As the photo-sharing social media platform Instagram swells to more than 1 billion users, social media experts say the site is facing a growing security problem as a playground for hackers.
For one suburban Crystal Lake family, reaching the company after an account breach was as frustrating as the initial hack itself. They claim it took a vile, pornographic video posted to their teenage daughter’s account to finally get Instagram’s attention to shut it down.
“My daughter was in tears. She was hysterical,” said parent Wendy Pratola.
Pratola’s daughter Cheyenne, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, is a competitive gymnast who is seeking a college scholarship. Her coaches told NBC 5 that colleges can’t reach out to Cheyenne directly just yet, but many recruiters are turning to social media platforms like Instagram to monitor an athlete’s progress.
“To me, (Instagram) wasn’t just for fun. It was the place I got my stuff done,” Cheyenne explained.
Cheyenne said in March, she noticed she could not access her Instagram account and received prompts that her email and password were invalid. She followed Instagram’s directions to recover accounts, which is detailed in its Help Center.
“I sent Instagram reports for weeks, and I followed everything it said to do, and they weren’t doing anything,” Cheyenne said.
About three weeks later, Cheyenne said she and her family discovered a pornographic video posted to her Instagram page.
“I just thought, ‘Oh no! Colleges are going to think I posted something terrible, and that’s not me. I’m not that kind of person,’” Cheyenne said.
Her family then enlisted friends and other loved ones to report the inappropriate content. They said Instagram finally shut down the account 15 hours later, but Cheyenne lost everything on her page.
“It’s really sad to me that it took pornography to have this account taken down,” said Wendy Pratola.
Social media experts said Cheyenne’s story is not unique.
Dean DeLisle, owner of an influencer digital marketing company called Social Jack, said Instagram has become a “playground” for hackers. Thieves generally target influencers with large followings who monetize the platform.
“Some of them are making $200,000 to $1 million a month. Think about that, that’s your livelihood,” DeLisle said. “The technology has moved so fast, no one can keep up with the protection aspect of it.”
DeLisle said he’s found it can take Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, weeks or months to restore stolen accounts.
“I couldn’t even fathom with the number of people that are on Facebook and Instagram, how could you service that many people?” DeLisle said.
DeLisle’s Chicago-based company seeks to educate both social media influencers and parents on how best to protect brands, while also growing business. DeLisle said users should be on a regular cycle of changing passwords and take note when platforms send notices of changed privacy policies and settings.
For its part, Instagram is acknowledging the problem.
“We know that losing access to your account can be a distressing experience. We have sophisticated measures in place to stop bad actors in their tracks before they gain access to accounts, as well as measures to help people recover their accounts,” said an Instagram spokesperson. “We know we can do more here, and we're working hard in both of these areas to stop bad actors before they cause harm, and to keep our community safe.”
Instagram encourages users to pick strong, unique passwords and to turn on two-factor authentication for additional security. Users should also revoke access to third-party apps because that can expose login information, Instagram said.