It started on July 1st. An Instagram account popped up impersonating Cindy Rodriguez’s account for Reclama, a spiritual wellness community she founded. The impersonator’s username was slightly different from Rodriguez’s with the use of underscores. The person behind the account messaged her followers to offer readings, a service she doesn’t offer, to scam them out of money.
“This has been stressful because I have my own plans on IG. Then I have someone trying to be me, so it’s gotten in the way of my business,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview with Luz Media. “It hit me hard.”
Reclama helps women of color through hiking and journaling, but this situation has become mentally draining for Rodriguez as she now has to answer 50 to 60 direct messages per week about the imposter account. “Reclama turned into a customer service hub real quick after the scammer came into my life,” said Rodriguez.
Fake accounts created to scam people are not uncommon on social media, but there’s been a noticeable uptick in fake accounts within the spiritual and wellness space. Esoteric Esa, an astrologer, bruja, and tarot reader, wrote an open letter about this issue for HipLatina earlier this year.
She told Luz Media in a Zoom interview that a fake account copying hers popped up around March of last year, and she noticed that her colleagues were experiencing the same thing three to six months before that. She was an anxious, nervous wreck when it happened to her, and the situation consumed her mind.
“Right in that moment when I found out, I was really scared,” said Esa. “I didn't know what this was going to do for my brand, for my reputation. I knew what it was already doing to innocent people, so my community was being targeted. So that made me very nervous because as a leader of my community, I feel I hold a sense of responsibility to try and create a safe space for them.”
Esa does think this is disproportionately affecting the spiritual community, and what has shed light for her is that as people of color reclaim their intuition, services like readings still seem confusing and taboo.
“It's also shedding a light on all the [decolonization] work that we still need to do when it comes to spirituality,” said Esa. “These scammers are capitalizing off of our lack of our spirit, our connection to our spirit, and capitalizing off of our naivety [in] our community. And that's why we're getting more taken advantage of, I feel, in the spiritual community as opposed to the white spiritual community.”
Some creators have posted messages notifying their followers about scammers and added a disclaimer in their bio clarifying that they don’t book their services through DMs.
Instagram’s Help Center says that the site takes safety seriously and that people can report accounts that are pretending to be someone else through the app or by filling out an online form. A spokesperson for Meta, who owns Instagram, told the LA Times that impersonation of any kind is not tolerated on the site, but they “know there is more to do here.” Esa feels there’s a lack of transparency from Instagram as she doesn’t know the criteria to get a fake account taken down or how long the process takes.
“Do they need 1000 reports within a 30-day timeframe? And if they don't hit that number of reports after 30 days, is the case then dropped? So that's where the frustration lies for all of us is we need more transparency,” said Esa. She has reported a few accounts, and if she does hear back from Instagram, she said the response is that the account isn’t violating any community guidelines, so they aren’t taking it down.
“Then it's just frustrating, because it's like, there's no one you can really go to and tell them like, ‘Hey, they're using my likeness. How is this not going against community guidelines?’” said Esa.
Rodriguez said she also contacted IG, and the only response she received was essentially that they didn’t take down the fake account because they didn’t have the bandwidth to handle the issue but would take her report into account.
“When someone shows a little bit too much skin on IG, that gets taken down real quick. But when it comes to people's businesses and lives and mental health being affected, I do not see them being responsive. That, to me, has been the most disappointing part,” said Rodriguez.
She asked her followers to block and report the fake account. She documented all the communications she’s received from people who were messaged by the account in case it’s useful in the future. She also reached out to some of her friends who have been in the same situation. One of those friends included Esa. When Esa realized her situation wouldn’t go away six months after the initial scam account, she changed her mindset and did not allow it to consume her entirely. When Rodriguez reached out about her situation, she provided some tips on how she handled it mentally.
“I told her, ‘Let's ground your energy. Let's calm down. Don't worry, this happens. Guess what? I want to let you know it's actually going to continue happening. Let's just set that expectation now, so we can release that anxiety,’” said Esa.
She suggested setting up an automatic reply to respond to messages warning about the fake account. Things Esa noticed with scammer accounts is that they either have fewer or much more followers than the original account. Typically they copy the account’s bio, but other IG accounts are not directly linked. This prevents the original owner from getting a notification that their account was tagged, providing a heads-up that another scam account was created. The profile photo is usually a screenshot, so the image quality is blurred or pixelated.
Sometimes the screenshot is taken when there's a circle around the picture, indicating a new IG story to view. “If it looks like there's a story, and you click on it, and there's no Instagram story, that's another red flag,” said Esa.
Esa also recommends checking if there are notable accounts following the main account as opposed to the other fake accounts.
“Not everyone is in this situation with this privilege, but thankfully for me, I have other major accounts who follow me that are credible,” said Esa. “So if you know HipLatina follows me, if you know #WeAllGrow Latina follows me; if you know Luz Media follows me and not the other Esoteric Esas, then that should ring something right? Or if you know, you have a best friend who follows me, but they're not following that fake account, that should alert you.”
Rodriguez suggests staying in touch with other business owners who have gone through similar experiences or are going through it to give you peace of mind that you’re not alone.
“Thank God for people like (Esa) and people like Melanie Santos too, because they both have helped me keep my head on straight,” said Rodriguez. “Like that's the power of community on this level.”