The bushfires ravaging Australia have killed dozens of people, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of residents to evacuate. Millions of acres are burnt. More than a billion animals are feared dead. As the blaze spreads and these numbers continue to rise, opportunistic Instagram users are focused on other figures: dollars and likes.
Popular Instagram profiles are exploiting the crisis for personal gain, making empty promises to plant trees or donate money in exchange for traffic with posts such as, “1 LIKE = $1 DONATION.” Some falsely claim to be affiliated with legitimate aid organisations. Others have promoted personal PayPal accounts, urging their tens or hundreds of thousands of followers to donate to them directly while vowing to give those funds to charity later on.
In identical posts, the Instagram accounts @thewildfund and @australiasafety, with 111,000 and 50,000 followers respectively, each committed to donating $1 per like to their “partner,” National Geographic. For every follow, the pages said they would give $5. @australiasafety also claimed that it had already given away $450,000, linking to a nonexistent website, australiasafety.org. Neither of the account owners responded to requests for comment.
National Geographic told HuffPost that it is not affiliated with either of the pages, contrary to their claims. Yet the accounts still managed to accrue more than a million ‘likes’ and a surge of new followers in a matter of days — which could have earned them money.
Instagram removed both pages after being contacted by HuffPost.
The speed and ease with which crisis grifters’ profiles go viral on Instagram underscore the billion-user platform’s function as a hotbed for scams. Despite its policies against deceptive activity, the Facebook-owned company regularly allows hoaxes to flourish without consequence. This lack of proactive enforcement emboldens bad actors rather than deterring them.
As a result, anonymous scammers are capitalising on people’s goodwill and feelings of powerlessness surrounding the devastation in Australia, said Nico, the 15-year-old creator of @exposinginstascams, which calls attention to fraud and other malfeasance on Instagram.
At a time when people around the world are desperately searching for ways to save koalas, or aid refugees, or support firefighters as they watch Australia burn on their screens, crisis grifters are there to meet their demand. If their pages get shut down, it’s easy enough to start over.
The speed and ease with which crisis grifters’ profiles go viral on Instagram underscore the platform’s function as a hotbed for scams.
“It’s disgusting,” Nico said. “It’s way past the line to use a crisis for attention and clout.”
The teen devotes much of his spare time to educating the public on how to recognise Instagram scams — a pervasive issue that he feels is best addressed by helping people stay informed. Hoaxers are constantly developing new ways to con people, he noted.
While many scammers exploit crises for quick cash, such as by soliciting direct donations, others employ a longer-term strategy: asking for likes, followers and reposts instead of money can lead to rapid account growth, in turn making the accounts more valuable. And after amassing large followings, crisis grifters can use a pivot-and-profit model by deleting their disaster-related posts and changing their usernames, then selling their pages or using them to attain paid brand deals.
That’s exactly what the 23,000-follower account formerly known as @trees4australia appears to be doing. After raking in traffic with a photoshopped picture of a moose on fire and a declaration that it would be “planting $1 for every [‘like’]” — whatever that means — it quietly switched its page to private-access only, deleted its posts and pivoted to an unrelated username.
It’s a tired scheme, but often an effective one — especially when scammers latch on to highly publicised tragedies. In September, as the Amazon rainforest burned at an unprecedented rate, HuffPost detailed how Instagram users were using the blaze to promote their own pages as well as fraudulent crowdfunding campaigns. In June, opportunistic Instagrammers vowed to deliver meals to starving children in crisis-torn Sudan for followers and likes, The Atlantic reported.
“We are investigating this scam and will remove accounts and content that promote it,” a Facebook company spokesperson told HuffPost.
Instagram has yet to remove all of the accounts HuffPost brought to its attention.
@plantatreeco, which boasts 570,000 followers and counting, claims it will donate to charity in exchange for followers and reposts on Instagram. In expired Instagram Stories, it has also claimed it will plant a tree every time someone follows its TikTok, YouTube or Snapchat accounts. In its Instagram bio, it says it has planted more than 36,000 trees to date, yet in now-deleted Instagram Story Highlights, that number was 200,000.
Meanwhile, @plantatreeco is also aggressively urging people to visit its website, where it sells merchandise. There is no indication that any proceeds from the merchandise will go to charity. As Nico pointed out, @plantatreeco has done this multiple times before, then erased its Instagram content and started over.
Elsewhere, the site has featured blog posts such as, “Here’s what you can do to help the burning, ravaged Amazon rainforest,” which is plagiarised word-for-word from a Business Insider article, yet credited to a Plant A Tree Co blogger named Zack. The blog post vanished after HuffPost contacted the account to inquire.
@plantatreeco has previously been identified as a scam but told HuffPost that its critics have acted in bad faith. It provided what appears to be a receipt for a donation to Australia’s NSW Rural Fire Service for $3,173.30 that was made within hours of HuffPost’s initial outreach. The NSW Rural Fire Service was not immediately able to confirm the authenticity of that donation.
@prayforstraya, a page with 30,000 followers, has also promised to donate money and plant trees in exchange for followers, comments and reposts on Instagram. In an Instagram Live on Thursday, the account owner cast his skeptics as “dickheads.”
When HuffPost contacted him to ask about his claim of donating $25,000 to the Red Cross (which he has previously admitted was a lie), he had two questions:
Would his Instagram get a shout-out in the story, and would he be paid for an interview?