Guest Post by Emma Hawes
It was a day I was busy with a paper and work assignments: February 4. I was obsessively checking my email inbox, and saw one from Instagram saying my password had changed. I decided to take the warning seriously, but not totally obsess over it. So I emailed them back, stating it must be a glitch, that I hadn’t changed the password, and filled out the form.
The next day (Feb. 5), I received another email from Instagram saying to send a mugshot style photo with some numbers included on it and my username. I figured they’d confirmed it was me from a picture taken in late July at the Aspen Bay Candle Sale with my friend Brittany.
That night I just wanted sleep in (the next day was a Saturday). No such luck.
My brother woke me up. “Emma, you need to check out your Instagram. Your account looks hacked,” he said as he placed his phone in front of my eyes, which included photos of straight-up porn under my Instagram handle. I leapt up out of bed, gasping and shouting, “Oh my God!” in a shaky tone. 6:45 am on a Saturday and I’d already had enough.
When I grabbed my phone, I saw that three friends had already contacted me: the first at 6:20 am from a friend, and the other two young mothers. All of them had gone to college with me and knew this was not my character. I can’t even tell you the cuss words that rushed through my mind. I was mortified! Who on earth in public relations, marketing or social media would hire me?!
The first thing I did was text my boss to let him know about the situation. Then I tried to see if I could change my Instagram password and I checked the settings, but I could not.
Learnings from social
My area of interest is in crisis communication. From studying crises in social media, I’ve learned that brands often communicate through a different social media channel to get the word out when an account and/or website has been hacked (this is not one of those times to keep quiet). So I decided to communicate to all of my friends and followers on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook that my Instagram had been hacked, and the photos did not reflect my character at all.
As the day went on, more college, church and other friends contacted me to find out what was going on. Within 20 minutes of the hacking, a friend tried to calm me down, saying that no one would believe that I would actually post those photos.
The thing is, you don’t want someone’s kid seeing photos like these. So I decided to see if I could delete them, as I could still see my Instagram feed. It wasn’t easy, because well over 100 photos had been posted, and I occasionally got a notification that a friend had reported my account as a violation of community guidelines.
By 9:30 am that morning, all of the nasty photos had been deleted, but I was still worried.
Talking with the big dogs
Immediately after I took down the nude pictures, it seemed as though the messages from concerned friends stopped, but I was still a bundle of nerves. I checked my email, and Elliott from Customer Service at Instagram had messaged me back telling me to give the email address tied to the account.
In college, I took a Law class, which I think everyone in Communication needs to take. I reminded myself that I could tell Instagram that, if my account was not terminated, then it would be a third party of neglect. Also, being in public relations I viewed the fake posts as misrepresentative of my character, which could cause damage to my career.
This was baffling to me: even though photos were being posted, my username and bio were still listed, even my favorite Bible verse!
When Instagram got back to me, they said the email did not match. I thought (and told them) this was unfair, because I had contacted them as soon as I knew something was wrong. I told them I’d like access to the account either given back to me or terminated.
BUT… then Elliott emailed me back and told me that, due to the privacy of the owner of the account, they could not tell me anything about it.
It felt like the scene in “Tommy Boy,” when David Spade tells the lady at the airport, “I’m Earth, have we met?”
Angry and upset, I decided to message him screenshots from friends saying that my account had been hacked. Yet again, he said he could not do anything. I replied as well, saying how demeaning this was, and letting him know that if it were not resolved, I would contact an attorney.
That night, I had nightmares about my account having even more nudity posted on it. A friend messaged me the steps and a form to report the account, just as I had done before; and then I figured I should try to find a possible loophole for legal issues at Instagram.
Instagram has a legal-related mailbox: email@example.com. Even though I viewed it as a place for celebrities to report images being used without permission, or fake accounts, or some pedophile on Family Watchdog creating a fake account to look at kids in the community, it was worth a shot. Plus, hacking obviously breaks the rules, so I figured it was worth a try. I also re-submitted the form that my friend Austin had sent me, just to ask for help again. Finally, I also decided to report the followers who added my now-fake account.
Slight progress, but still a pain
The next night I had even more nightmares, but this time I came up with the bright idea to message someone I went to high school with. I sent her detailed instructions asking her to report the account as someone she knew being impersonated.
Immediately after that action, my account was removed. Like a crazy person, I called another friend who’d warned me about the hacking, to ask if it was still there. He confirmed that it was gone.
And: I received another email from Instagram (Elliott again). Surprise, surprise, he told me he couldn’t release information about it, but the account was not on there. So, I asked whether I’d get the account back or would have to create a new one.
I received no more responses either from Elliott or the law enforcement mailbox. While I understand the privacy and protocol at Instagram, they need to have a better plan for situations like mine.
For a moment, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get back on Instagram, and this is not like me. Being social, on social, is part of my personality (my friend Roman, who I mentioned earlier, became my friend and trivia teammate because of social media). In fact, my boss found me because of my activity on social media!
Since I use social media to connect with people in my PR network as much as I do personally, I decided I shouldn’t let this ruin me, and set up a new account. My username isn’t as consistent as it used to me (I had @emmamhawes on all my social media accounts), but it is what it is. It felt silly making my settings private, but I didn’t see any other option. And I’m beyond thankful for my boss, Tim, and his understanding over the situation, as I’m still employed.
I’m mad at how Instagram handled this, because they could have launched an investigation or taken care of the situation earlier. Also there are many other cases of people who have been hacked, but they got their accounts back.
How did I do?
At work, I have a habit of grading myself according to the amount of work I’ve done, and spelling mistakes that I’ve made on projects. It’s kind of like my own personal SWOT analysis, which I conduct frequently. This motivates me to do better, while reminding myself that someday I will hopefully have some musicians as clients at a Nashville PR agency, and possibly teach PR classes in a university setting.
Looking back I must admit, I had no idea what to do other than to try to change the password, tell friends to report it and contact Instagram, and then reach out to them again. I was learning this stuff on the spot. The grade I would give myself is a B minus. I feel a little stupid about this, but then again I was proactive when I saw something suspicious… so I guess a B- isn’t too bad in this instance.
Steps for Internet safety: lessons learned
- First, don’t be afraid to question anything.
- Contact these email accounts and links to report a hacked Instagram account.
If this has happened to your friend, tell them their account has been hacked, and share these steps with them. It also helps a lot if you report any suspicious accounts that you may see.
- Investigate by trying to obtain the user names of people tagged in the posts. This could help them take down other accounts that are NSFW or kids.
- Take screenshots of the messages your friends sent you to warn you that your account has been hacked, then send them to Instagram as evidence.
- Communicate to your publics that the account was hacked and doesn’t represent you as a person. People will most likely guess you didn’t post the pictures, but it can still be embarrassing. Make sure to give everyone regular updates as to what’s going on.
- If you still have access to your account, try to delete pictures that are posted and report the followers that added you after the account was hacked.
- Tell your friends to report it as “this profile is pretending to be someone” – not as pornography or spam (I should have been more clear with my friends).
- The appropriate way to report an account is go to the person’s account, then hit the ellipse or the three dots on the upper right hand corner.
- Next, click “I believe this violates the community guidelines;” then “report account;” then “this profile is pretending to be someone else;” and then hit “someone I know.”
- If you are a person, tell your friends to do this. BUT – if you are representing an organization, give instructions to the right people within your company to report the account.
It would look silly if a company like Lululemon told the followers to take these steps to report a violation.
Having your social media account hacked feels like a huge violation. But don’t let it stop you from being you. I hope this never happens to you, but if it does, perhaps this post will come in useful.
Emma Hawes is currently working as a freelance social media content creator, while attending graduate school online at Purdue University. Hawes has a bachelor’s degree in communication, with concentrations in journalism, public relations and broadcasting from Mississippi State University. In college, Hawes was a freelance broadcasting technician, working behind the scenes for games with ESPN. When she is not behind her MacBook, iPhone or camera, she enjoys watching comedy, reading and cooking. Her fictional idol is Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation.