Future Tense

The Australian Wildfires Bring Out the Scammers

Meet the 15-year-old looking for Instagram accounts profiting from disaster Down Under.

Collage of Australian wildfires, a koala, fragments of a dollar bill, and the Instagram logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images, Mark Brake/Getty Images, Josephine Bredehoft on Unsplash, and NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

Since September, Australian bushfires have ravaged more than 17 million acres in what experts are calling the worst fire season in decades. It’s estimated that 27 people and more than 1 billion animals have died. As Australians grapple with the fallout—displacement and homelessness, choking smoke, missing loved ones—the rest of the world looks on with horror. Online, people are sharing heartbreaking photographs that capture the damage: rivers of fire, burnt koalas, the silhouette of a kangaroo amid a burning home.

People around the world are opening their wallets to support firefighters and survivors. A Facebook fundraising campaign created by Australian comedian Celeste Barber has raised more than $34 million to support firefighters, and celebrities and billionaires have also pledged small fortunes to firefighting and recovery efforts. On Instagram, several accounts have posted pledges to donate a dollar per “like,” comment, or share, amassing millions of engagements and followers in the process.

The problem is many of those accounts are fake. Where there’s tragedy, there are scammers looking to take advantage of the ensuing goodwill. But, luckily, there are also eagle-eyed web denizens eager to set the record straight. The Instagram account @exposinginstascams has been among the most diligent bullshit-detectors, investigating shady Instagram campaigns and laying out evidence for whether accounts are legit or bogus. Over the past week, the account has identified and publicized several questionable accounts looking to capitalize on the Australia disaster.

For example, an account called @australiasafety posted that it would donate $1 for each “like” it received on a post, and claimed that it was “partnered” with National Geographic. As of Wednesday, the account had more than 45,000 followers. But after Nico, who runs @exposinginstascams, contacted Nat Geo directly, he discovered it was not partnered with @australiasafety and wrote a post in ExposingInstaScams questioning the account’s validity. That same day, @australiasafety was taken down.

I contacted the account’s creator via—how else?—Instagram DM. Nico, who says he is a 15-year-old living in San Diego, responded almost immediately. He says that so far, three of the accounts he’s reported on have been taken down—@australiasafety, @prayforstraya, and @thewildfund, and he’s investigating a fourth, @plantatreeco. “Instagram can be super profitable when it comes to ads and selling accounts,” he says. “People use emotional tactics to get people to follow them, then they can easily make a big buck off of this exploitation of global issues.” Alongside the manipulative accounts are those that actually follow through on their donation pledges, and Nico has posted about that, too; one brand appears to really have donated $5,000 for 5,000 shares.

Sometimes, those “big bucks” are actual money—for instance, the Washington Post reported on a video of a kangaroo that went viral after it was reposted by an Instagram account claiming it was a clip from the recent fires. That account has since been deleted, but previously the account was selling merchandise, and the virality of the video, it seemed, helped direct potential customers to its wares. @Plantatreeco, Nico says, also sells products—the featured item on its website is a simple bead bracelet on sale for $19.95, marked down from $29.95. The account, which has more than 500,000 followers, has been in use since at least May 2019, based on posts it’s tagged in, many of which warn followers that the account is a scam. It previously talked about planting trees in the U.S. by the end of 2019, but I haven’t seen evidence of that happening. (I reached out to the account via Instagram as well as through its website, but received no response.)

In other cases, the potential payoff for a scam account is just clout. Users might simply get a thrill out of seeing their own post go viral, or, in some cases, they might amass enough followers that their accounts become profitable enough to sell. There are websites like Insta$ale or FameSwap where users with several thousand followers can put their accounts up for sale, then allowing the buyer to change the username and repurpose the account, with a built-in audience included. While it’s difficult to know for sure, it appears that @australiasafety could have been one such account. Nico points out that the account was originally created in February 2018, long before the Australian fires struck, so the account surely had some other focus originally.

These kinds of scams run rampant on Instagram. Most of the shady accounts Nico finds are run-of-the-mill “like and share” scams—for instance, one account posted a photoshopped image that appeared to be a conversation in which Kylie Jenner said she’d go to a fan’s birthday party if her sister got 3 million likes, while another claimed to be a North Face model recruitment account. Nico says that a questionable post claiming that each like would result in one piece of trash being removed from the ocean inspired him to start his scam-exposing account. “I was browsing some Instagram stories and saw that this post had taken the stories of nearly every one of my friends,” he says. “I looked at it and was baffled at how obviously fake this was.”

But when there’s a major disaster in the news, the scam machine runs into overdrive. New accounts (or old ones, repurposed for whatever new disaster has occurred) pop up, and reporting them to Instagram can be like whack-a-mole; in spending just two minutes scrolling through posts with the hashtag #prayforaustralia, I found at least three more sketchy-looking accounts claiming to donate up to $10 per “like.” A rash of fake donation accounts also followed the Amazon wildfire disaster and the Sudan crisis, and I asked Nico why these scams take off. “People want to help but they want someone else to do it for them,” he says. “They want to feel like they are contributing to the world.”

Unfortunately, those good intentions don’t necessarily translate into actual help. If you’d like to support Australian fire recovery efforts, the Better Business Bureau has posted tips for identifying reputable organizations for donations, and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, home to firefighters actively fighting the blaze, is also taking donations. Additionally, the New South Wales Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is taking donations and posting on Instagram about its efforts to rescue animals in the fire’s path, in case you feel truly compelled to like and share something on Instagram.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.