Calgary·In Depth

Social media scam commodifies women's sexuality to swindle followers 

Women’s names and photos are being used in duplicate accounts to advertise adult content and trick site visitors into providing their credit card information. 

Women’s names and photos are being used in duplicate accounts to advertise adult content

What would you do if you saw your face being used to advertise fake adult content?

3 months ago
Duration 2:59
Women’s names and photos are being used in duplicate accounts to advertise adult content.

In the middle of a yoga class last March, Calgary resident Alina Leasenco said she noticed her phone was being inundated with notifications. 

She hadn't made any recent posts. 

Curious, she unlocked it and found several messages from friends telling her to check Instagram. 

Her photos and name had been used to create a second profile, stealing her likeness to advertise faked adult content in the hopes of scoring credit card information from duped subscribers. 

Leasenco is one of many targets of the scam that not only appropriates a person's identity, but commodifies their body as bait to swindle their followers. 

She said her first duplicated profile was quickly taken down after being reported, but that she sees other people targeted in the same way.

"It happens all the time, it happens every day, I see somebody saying, 'Hey, can you please report this account? It's not me,'" Leasenco said. 

Alina Leasenco was successful in having a fake profile of her removed from Instagram. About a year later, she was targeted again. (Jo Horwood/CBC News)

One year later, and just days after her interview with CBC News to discuss that original incident, she was targeted again. 

"I was like, oh the irony," said Leasenco over text message. "Like almost right on the same date." 

Instagram's response 

Despite asking her friends and followers to report it, it took Calgary resident Mariah Bouvier nearly four weeks to get Instagram to remove a fake profile that was using her photos and name to advertise adult content. 

"I reported it multiple times from my business account because my personal account had been banned from them, obviously," Bouvier recalled. 

"And they actually got back to me saying that they didn't see a problem with it." 

Calgary resident Mariah Bouvier tried for weeks to get Instagram to remove a fake profile that was using her photos and name to advertise adult content. (Jo Horwood/CBC News)

Bouvier received an automated message from Instagram telling her their review team hadn't been able to view the report, but that they found the account "likely doesn't go against our Community Guidelines." 

"The fact that someone is impersonating me when I had no say in it, it's harmful." Bouvier said. 

"And luckily, I feel like I have a sense of humour where I can laugh it off, but that's not the case for some people." 

CBC News reached out to Meta (Facebook), the company that owns Instagram, for a response. 

"Claiming to be another person on Instagram violates our Community Standards, and we remove fake accounts when we become aware of them," stated a spokesperson for Meta. 

"We know we can do more here, and we're working hard to stop bad actors before they cause harm, and to keep our community safe." 

The spokesperson also noted that the imposter accounts identified in CBC's request had been deleted.

The company adds that millions of accounts are blocked each day using artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify suspicious behaviours without assessing the content itself. 

They say that automated tools are used to flag bots that may be spreading policy-violating content, including pornographic images. 

Scam strategy 

The fake profiles of Leasenco and Bouvier both advertised fake links to platforms known for, or specifically advertising, adult content self-uploaded by users. 

When clicked, the link on Bouvier's imposter account takes users to a Wix site instead of the platform presented, PocketStars. 

Wix is a website-building platform that allows users to create free domains. 

Bouvier reached out to Wix, who she says promptly shut down the landing site. 

Leasenco had contacted OnlyFans, believing that the profile with her images was legitimate. 

The PocketStars and OnlyFans platforms each allow users to upload their own content. While PocketStars is specifically an adult website, OnlyFans allows a variety of content, including pornography. 

"They advised that it's not really their issue," said Leasenco. 

"It's not an account that exists, so of course, it's a scam account, it just looks like OnlyFans." 

Content creators on platforms like OnlyFans often set up separate social media accounts to develop their online brand at a distance from their private life. 

Tom Keenan, a professor at the University of Calgary, says the imitation of reality makes the ruse especially effective. 

"They try to leverage the fact that you have a relationship."

Keenan said that potential victims are more likely to open links and emails from people that they think they know, a method used widely in other scams as well. 

"We see an awful lot of that where they say, well, we're your favourite supplier and, you know, you need to send us a wire transfer or something like that," said Keenan. 

"So there's nothing new about it, but it is hurtful and I'm sure people feel very invaded when their personal photos and information is misappropriated." 

Both Bouvier and Leasenco acknowledge that their profiles are set to public, and realize that leaves their photos vulnerable to theft. 

They each work in public-facing careers and use their social media platforms to develop their brands and both chose to prioritize their professional growth over the potential risk of stolen content. 

Neither expected to be targeted like this.

Bouvier says it was a frustrating experience to get the account impersonating her taken down. (Jo Horwood/CBC News)

"I felt very violated and I felt very angry because, yes, like I said, I put a lot of work into the images that were created by me and other artists, and that was extremely upsetting to me," Leasenco said. 

As an actress and model, Leasenco's face and likeness are immeasurably valuable to her career. 

"I felt like my art was being sexualized when that was not a primary intent for it."

Bouvier runs her own online business as well as regularly streaming on Twitch with her partner.

She worries about the results people will see if they try to look up her real accounts online. 

"People are able to look up my name. This is going to be the second account that pops up and someone might not think so highly or might put me in a different light." 

Commodifying womens' bodies 

Based in Edmonton as an advocate against sexual violence, Brittany Rudyck says the objectifying portrayals are particularly upsetting. 

"Women have this age of post feminism where they want to be sexually liberated and maybe post thirst traps for their friends or followers that are really cute," said Rudyck. 

"And then to see it be co-opted like that by some stranger on the internet is really shocking, and it just kind of speaks to men's entitlement over the bodies and images of women." 

Bouvier, Leasenco and Rudyck all agree that the profiles they've seen solely target women. 

Whereas other scams may offer a free laptop as bait to follow a link, this fraud makes the women themselves the commodity. 

Leasenco is a model and actress, so she keeps her social media profiles public to enable brand development. (Submitted by Alina Leasenco, photo by Lukas LeClerc.)

Bouvier said she doesn't believe she would have been impersonated if she was male. 

"This didn't happen to my partner, who's the face of the Twitch (channel), it happened to me," Bouvier said. 

"They can post shirtless photos, they can post whatever they want, and it never happens to them — it happens to women." 

She said it's already difficult to exist in a male-dominated industry such as Twitch without having images of her body objectified to scam her followers. 

Rudyck says she observes similar situations happen across society. 

"The patriarchal structure of our culture suggests that men do have a certain claim or ownership over women's bodies and sexualities," Rudyck said. 

"It is a societal pattern that we see played out over and over again, whether it's with the theft of Instagram images, or it's the way narratives around romance are portrayed in rom coms and that men can stalk and creep on women." 

The imposter accounts even made a point to follow the same connections Leasenco and Bouvier have on Instagram. 

That led to uncomfortable conversations with family members. 

"My family, that isn't necessarily in this country and doesn't speak English, had seen these things and, you know, they didn't reach out to me, but I had to reach out to them," Leasenco said. 

Leasenco says her grandmother, who lives in Moldova, had created an account on Instagram to keep up with her granddaughter's career. 

"It horrified her, and horrified her more, of course, because, you know, it's a different culture, too," recalled Leasenco of the conversation with her grandmother, wherein she was also forced to explain what the OnlyFans platform is. 

"She was very upset to hear about that." 

Bouvier says her brother took it in his stride, joking with her to let him know which sites not to visit. 

Both Leasenco and Bouvier were forced to explain time and again that the profiles were faked. 

Protecting online privacy 

Rudyck says that those conversations with family members and friends can be awkward. 

But for those who notice a new profile that fits the scam, she says it's important to start the conversation without judgement in case the profile is legitimate. 

"Something like that where the person receiving the message knows that it's coming from a place of wanting to protect the autonomy and safety of whoever is putting out the content," said Rudyck. 

"So if it is a beloved niece or someone who's a little bit younger, just making sure that also they know that they can come to you if ever something does happen." 

She notes that this scam exploits not only the women being impersonated, but the sex work industry as a whole. 

"It's also exploitative of the people who are wanting to pay for sex work and engage in that sort of content earnestly and pay the content creators what they are worth."

Bouvier customizes and resells designer clothing and accessories, a business she relies on social media to advertise. (Jo Horwood/CBC News)

Keenan says it is difficult to protect online posts without locking a profile down to private. 

"The other thing I guess you could probably do is somehow watermark the photos, so there are technical ways of keeping track of where a photo came from." 

He says protecting digital content could become more essential in time. 

"More and more, your face is your password," said Keenan. "I think in the future we'll be kind of hiding our faces online for the very reason that somebody might use LinkedIn to get into our bank account." 

In Meta's response, the spokesperson advised anyone who believes they may have been targeted by an impersonator to report the account and provide a photo of their government-issued ID to prove their identity to Instagram.