I recently started posting regularly on my Instagram account, and I have about 1,200 followers. But I wouldn’t call myself an influencer, unless I’m influencing people to write more and drink coffee, which is pretty much all I post about.
My main goal, as anyone who checks out my account would be able to see in an instant, is to have a nice place to post selfies and share a bit more of my real life. It’s not to sell anything — I don’t have a single sponsored or branded post on my feed.
Nevertheless, brand after brand after brand leaves eerily similar comments on my feed, asking that I DM them to “collab.”
The first time I got this comment, honestly, I was a little flattered. I checked out the account, realized it sold random stuff, and figured they’d made a mistake.
The second, third, fourth, and umpteenth time it happened, I was annoyed. Then, I got irritated. And finally, after blocking, banning, and reporting what felt like dozens of these, only to have new iterations continue commenting on my posts, I landed on inquisitive.
What did these spam brands actually want? Surely it wasn’t actually to collaborate. Why did they often comment and ask me to DM a second, bigger account? I wasn’t sure. And how on earth were they finding me and my content? What was their strategy?
I decided to look further into three brands that I received this mysterious DM from: Shop Valerio, Brute Impact, and Urban Ice.
Here’s what I found: These brands are fake from start to finish.
They all have upwards of 100,000 followers, which might incentivize people like me to want to work with them. When I first checked out one account that had messaged me a request to collab, called Brute Impact, they claimed to have 223,000 followers, so if I were featured on their page for wearing their clothes, I would have hoped to get a couple hundred followers.
But looking at Brute Impact’s posts, each only received between 300 and 600 likes. This is an extremely low engagement rate (0.13%-0.26%). For comparison, I get about 100–120 likes on each of my posts, with 1,200 followers (an 8%-10% engagement rate).
This suggests Brute Impact’s followers are fake.
Secondly, the accounts that ask me to DM to collab almost exclusively ask me to message not the account leaving the comment, but the bigger account they tag in the comment. To me, that suggests that even if they get reported for spam comments, the main “mother” account, if you will, remains safe.
Third, as I DM’d the three spam brands that left comments on my post, they all messaged almost the exact same thing.
This suggests they’re actually run by the same person or group of people.
The three accounts’ responses to my questions were all similar, too. When I asked how they found me, they all cited “scouting teams,” and always pressed that I should visit their website to receive my 50% off code.
Fourth, all the websites were identical, low-quality, and very spammy. The main purpose of all of them was to gain “affiliates,” not make sales. Even the shoddy website design was alarmingly similar. Many of the blurbs invited readers to learn more, but did not include links to do so. Their content blogs were full of outdated Covid-19 information.
Fifth, and most damningly, in my opinion, there had been changes to usernames. Instagram, to “help keep their community authentic,” lets you see the history of an account’s username over time on accounts that reach a lot of people or advertise on Instagram. I checked these on a hunch, because these accounts didn’t feel authentic, and I wasn’t surprised to see that two of the three brands I looked at had changed their usernames. Not small tweaks either, but total shifts. This means they could have purchased accounts that already had large followings. Most legitimate brands have their own handles that they have no reason to change so drastically.
So how did they find me? Almost immediately, I had realized hashtags were part of the answer. But when I stripped those out and continued receiving comments, I twigged location was being used, too.
I checked other photos posted around the same time mine were, also geotagged in Atlanta, and found the same spam brands had left the same types of comments on several of those photos. There were a few exceptions that let me build a picture of how the brands targeted accounts.
The brands that commented on my post specifically target small accounts, with only a few hundred or thousand followers. This could be because bigger accounts would likely know the collab offers were nonsense. They assume the smaller accounts will have less experience.
The accounts only seem to comment on photos of people (typically women). When I photographed my dog, or when I didn’t include location, or when I included someone else in the pic, I didn’t get comments.
Working backward, we can piece together the spam strategy
Here’s what these accounts probably do:
- Create several “flagship” Instagram accounts.
- Have extremely cheap merchandise sold at very high prices. You’ll notice these accounts mostly sell jewelry and eyewear.
- Buy thousands of Instagram followers to make the brand look legit and to incentivize people like me to want to have my work posted on its account.
- Create dozens of smaller, fake accounts that can be used as conduits for messaging and take the fall for being reported as spam.
- Use location and hashtags to find small accounts and ask them to collab.
- Give the owners of those accounts a “discount” on overpriced items in exchange for an affiliate code to promote on their account.
- Repeat as often as possible.
- Profit comes mostly from smaller influencers buying their goods at “half-price.”
These spam accounts, in other words, want to sell us on ourselves
This is what makes me saddest about these accounts. They’re trying their darndest to prey on people by letting them believe, for a minute, that they’ve made it big.
Honestly, the first time it happened, I really felt like I’d done it. I felt like I posted great content, and that a brand just happened across my feed, loved my work, and genuinely thought I’d be a great fit. It was so embarrassing to realize how much I’d been fooled. Thank goodness I didn’t buy anything.
Now, I’ve been contacted to be sponsored and create promotional material a few times (not on Instagram) and I know what a real offer of collaboration looks like:
- They contact me, they don’t ask me to contact them.
- They’re clear about why they’re interested in me — the value they think I can provide — rather than saying they discovered me through vague “scouting teams.”
- They *never* ask me to pay them anything.
- They provide their half of the collab upfront. Most times, in the initial contact form, they’ll make it clear they can pay me.
Shop Valerio, Brute Impact, and Urban Ice are scams, just like the many accounts like them. They prey on people by selling them a fake dream of having made it. They’re trying to fool people. You shouldn’t feel bad if it happens to you, but if you can, avoid it.