When a swimwear brand called Sandflair messaged 22-year-old Emma – AKA Mermaid Zelda – on Instagram two years ago, she was delighted people were taking notice of her content. A collab with a cute bikini brand seemed like the perfect match for the actress and professional mermaid, slotting in perfectly next to her whimsical videos full of rainbow fish tails and waterproof makeup tutorials.
“They offered to make me one of their ‘brand ambassadors’, which meant I would receive one free bikini, one free piece of jewellery and one free pair of sunglasses,” she remembers. “I felt very excited as I was really trying to build my following and potentially become an influencer.”
Collaboration offers like the one Emma received aren't rare on Instagram: They pop up all the time as messages or comments, cheerfully telling you they “love your style! DM to collab x”. Often, it doesn’t even to have anything to do with the number of followers you have. But it’s easy to see why Emma was swayed by the proposition – some top influencers earn up to six figures for one post, and why not say yes to some free stuff?
At the time, Emma's combined items were selling for around $123 on the Sandflair website, but she was given a discount code that brought the cost down to zero. Still, it wasn't exactly free – she had to pay a $20 shipping fee, and then they took about a month to arrive. Once they did, she diligently posted them on Instagram and her YouTube channel. It was only when Emma’s followers started pointing out that the same products were for sale on cheap websites like Wish and AliExpress for just a few dollars that she realised this collaboration wasn’t quite as it seemed.
She did some research before posting a new video called “The truth behind Instagram Brand Ambassador Scams” to warn others. “From what I gathered, many brands target people like me who want to become models or influencers and they take advantage of our ambitions,” Emma says.
24-year-old Kalle from Virginia was similarly intrigued when an account with only around 950 followers commented on her picture, asking her to message the main account of a brand called Sincere Sally to join their team as an ambassador. She was given a 50 percent discount for their products. (Sincere Sally did not respond to a request for comment.)
Kalle says her order took five weeks to arrive, and the sizing was bizarre. “I couldn’t even begin to get the jeans up over my legs, and the jeans and dress were both a weird, cheap feeling material,” she remembers.
Online vendors and even Depop sellers often buy items on the cheap and sell them on for profit using a method called dropshipping. They advertise products for an inflated price, and then send them directly to consumers from low-cost suppliers like Wish and AliExpress, which are based in China. The dropshipper then pockets the difference, despite having never handled the stock themselves.
Acting as a middleman to buy cheap products and sell them on for more isn't necessarily a scam, even though it feels like one – that's just how late stage capitalism works. But when Instagram users like Emma and Kalle are approached for an “ambassador scheme” that ends up costing them money, things can feel a little sketchier.
“Legitimate offers to collaborate will not require payment for any product sent to an influencer. That's why the hashtag is #gifted not #discounted,” says Jo O'Reilly, a digital privacy advocate at ProPrivacy. In other words, if you pay money to receive an item, you’re not an ambassador for a brand – you’re a customer who has made a purchase, even if the brand’s marketing approach has manipulated you into thinking otherwise.
These strategies are so successful because they operate in a legal grey area and the stakes are relatively low. “In the scheme of things, what these people are doing is fairly harmless but it’s still wrong,” says Alexander Egerton, a lawyer and privacy compliance officer at Seddons LLP. “Any arrangement which is sold as being one thing and is something else is on the face of it is unlawful. But the question here is, which law is it breaking?”
According to Egerton, would-be ambassadors are still consumers and they have strong protections in the UK, thanks to unfair marketing regulations and strict online and distance selling rules. But when you order from a mysterious online brand, it’s hard to hold anyone accountable. Without names, contact numbers or addresses on their Shopify-hosted websites, it’s difficult to contact the owners, and they often operate outside the UK’s jurisdiction – locations like Bali are immensely popular for dropshippers to set up their businesses for this reason.
“The CMA [The Competition and Markets Authority] is quite a ruthless regulator, but they would not be able to pursue an unknown person or an unknown company,” explains Egerton. “If you don’t know who they are then can you sue them? No. Is the CMA going to get stuck in? Probably not. Is law enforcement? Probably not.”
Some brands promise to promote their “ambassadors” on their Instagram page to help them gain followers. Juliette was trying to grow her following when she was offered a free Daniel Philip watch along with a repost of her wearing it on the brand’s page. Like Emma, she had to pay $20 for shipping. When she sent her photo, the brand went quiet. “I was DMing the main page and the founder, and they just stopped answering,” she says. When she eventually convinced them to share her picture, they didn’t even tag her account. “They very much lied to me to get me to buy their product,” she says.
The Daniel Philip Watch website rings other alarm bells. You can sign up to become a “brand partner” or “manager” and earn money for each person you convince to become a brand ambassador. This is a typical multi-level marketing technique, and probably explains why non-influencers are regularly spammed with these requests – whoever gets you to take the bait might be rewarded in cash.
There's nothing to stop such brand managers juggling several accounts to target countless people in a short period of time. The more messages they send out, the more likely they are to find someone excited by the idea of becoming an influencer. “They seem to cast a wide net, often using bots to DM thousands of users at once, knowing that somewhere, someone will fall for it,” says O'Reilly. “They will open up multiple different fake accounts and use them until they get banned for spamming. And then, when they get a bite, the humans take over.”
But who are the humans behind the overly-enthusiastic conversations, replying almost instantly to your queries? Atlas Creative Group – the holding company behind Sandflair, Daniel Philip Watch and several other similar brands – has been recruiting young people via its “Young Hustlers” program. In a video posted by the company on YouTube, “teenagers in Asia” are urged to “stop wasting time” and told that if they sign up they can “earn big in just one week.” Another video mentions the “scripts” written with “multiple variations on how the customer could respond” in mind, which is where those “hey sweetie” DMs could come from. (Atlas Creative Group, Daniel Philip and Sandflair did not respond to VICE’s requests for comment.)
It’s not hard to see why young people could be swayed by an opportunity like this. They can work remotely from their phones and we know that COVID has squeezed an already difficult job market – why not send a few chirpy DMs in the hope of earning some commission? And if it doesn’t work out, they can simply delete their scouting accounts, taking the messages and promises with them.
With Instagram showing little sign of cracking down on these schemes – which, as mentioned earlier, aren’t technically downright illegal – it’s currently up to users to get wise to dodgy brand collaborations. “Contact out of the blue asking for money upfront is almost certainly a con and something to be avoided – no matter how flattering it is,” explains Adam French, a Which? consumer rights expert.
“Legitimate brand collaborations are unlikely to involve you paying a shipping fee to receive free products,” he continues. “Be wary of brands you haven't heard of and see if the company has an address and proper contact details – if they don't, then these can be red flags.”