Instagram user distraught after Hampstead residents cough up hundreds to fraudster
PUBLISHED: 16:39 06 December 2019 | UPDATED: 17:06 06 December 2019
A beauty therapist has demanded answers from Instagram after a fraudster hacked into her social media account and stole hundreds of pounds from followers.
Cherie Hedge, who works in Hampstead and Golders Green, had spent four years building up a 2,300-strong following on the social media platform.
On Sunday, December 1 she logged into the WiFi during a hen party at The Soho Hotel in central London.
Within minutes a hacker had seized control of her account and sent dozens of messages to followers, purporting to be her, and asking them for Amazon gift cards and iTunes vouchers.
At least 50 people were contacted by the account, cheriemakeuplondon.
The Ham&High has spoken to three of the victims who paid up - including one Hampstead woman who parted with more than £300 before realising it was a scam.
Ms Hedge, who is in her 50s and lives in Kilburn, deactivated her account as a precaution.
"It has been awful, and really emotional," she said. "My friends haven't got the money back and I have a lot of clients that now think I was asking them for money."
Typical messages from the hacker to followers informed them Cherie was "busy" or "travelling" and asked if they could purchase a gift card or voucher for her, saying she would pay them back later.
The fraudster also set up a dummy email address in her name, email@example.com, and included details about her own life - such as the meditation classes she attends - to make the bogus contact seem plausible.
Close family friend Kate Dignam, a music teacher from Hampstead Garden Suburb, said she was convinced by the hacker to buy them £300 worth of gift cards in a hurry on the Sunday afternoon. She had sent them the first £200 worth before receiving a panicked phone call from her friend.
She said: "I was actually with Cherie that morning so it didn't seem strange to me that she had got in touch.
"I was really upset. There's never a good time for this but I'm hoping to get the money back from the bank.
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"Instagram and all these platforms should have in-house fraud teams. They should also have people come into schools and give talks about security and what parents can do; they've got a responsibility to younger users and even to older users."
Fellow victim Moshe Sassooni, a Golders Green-based director of a packaging firm, also forked out £100 on an Amazon gift card and iTunes voucher for the scammer.
The father-of-four said: "I got a message on Instagram saying 'It's my cousin's birthday and I'm travelling' and asking for an iTunes voucher.
"She'd never done that before but nonetheless, I went out of my way to do it online. I was in the middle of my son's birthday party and trying to do her a favour.
"It was very pushy and then said 'Do you mind doing it with another £50' and asked for one on Amazon; and at the same time as I paid, I got a message from the real Cherie."
Ms Hedge's ex-husband Billy Gulliver, from Hampshire, also parted with £50 after speaking to the thief, who was also still using Ms Hedge's profile picture.
He said: "They wrote back and said 'Can you send another £50' but I thought, sod this.
"Afterwards I wrote to Amazon to cancel the gift card but they said I had to go to the bank. I'll have to put it down to £50 of experience if I don't get it back."
Ms Hedge, a single mum and makeup artist who also sells anti-ageing technology, said she has lost hundreds of pounds in revenues as a result of closing her account because of the Black Friday deals she could have posted.
Now, she said, Instagram had yet to acknowledge her complaint or investigate, or help her re-open her account.
She said: "I feel let down. There isn't enough awareness out there [of security risks] and there should be some sort of set-up that can help us. I don't feel they support their users."
Last September the image-sharing platform, which was bought by Facebook for $1bn in 2012, was hit by a spate of hacks apparently stemming from Russia.
When contacted by the Ham&High Instagram said it would be impossible to recover Ms Hedge's account but did not comment on whether the case, also reported to Action Fraud, was being investigated internally or if it had an in-house fraud team.
For its part The Soho Hotel confirmed its public WiFi is password-protected and customers' devices are segregated from each other. A spokeswoman for owner Firmdale added: "We have not had any reports of anything like this before at The Soho Hotel or any of the other hotels."