Anyone who is on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook or TikTok often comes across offers that sound tempting: from weight loss powder to lucrative investments. In our series, reporter Judith Henke takes a look at these products. What is behind it, how serious are you?
A few months ago, business student and financial blogger Björn Beier received outraged news from an acquaintance. The acquaintance asked indignantly why he was suddenly trying so insistently to make a questionable investment opportunity palatable to him on Instagram. He doesn't even know him like that.
But Beier didn't sell his acquaintance any money. He was the victim of identity theft. A scammer pretended to be Björn Beier and created an Instagram profile with his profile picture, all photos posted and story highlights.
The goal: to inspire the trust of potential victims and get them to deposit their money in supposed crypto trading platforms. Because of course most Instagram users would rather believe a financial influencer with a good reputation than a stranger when it comes to investing – the scammers know that too.
So far I've only seen evil doubles in creepy German Romantic movies and literature, but it's actually a popular Instagram scam. Because – and now I have to write this clichéd sentence – Björn Beier is not an isolated case.
I've spoken to several financial influencers, and they all tell me: For more than a year, doppelganger profiles have been constantly being created, every day they receive messages from followers sending them screenshots of investment scammers using their name and reputation to gain their trust to win victims.
What financial bloggers also tell me is that when they try to report the fraudulent doubles for identity theft on Instagram, nothing usually happens.
Meta, the company behind Instagram, is aware of the doppelganger problem. Because about a year ago, "FinanceForward" reported on this and quoted a statement from the US group.
Accordingly, Meta would take unwanted impersonation and impersonation on Instagram very seriously, as such behavior violates community guidelines. That was in February 2022.
Nearly thirteen months later, at least the financial bloggers I spoke to are oblivious to those promises. On the contrary: "The problem has gotten even worse." That's what Christian Röhl says. He is an investor and publicist, his YouTube channel and his Instagram account are each followed by more than 55,000 users.
When I type his name into the Instagram search bar, about six other profiles appear in addition to the real profile that also use his name and profile picture. The username was slightly varied in each case, for example with the help of an underscore or an additional letter.
Later I will make the acquaintance of one or the other of these doppelgangers. But first I'll talk to Christian Röhl about what it's like when criminals misuse their own identities every day to commit investment fraud.
"It's an uncomfortable feeling for me that scammers use pictures I've uploaded to create a double profile," he says.
Because as a rule, the would-be Christian Röhls also upload all the photos that he has ever posted on Instagram to their own profiles. This is also a warning signal for potential victims of fraud: if dozens of photos are published on a profile within twenty minutes.
Röhl not only posts graphics on the current market situation on his Instagram channel, but also personal things, such as photos of his family. So I can well understand that he has a queasy feeling when a criminal uses these images.
"In the beginning I always tried to report the profiles on Instagram," says Röhl. But he has always received feedback that the doppelganger profiles do not violate community guidelines.
Instead, at some point, even he was warned by Meta: he should use the report function less often, otherwise his profile would be restricted.
"Artificial intelligence should be able to recognize that someone is making an exact duplicate of my profile," says Röhl in disbelief. He has the feeling that Meta does not take the problem seriously.
Fortunately, he doesn't know of any followers who have been harmed by this scam so far. “But who knows how high the number of unreported cases is. Many of those affected are ashamed that they fell victim to investment fraud.”
I agree with him: when I asked the state criminal investigation offices of all sixteen federal states for damage figures for investment fraud on the Internet last autumn, several authorities informed me that they assumed a high number of unreported cases. The groups of offenders usually work on a division of labor basis and are based abroad.
The trail of the perpetrators, who pretend to be Christian Röhl, also leads abroad. I have deliberately sought contact with several of his doubles over the past few weeks.
One of them is called "cw.roehll", which is a slight deviation from the username of the real Christian Röhl ("cwroehl"). Fake Roehls are usually proactive in writing to their potential victims, but I'm an impatient person, so I contact cw.roehll with a casual "hello :)" feeling like a somewhat awkward underclothes cop trying to hit drug dealers to be caught in the act.
But the doppelganger apparently does not doubt why a victim willingly jumps into his trap and asks me if I have already taken part in his "crypto trading coaching program".
He operates an automated trading system that recognizes "highly profitable market opportunities that directly impact the crypto market." That is "definitely profitable" - well, of course. He sends me the link to a trading platform where I should register and deposit my money.
I look at the platform. I can't find an imprint - definitely a red flag. It also advertises that it is one of the largest and oldest bitcoin trading platforms in the world.
That surprises me - because my research shows that the website was only registered at the end of 2022. By the way, I can't find out who registered the website, because the registrant uses a service to hide his identity.
There's a system to this: I'm also hitting rock bottom with the other platforms that will send me Christian Röhl's doppelganger. There's also "cwroehlz" - and even if his grammar is just as questionable as that of the other scammers, he's a bit smarter and doesn't fall for my clumsy plainclothes cop number.
Maybe that's because I exaggerated a bit. "Hey - somehow things aren't going so well for me on the stock market... do you have any investment tips?" I write to him.
He asks me about my trading experience - and here I get cocky and lie that I have 10,000 euros in Bitcoin in a Binance account. He wants to see a screenshot of my crypto wallet. Because I'm too lazy to fake one, I say that I only installed my Binance account on my other phone.
But the fraudster doesn't want to buy this excuse completely. A standoff occurs: I want him to send me the link to the crypto trading platform. He wants to see the wallet screenshot. It goes back and forth for days. At some point he caves in – and sends me a link.
I click on it triumphantly and am redirected to a trading platform that the scammers put a little more effort into designing than the other platform. They even forged an official document proving that the company running the platform was registered as a company in the UK.
Strange: I can't find the name of the company in the commercial register. Also contradictory: The trading platform specifies an address in the USA as the office location. When I google this address, I see that several well-known companies are located there.
Another trading platform that a scammer sent me with the username "cwroehl_fx" also states that it is based in New York. But I can't find her name in the New York company register. I'm reporting the doppelganger on Instagram - he would be posing as someone I know. But more than a day later, his profile has still not been deleted.
Lisa Osada, who blogs on financial topics under the name "Aktiengram", has since given up reporting her doubles on Instagram. There she has more than 82,000 followers - and with the reach came the scammers who use her name to scam other people.
She sends me a screenshot of a conversation with a look-alike – fortunately, because I'm getting tired of trying to get the names of the trading platforms out of annoying scammers. In the website terms and conditions I can find the name of the company that runs the platform. Lo and behold: the company is well known. The Marshall Islands-based company and its backers are under investigation.
Unfortunately, what I was not able to find out from my little research is whether the individual doppelgangers and their trading platforms are related to each other - i.e. are operated by the same fraud cartel.
But Lisa Osada sends me screenshots that show that her doubles often change their name and profile picture after a few days or weeks, transforming themselves into another financial blogger like Christian Röhl almost overnight.
Osada now uses a trick to get rid of the annoying fake profiles: She doesn't report her doubles via the Instagram form, but uses Meta's Brand Rights Protections Dashboard, which can be reached via Facebook.
Because Osada has "Aktiengram" registered as a trademark - and can therefore report the scammers who copy their profile for trademark infringement. She reported 290 content that has been removed. "Sometimes it takes Meta up to five days to respond and delete the scam profiles," she says. Until then, they can do harm on their behalf.
Other financial bloggers I spoke to are now also reporting their look-alikes using this trademark-accessible form. For example, the investor and former UBS wealth manager Helmut Jonen, who is followed by around 62,000 people on Instagram.
He also tells me that the problem, which started around a year and a half ago, has gotten worse. "A few followers even wrote to me that they unfortunately fell for the scam," he says. The scammers always advertise short-term investment opportunities, such as forex trading. "Anyone who knows me knows that I only post about investments with a long-term horizon of ten years."
Holger Graf, who works as a professor for financial management at the Nürtingen-Geislingen University of Applied Sciences and informs his almost 34,000 Instagram followers about financial topics under the username “prof.goldgraf”, actually only reports his doubles because of copyright infringement and not because of it Identity theft – because of higher chances of success. “But reporting is a very manual process,” he says.
In the meantime, he has therefore given up taking action against his doppelgangers. "It's like fighting windmills." He's surprised that Instagram doesn't recognize such fakes by itself - an AI can easily solve that by comparing databases.
But maybe Meta just doesn't have the pressure to take proper action against scammers who use the identities of others to carry out their criminal activity. Since 2017, the Network Search Act (NetzDG) has regulated that providers of social networks are threatened with high fines if they do not take action against illegal content.
Accordingly, the provider should provide users with an easy-to-use procedure for submitting complaints about illegal content. According to the law, this procedure must “ensure that the provider of the social network removes obviously illegal content within 24 hours of receipt of the complaint.” In addition, the procedure must ensure that any illegal content is usually removed within seven days of receipt of the complaint is deleted.
However, my request to the Federal Office of Justice (BfJ), which is supposed to monitor whether the provisions of the NetzDG are being complied with, shows that crimes related to identity theft or misuse do not fall under the crimes listed in the first paragraph of the NetzDG are listed. Only if content violates one of the criminal offenses listed in paragraph three can it become the subject of regulatory proceedings within the meaning of the NetzDG.
Committing investment fraud with the help of social media seems to be child's play in Germany - in this sense, dear readers: Invest in my special cryptocoin, which multiplies as if by magic and guarantees a 100 percent return!
But seriously, the fact that social media providers don't even face fines if they don't remove the profiles of identity thieves is a sign of poverty. Because then there is no incentive to act harder against these criminals.
Niels Nauhauser from the Baden-Württemberg consumer center suspects that the lack of initiative on the part of platforms like Instagram to take action against the doppelganger scam is calculated. "Investing in fraud prevention is inherently a nuisance, it reduces profits," he says.
Nauhauser advises consumers to be skeptical whenever someone on social media tries to pressure them into signing a contract or depositing money.
The scammers would usually choose usernames that only differ from their famous role models by a special character or an additional letter. “Another distinguishing feature is clearer: the fake accounts want something from their victims. The original accounts usually don't.”
Christian Röhl also emphasizes that – unlike his doppelgangers – he does not usually contact followers by direct message, least of all to sell them strange crypto trading systems. Because Meta is not doing anything about the fake profiles, he has become skeptical about the US giant from his point of view as an investor.
Because: Meta regularly publishes user numbers - these are of course also a factor in the decision to invest in Meta shares or not. "But if there are always between five and six fake profiles in my case alone, I wonder whether the published user numbers are correct or just inflated."
I ask this question to Meta as well. A spokeswoman responded with a more general statement: "Mimicking others on Instagram is against our policies, and we're removing accounts that do so as soon as we become aware of it." We take several measures to protect people from impersonation and encourage anyone who believes an account is impersonating them to report it."
She also sends me some background information. Accordingly, Meta would use a combination of proactive detection technology and alerts to find and remove fake accounts.
The systems would look for a series of signals that indicate whether accounts are fake. The speaker also tells me the signals – but I prefer not to mention them here, otherwise the fraudulent doubles also have an advantage in knowledge.
In the fourth quarter of 2022, Meta found 99 percent of the 1.3 billion fake accounts removed on Facebook before they were even reported. There are no figures for Instagram yet.
Meta asks me to name the doppelganger profiles I stumbled across. A day after receiving my mail, I check it - and to my delight I find that all fakes have been deleted.
But my joy didn't last long: just a few days later I found a new Christian Röhl double. And when I check again almost two weeks later, I notice that the number of doubles is slowly growing - not only from Christian Röhl, but also from most of the other financial bloggers I spoke to.
And I too become a victim of the doppelganger scam: My colleague sends me a screenshot of an Instagram profile that uses my profile picture and my name.
Interesting: Both my public account and my private account were blocked by my doppelganger. I chatted with various Christian Röhl doubles with both accounts. Who knows, maybe the scammers figured out that it's my fault their profiles got deleted.
It doesn't matter whether it's lucrative investments, dental splints or coaching offers: anyone who uses social media is overwhelmed with product recommendations. What's behind it? How serious are you? You can find out in our podcast "Die Netz-Checkerin". Subscribe to Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Deezer, Amazon Music or directly via RSS feed.