It was a Saturday afternoon and my Instagram inbox was dinging with a bunch of pushy messages.
“So which package do you want?”
“I guarantee you’ll get results”
“Which package you buy?”
“✨ Special deal of the day, valid for 24 hours ONLY ✨”
“I’ll give you an hour”
How did this happen? Let’s take a step back.
I recently started posting some of my drawings and arts and crafts to Instagram (@mstarmach.makes if you’re interested). Right now I’ve got a relatively small following of friends and colleagues, so occasionally I’ll use hashtags to try reach a bigger audience. Stuff like #art, #instaart, #artistoftheday, and so on. However when I do, I notice that I get certain odd comments on my pictures, almost instantaneously after posting them.
They’re almost always along the lines of “Cool art! You should DM <insert account name here> for promo!” or “DM <insert account name here>”. When you look at <insert account name here>, sure enough it’s a profile with 1m+ followers, and a grid full of various artists’ work, often with digital snowflakes and garish music added over the top to avoid copying of the artworks. Each picture links back to the artist who made it and has heaps of likes, sometimes in the order of 100,000+, but relative to that proportion of likes, very few comments.
I sensed something fishy.
Out of curiosity, I messaged one of these accounts.
“Hey, I was told I should DM you for promotion. How does it work?”
And instantly I received a reply.
“Do you want to reach more people on our 8million+ network?”, sprinkled with an unnecessary amount of emojis.
“Sure, how does it work?”
“Choose one of these packages…”
What followed was a cut-and-paste list of packages, starting at the ‘BRONZE PACKAGE’ — which is 3 stories for $21 USD. Next was the ‘SILVER PACKAGE’ — a permanent post plus story for $35 USD. Up and up they went, all the way to the ‘DIAMOND PACKAGE’ — 5 stories with swipe up feature, 3 permanent post (sic), Highlights, 2K followers (whatever that means), Star of the week (ie. get mentioned in their bio), and follow-back by page in 7 days — all for the tidy sum of $75 USD. The message was rounded off with a mention that they accept PayPal.
My spidey-sense was ringing loud and clear. Preempting that I was talking to a bot, and that the next reply they were expecting was something like “I choose xyz package”, I decided to go off-script.
“I noticed you have a lot followers, are they genuine followers?”
To my surprise someone starting typing out a reply, almost instantaneously, but not nearly in as polished English nor with as many emojis as the previous ‘scripted’ messages.
They said, “Yeah our followers our legitimate,” then quickly veered back on script, “Which package do you choose?”
I kept prodding.
“Where are they from mostly? I want to grow my audience locally.”
“Where are you from?”
I lied, “The UK.”
“They are from a mix of UK US India.”
“Oh cool — and what sort of ROI can I expect? Do you have any results?”
They sent me a generic screenshot of their ‘Insights’ page, which didn’t include any results, just the number of likes they got. Then dramatically overpromised, “100% guaranteed results on every package”, “If you wont get your results i can refund you. And it is our job to increase your account.”, before veering back on script — “Which package do you choose?”
This went on for a bit, me tediously extracting information from this person, who kept trying to push me to choose a package. I asked where they were from and they claimed NYC, even though it was 2am there at the time of our chat. I asked what life’s like there, and they told me the current temperature was 13°C. I said, “Oh you use Celsius, not Fahrenheit?” to which they got short and said “Mate I’m busy, which package do you choose?”.
I figured this lead was a dead end.
“Thanks for all the information, I will think about it and get back to you.”
Suddenly they shot off a deal of the day valid for only 24 hours. I ignored it.
I thought I might have more luck talking to any other of these many accounts — after all, I’d been told to DM so many. I reached out to five of them, and got into very similar chats with them all. They all follow roughly the same script, insist results with impossible promises like “Look i can say one thing with guaranteed that your account will be increased by us like views, likes ,followers etc” and “If people like your art you will get many followers with in week”, and keep pushing you to choose a package.
One of the accounts, however, stood out.
“I am from NYC,” he said.
“Do you like it there?” I asked.
“Yes currently it is 13°C.”
Ding ding ding! I had found the same guy as before, using a different account. Out of curiosity I compared their two offerings, and found they were remarkably similar, even in the way they were written — except one had more ‘followers’ that the other, and thus, higher prices.
When I asked for his PayPal account, (you know, ’cause I was seriously entertaining his offer), he linked me to the same PayPal URL as before — I clicked it and it was for an Indian national by the name of Vipin Kumar.
I tried looking in to the name, however it wasn’t much of a lead. It’s a very common Hindi name and surname. (It turns out most of the accounts I interacted with emanated from India.) But more so, what I had discovered was that many of these art promotion accounts are all run by the same person, or network of people.
Having chatted to these various art promoters for a couple of hours now, I decided to close my laptop and take stock of what I had learned.
Firstly, the accounts are run by bots through-and-through. The people who tell you to DM them are bots, quickly deleted and banned for spamming. They’re the burners who do the dirty work, trawling #art hashtags and auto-replying to people’s posts. Then you’ve got the main accounts, with huge followings even some A-list celebs can’t achieve, sometimes upwards of 3m+ followers — and yet, for all that following, very very few comments on the pictures they post. Of the comments they do post, they’re all generic and emoji-filled. Again, bots. And lastly, you have the script-bots who lead the conversations as people DM them. It’s bots from beginning to end.
Secondly, many of these accounts are run by the same people, primarily based on the Indian subcontinent. They all claim results and legitimate followers, and promises of glory and fame and absolutely no downsides (we’ll see why this is a massive lie later). Often the accounts rename themselves to avoid detection from Instagram, and if they’re banned, it’s no biggie — they just pop up elsewhere like a game of infinite Whack-a-mole.
Thirdly, after doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, these accounts are raking in substantial amounts of money. To get a very conservative estimate, I looked at the number of posts and stories made per day by the cheapest account I interacted with, then multiplied it by the cheapest package price, and multiplied this by 365 to work out a yearly figure. From this I estimate that at the very minimum, one of these accounts is making $29,200-$43,800 USD per year (tax-free). That’s 3,274,271 Rupees in a country where the average annual wage is just 382,800 Rupees. And that’s not taking into account the fact that many of these art promoters are run by one person. Times that minimum by 2 or 3, and you’re talking 6 million and 9 million Rupees, plus. The allure is obvious. The start-up costs are small. The implications, a slap on the wrist from Instagram. No wonder the scam is so prolific.
It’s quite obvious that these #art ‘promoters’ are highly lucrative scams. What’s less obvious is the human cost — the stories of all those artists and makers who got lured by the numbers and the promises and the hollow guarantees.
I reached out to a number of them for comment. Many were hesitant, though two offered important insight.
Adri, a digital artist from Germany who illustrates “NSFW-ish” anime/manga characters, explained that “I thought that it would be an good investment because when I saw the site with over 3 million followers, and they literally praised my art, it distracted me from the reality.” He noted that, “As a beginner with 50 followers, I hadn’t had any kind of attention, and this is the moment they’re taking advantage of artists like me.”
I asked what sort of results he’d seen, in the form of increased followers or likes, and he lolled — “The only thing you get is tons of messages from other promotion pages and I deleted about 100 of them last week 😂.”
This was echoed by another Instagram artist, Monica, who makes beautiful denim jackets with thousands of brightly-coloured diamantes and sequins. She said, “To be honest, nothing came out of it and I would not do it again. I also started to get spammed more.”
It seems in a way these scammers’ promises of increased attention are right — the only catch is, it’s increased attention from the scammers.
As someone who works in the creative industries, I’m left remembering countless stories of talented creative people who’ve gotten ripped off by that ever-dangling carrot of ‘exposure’ — that innate wanting for your work to be seen. Big companies know this vulnerability and have exploited it for decades. It’s why so many big creators on YouTube sign terrible brand deals, and why many fledgling musicians sign exploitative contracts. It’s everywhere in every creative field, and it appears that now, Instagram scammers have cottoned on to the fact too.
Exposure is a myth, promised by people who need your talent more than you need theirs. The truth is there is desperation on both sides. So the advice is to know your worth, and that nine times out of ten, it’s not an opportunity if you have to pay for that opportunity.
The next time you find your Instagram inbox dinging with pushy messages promising exposure, stop and ask “Who am I being exposed to?”
The answer might be, a bunch of bots.