In 2009, Twitter introduced the concept of verified profiles. Since then, pretty much every major platform with a social "identity" component has mimicked or iterated on the idea.
The initial concept was harmless enough: provide prominent figures with an outlet to protect their online identity while also sowing trust in the overall platform and prevent potential catfishing scenarios.
But unsurprisingly, social media verification — particularly on platforms like Instagram — has become a seedy world of pay-to-play, scams, and fake identities. Sometimes it's simply fueled by ego. You know, the inexplicable yet inescapable worth we tie to those little blue checkmarks. More often, though, it's fueled by the potential cash, clientele, and clout you can parlay from verification; especially if you're not a typical public figure like a celebrity or politician.
Nonprofit investigative outlet ProPublica recently published a frankly bonkers investigative piece into possibly the biggest Instagram verification scheme in history. So let's look at this scheme specifically as well as different versions targeting content creators of all kinds.
The Great Verification Scheme
ProPublica's new investigative report uncovered a complex scheme in which "customers" paid more than five figures to snag a little blue checkmark next to their Instagram profile. The schemers achieved this by — believe it or not — turning customers into music artists, boosting their profiles with fake plays and paid-for press articles, and then convincing people at Instagram they were legitimate artists.
That includes people like Toronto plastic surgeon Dr. Martin Jugenburg. Before ProPublica uncovered his pay-to-play verified profile, Jugenburg amassed over 15,000 followers as Real Dr. 6ix. A verified checkmark for somebody like a pseudo-influencer plastic surgeon can lead to significant brand lift, endorsements, and ultimately increased revenue.
So, he allegedly employed the services of this verification scheme. “Scammers selling fraudulent services continue to target online platforms across the internet, including ours, and constantly adapt their tactics in response to industry detection methods,” a Meta spokesperson told Pro Publica.
This schemer created a fake music profile called "DJ Dr. 6ix," boosted the plays with fake streams, purchased press on websites like The Source, and bought fake comments and likes to boost the Instagram profile overall.
And, well, Meta bought it, hook, line, and sinker. This happened hundreds of times. ProPublica actually identified 173 profiles before publishing the article, about 100 of which Spotify ultimately removed.
Even better? ProPublica claims they identified the primary culprit at the center of the scheme:
"Using domain registration records, corporate and banking documents, information from online platforms, and interviews with clients and people with knowledge of the scheme, ProPublica was able to identify the person at the center of the plot. He is a Miami-based aspiring DJ and would-be crypto entrepreneur named Dillon Shamoun. With little or no interference from Meta, Shamoun built a verification-for-pay juggernaut while also burnishing his own image by using the same digital manipulation techniques he offered to clients.
Shamoun appears to have hawked his Instagram verification services to a cadre of Miami nightlife impresarios, restaurateurs, jewelers, models and others. He also transformed his model-influencer girlfriend and his older brother, a mortgage broker, into musical artists in attempts to secure account verification.
In phone interviews with and text messages to ProPublica, Shamoun, an athletic, bearded 26-year-old, denied any involvement in the scheme and said he does not sell account verification services. He said he works on FanVerse, a crypto startup that enables creators and influencers to sell NFTs of themselves, among other projects.
“People know who I am and my character and what I do for business, and it has nothing to do with Facebook or Instagram,” he said.
After being provided information by ProPublica, Meta confirmed Shamoun’s key involvement in the fake musician verification scheme. It banned him from its platforms and removed his Instagram and Facebook accounts. The company said that Shamoun’s scheme was a sophisticated operation and that Meta works to thwart the sale of fraudulent services to users of its platforms."
As noted in the article, Shamoun denies involvement and instead blames a former business partner, Adam Quinn. According to ProPublica, Meta confirmed collecting information about Quinn's involvement in selling verification services even before acting against Shamoun for the fake musician scheme.
"A falling out between Shamoun and a business partner, combined with scrutiny from Meta and ProPublica’s investigation, has unleashed a vicious round of finger-pointing that exposed the underworld of social media manipulation and verification services," ProPublica states. The whole thing is fascinating, and you should definitely consider reading the whole article.
Other Common Verification Scams and Schemes
While this massive, million-dollar scheme is worthy of the attention, there are tons of other "black hat" marketing schemes that aren't nearly as complex but still dangerous and scammy. It's not like these companies are necessarily hiding, either.
You can pretty much just google "Instagram verification services" and find plenty of sites that do a pretty *decent* job of looking legitimate. But still ultimately, you know, aren't.
It's kind of like all of the Spotify playlisting sites. If you're a musician, you've undoubtedly come across these or seen their advertising. We did a whole article on how to tell if they're full of shit, with the spoiler alert that, well, they are.
Most of these sites will just do similar, automated versions of what Shamoun was doing but to a lesser degree. They'll buy followers and engagement for your account as well as spammy, pointless web articles to try to convince Meta / Instagram you're a person of note.
Some of these sites try to spread it out over time so as not to get detected by Instagram's automated fraud technology. Others will promise a fast turnaround, usually because they're using a different method.
Then of course there are just straight up phishing scams. These promise verification but actually make away with your personal details.
The Meta Business Partner Verification Game
There are also people who charge money to essentially utilize their access to Meta's "Business Partner" platform (sometimes also referred to as Media Partners). Basically, companies that do a high volume of publishing, ad buys, and/or sales through Facebook and Instagram can apply to join the Meta Business Partner program and get access to increased resources and customer support.
One of the perks includes account representatives who can "fast track" the verification process. You may be asking yourself, "But can't I just submit for verification through the app myself?"
Yeah, totally. Except all you can do is also upload a piece of ID. You're not able to upload any supporting documents showing you're a person of note. Which means the person reviewing your request — if they ever get to it at all — needs to basically google you and see lots of stuff come up right away.
Instagram itself doesn't stipulate a number of articles or pieces of press necessary, but some people colloquially claim it's as many as 10 articles in "reputable" places (in quotes because, you know, you can easily buy placement in "reputable" sources).
People who are part of Meta's Business Partner program get fast-tracked access to the humans who grant verification.
So when somebody says they can get you verified for a few hundred or even a thousand bucks, they're basically paying you for access they have to the Business Partner program. And to be clear, this is still not ok and is definitely against Instagram's policies. They may not be buying bots, but they're still charging you money for something they're not supposed to and you run the risk of getting banned from the platform if Instagram finds out.
How Have Things Changed Since Verification First Started?
You could argue that the original purpose of verification on social media profiles — to discourage fraud and instill trust — is pretty much out the window at this point. After all, scammers and phishers are just as likely to imitate small accounts as they are big ones.
Plus the entire process enabled a whole cottage industry of bots, fakes, paid-for-articles, schemes, and general wankery. Likewise, there are plenty of "public figures" who earn verification badges through the Business Partner program simply for being associated with a company and not really needing to be clearly identified as that "authentic" account.
We see plenty of upstart acts with two thousand followers get verified just for being signed to a label, while independent creators with ten times the traction and fans still just amble along without the mark.
But the thing is, if you're a content creator who genuinely needs to be verified, you'll gather the bona fides to get there. It should not be a goal, simply a byproduct of doing all the other stuff that gets you to that point.
Because ultimately, blowing money on "verification services" isn't just potentially dangerous, it's a waste of money you could've better spent on finding actual fans. You know, doing the things that will get you to the point of "verification" as a necessity, not as a brand play.