Picture: Instagram – Influencers, socialites, models, businesspeople and all manner of clout chasers rely on Instagram to flaunt their lifestyle, generate income and establish a personal brand, the writer says.
By Craig Silverman and Bianca Fortis
To his more than 150,000 followers on Instagram, Dr Martin Jugenburg is Real Dr 6ix, a well-coiffed Toronto plastic surgeon posting images and video of his work sculpting the decolletage, tucking the tummies and lifting the faces of his primarily female clientele.
Jugenburg’s physician-influencer tendencies led to a six-month suspension of his Ontario medical license in 2021 after he admitted to filming patient interactions and sharing images of procedures without consent. He apologised for the lapse and is currently facing a class-action lawsuit from female patients who say their privacy was violated.
But on Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer, and in roughly a dozen sponsored posts scattered across the web, Jugenburg’s career and controversial history was eclipsed by a new identity. On those platforms, he was DJ Dr 6ix, a house music producer who’s celebrated for his “inherent instinctual ability for music composition” and who “assures his followers that his music is absolutely unique”.
It’s an unconvincing persona — perhaps even less so once his “music” is played. But it was enough to secure what he wanted: a verification badge for his Instagram account.
The coveted blue tick can be difficult to obtain and is supposed to assure that anyone who bears one is who they claim to be. A ProPublica investigation determined that Jugenburg’s dubious alter ego was created as part of what appears to be the largest Instagram account verification scheme ever uncovered. With a generous greasing of cash, the operation transformed hundreds of clients into musical artists in an attempt to trick Meta, the owner of Instagram and Facebook, into verifying their accounts and hopefully paving the way to lucrative endorsements and a coveted social status.
Since at least 2021, at least hundreds of people — including jewellers, crypto entrepreneurs, OnlyFans models and reality show TV stars — were clients of a scheme to get improperly verified as musicians on Instagram, according to the investigation’s findings and information from Meta.
In response to information provided by ProPublica and the findings of its own investigation, Meta has so far removed fraudulently applied verification badges from more than 300 Instagram profiles, and continues to review accounts. That includes the accounts of Mike Vazquez and Lexie Salameh, two stars of the MTV reality show “Siesta Key”. Rather than get verified for their TV work, they were falsely branded online as musicians in order to receive verification. They lost their badges approximately two weeks ago and did not respond to requests for comment.
Jugenburg did not respond to a phone message left at his Toronto practice or to emails detailing evidence that he had paid for his Instagram verification. He has told media outlets he intends to vigorously defend himself against the class-action suit.
The scheme, which likely generated millions in revenue for its operators, illustrates how easily major social, search and music platforms can be exploited to create fake personas with real-world consequences, such as monetizing a verified account. It also underscores how Instagram’s growth and cachet combines with poor customer support and lax oversight to create a thriving black market in verification services and account takedowns for hire.
Influencers, socialites, models, businesspeople and all manner of clout chasers rely on Instagram to flaunt their lifestyle, generate income and establish a personal brand. Some influencers and models told ProPublica they face a barrage of impostor accounts trying to run scams to trick their fans. They also run the constant risk of malicious actors fabricating evidence and filing user reports to convince Instagram to ban their accounts. They see a badge as one of few options available that can help them protect their accounts and business. Others covet the blue tick as a status symbol. The result is a steady supply of well-heeled customers willing to pay five figures to get verified. (Meta is reportedly working on enhancing its customer support.)
The verification scheme identified by ProPublica exploited music platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, as well as Google search, to create fake musician profiles. The songs uploaded to client profiles were often nothing more than basic looping beats or, in at least one case, extended periods of dead air. They credited composers with nonsense names such as “rhusgls stadlhvs” and “kukyush fhehjer.” The Meta employees tasked with reviewing the musician verification applications apparently failed to listen to the tracks or look too closely.
The people running the scheme also purchased articles promoting fake artists and their music on websites, including hip-hop publications like The Source and ThisIs50.com, a music and culture site affiliated with rapper 50 Cent. They often bought fake comments and likes for clients’ Instagram posts to make the accounts look popular and purchased fake streams for songs on Spotify, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the operation. One source said some clients were told to rent a recording studio and post photos on Instagram that made it look like they were working on music. (The Source and ThisIs50.com did not respond to emailed requests for comment.)
“You can make a Spotify account or Apple Music account and boost the streams and get fake music press very cheap. It’s quick and easy,” said the source, who asked not to be named due to fear of retaliation.
A Spotify spokesperson said the company identified artificial streams, which are often generated using bots, on many of the 173 profiles provided by ProPublica. The company has removed more than 100 of the artists from its platform.
“Fraud is an industry-wide issue that we take very seriously,” Spotify spokesperson Zachary Kozlak said. “Spotify invests heavily in automated processes and manual reviews to prevent, detect, and mitigate the impact of artificial activity on the platform. We’ve removed the content in question we found to be manipulated.”
Apple Music did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but it has removed music from the profiles of many of the dubious artists identified by ProPublica.
Using domain registration records, corporate and banking documents, information from online platforms, and interviews with clients and people with knowledge of the scheme, ProPublica was able to identify the person at the center of the plot. He is a Miami-based aspiring DJ and would-be crypto entrepreneur named Dillon Shamoun. With little or no interference from Meta, Shamoun built a verification-for-pay juggernaut while also burnishing his own image by using the same digital manipulation techniques he offered to clients.
Shamoun appears to have hawked his Instagram verification services to a cadre of Miami nightlife impresarios, restaurateurs, jewellers, models and others. He also transformed his model-influencer girlfriend and his older brother, a mortgage broker, into musical artists in attempts to secure account verification.
In phone interviews with and text messages to ProPublica, Shamoun, an athletic, bearded 26-year-old, denied any involvement in the scheme and said he does not sell account verification services. He said he works on FanVerse, a crypto startup that enables creators and influencers to sell NFTs of themselves, among other projects.
“People know who I am and my character and what I do for business, and it has nothing to do with Facebook or Instagram,” he said.
After being provided information by ProPublica, Meta confirmed Shamoun’s key involvement in the fake musician verification scheme. It banned him from its platforms and removed his Instagram and Facebook accounts. The company said that Shamoun’s scheme was a sophisticated operation and that Meta works to thwart the sale of fraudulent services to users of its platforms.
“Scammers selling fraudulent services continue to target online platforms across the internet, including ours, and constantly adapt their tactics in response to industry detection methods,” said a Meta spokesperson, who asked not to be identified due to security concerns related to this story’s subject matter. “We urge people to keep vigilant and never pay for verification status because it violates our Terms. Whenever we identify a scheme like this, we take action – and that means not only will someone who’s paid for verification lose their money, they’ll lose their verification status, as well.”
When asked if any Meta employees or contractors were involved in the scheme, the spokesperson said they can’t comment on internal personnel matters or investigations.
A falling out between Shamoun and a business partner, combined with scrutiny from Meta and ProPublica’s investigation, has unleashed a vicious round of finger-pointing that exposed the underworld of social media manipulation and verification services.
In response to questions from ProPublica, Shamoun said the scheme is all the work of Adam Quinn, a prominent Instagram creator who previously worked with mega-influencer and boxer Jake Paul, and who has collaborated with musicians and celebrities for online promotions. Quinn’s Instagram account had more than 2 million followers when it was removed by Meta in June. The company sent him a cease-and-desist letter that month accusing him of selling account verification services, running celebrity giveaways that inauthentically boosted followers for Instagram accounts and offering to reactivate disabled Instagram accounts for a fee.
The Meta spokesperson said the company had collected evidence of Quinn’s involvement in selling verification services before its recent move against Shamoun for the fake musician scheme.
In comments to ProPublica and in a legal letter sent to Meta, Quinn acknowledged he sold account verification in partnership with Shamoun. He denied being personally involved in account reactivation, and he said his giveaways were in line with Meta’s rules and did not result in fake followers. An archived version of his company’s website lists a menu of “Instagram Growth Packages” ranging up to $7,500 and promising to deliver 100,000 followers using the giveaway model.
Quinn said he had used his connections and Instagram account to refer clients to Shamoun and had received a portion of the resulting fees. Clients typically paid $25,000 to verify an account, though Shamoun has at times charged more than $100,000, according to Quinn. He provided ProPublica with a bank document showing wire transfer information for Shamoun’s company, as well as two agreements from this year that said Quinn and Shamoun were partners in a “Social Media Verification” business. One agreement, signed in June, stipulated that Shamoun’s company was responsible for the client work to “ensure successful Verifications.” A source close to Shamoun, who asked not to be named to avoid jeopardizing their current job, verified the authenticity of the agreements but claimed Quinn was the one submitting fake musician verification requests. The language of the agreements appears to dispute this claim, as do Meta’s findings.
ProPublica also obtained a copy of a business proposal from Shamoun’s company, Rumor LLC, that pitched a range of online marketing services, including social media verification.
In his lawyer’s letter to Meta, Quinn denied submitting fake musician accounts to the company for verification. He said Shamoun created and controlled the process and handled the submissions. He also accused Shamoun of supplying information to Meta in an effort to get Quinn’s and Quinn’s girlfriend’s Instagram accounts removed in June.
“I believe that I am a victim of circumstance here, being unjustly attacked by someone not only violating Meta’s terms and conditions, but abusing the system put in place to prevent people like him from doing what they do,” Quinn’s letter said.
The implosion of the scheme has left Quinn and Shamoun banned from Instagram and other Meta platforms and has put an end to their lucrative business partnership. It has also left more than 300 recently de-verified clients angry that they paid tens of thousands of dollars for nothing.
Silverman is a national reporter for ProPublica covering voting, platforms, disinformation, and online manipulation.
Fortis is an Abrams Reporting Fellow at ProPublica.
A full version of this article can be found on Propublica.