.
“[Fans] have so much interaction with her because of the show, and she’s always on Twitter answering their questions,’’ Peters says. “And these fans have become friends — they go to events together. Because her fanbase is such a community, they’re very sensitive to these new people popping up and pretending.”
Even for fan bases that are communities, the wisdom of the crowd only goes so far. While Wright and Peters both said Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are always quick to delete reported accounts, the onus shouldn’t always be on social media managers and fans to report them in the first place. “When you have verified profiles and someone tries to come in and create a profile with the same name and photos, why isn’t there a higher level of protection where they can’t do that?” Wright asked.
“Every day, there are new imposters trying to con people out of money for charities or meet and greets — even to fund the next version of the film."
LaQuishe "Q" Wright, Celebrity Social Media Manager
The reason likely has something to do with concerns around blocking genuine users. Currently, there are two ways to clean up user-generated platforms like Facebook and Twitter: Manual reviews done by employees hired to look over accounts on a case-by-case basis; and automatic classifiers, software that is trained to pick out certain features indicative of faulty accounts. The latter is a far cheaper, faster approach, but one that comes with more risk of error.
“The problem with automatic classification is it’s never going to be right 100% of the time,” says Pete Hunt, CEO of Smyte, a company that uses machine learning to fight online fraud. “There’s a spectrum, where you’re either going to have high false positives or high false negatives — you’re throwing out a net and trying to get some fish, where the fish are the bad accounts. But you might catch some other stuff in that net in addition to the bad accounts, and shutting down legitimate users is not a great experience."
Hunt compares the experience to using your credit card in an airport and setting off the fraud alert on your own account — it isn’t fun. Because most social networks err on the side of a better user experience with fewer accidental cancellations, more imposter accounts are able to slip through.
In response to requests for comment for this piece, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook each pointed to their respective privacy policies, which expressly forbid impersonators and include instructions on how to report fake accounts. A Facebook spokesperson added reference to an automatic classifer, saying, “At the time someone receives a friend request, our systems are designed to check whether the recipient already has a friend with the same name, along with a variety of other factors that help us determine if an interaction is legitimate. It's an area we're continually working to improve so that we can provide a safe and secure experience on Facebook.”
At the end of the day, this isn't just a story about celebrities becoming annoyed about imposters: It's about fans getting scammed, which is something that affects all parties involved. Moving forward, the question about responsibility is the one that needs to be resolved: Is it up to social media platforms to do a better job? Or celebrity teams to seek out and report fake accounts? Either way, it's the fans who suffer. But platforms would do well to remember that we're living in an era where A-listers have zero qualms about using their star power to take a stand. And if they leave, they may well take their fans with them.