Rachael Freedman, a single parent in San Diego, California, signed up to work for Instacart in November after years spent out of the workforce as a stay-at-home mom. She prided herself on the care she put into grocery shopping for her clients. "I always inspect eggs and take time to select the perfect apple," she said. "I really enjoy this work. It got me out of the house. Instacart is my life."
But on March 30, her life was upended when she received an email from Instacart notifying her that she'd been deactivated from the platform. "Your account is linked to another account(s) on the Instacart platform," it read. "As a result, we deactivated your shopper account." In essence, she'd been fired.
Freedman has no recollection of opening up a separate account or engaging in fraudulent activity. In recent weeks, she has tried appealing her deactivation by following appeal instructions and reached out to Instacart over the app, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for help, but nothing has worked.
"Your appeal has been denied and your account is no longer eligible for reactivation," Instacart told her in a message accompanied by a graphic of sleeping dumplings under a night sky.
"[Instacart] will not respond to any of my emails and documentation. They do not tell you shit. We are not able to defend ourselves. They literally will not listen or reply," Freedman said. "This was my income aside from alimony. I have no money now."
Freedman is one of dozens of Instacart gig workers who have posted on social media since late March about having their accounts deactivated for being "linked to another account(s) on the Instacart platform." Shoppers on social media say this is unjustified, and claim they never created duplicate accounts or engaged in fraud and have not been offered specific information about what triggered the deactivation. Many of these gig workers have become desperate, and don't know what to do.
“We take the safety and security of the Instacart platform very seriously. There has not been a breach or hack of the Instacart platform,” a spokesperson for Instacart told Motherboard, when asked about the recent deactivations. “To ensure the safest possible experience for all members of the Instacart community, our Trust & Safety team is dedicated to ongoing security measures to eliminate any instances of fraudulent activity on the platform.”
The Instacart spokesperson added that what triggered the “linked account” deactivations was not a duplicate account reusing a worker’s credentials, but links the company has detected to fraud. Instacart did not expand on what these fraud vectors are. This point has not been made clear in Instacart’s communications with their workers about why they’ve been deactivated.
Motherboard spoke to four workers who have received the same canned deactivation email, which says "to dispute this deactivation, please respond to this email with any physical evidence or context to support your claim. We'll review your appeal and reach out with our final decision in 48 hours." None of them had any idea what they had done—if anything—to get kicked off of the platform.
The Instacart spokesperson said that if a shopper can prove they were deactivated for a reason beyond their control, they will be reinstated. Workers say they don’t know what information Instacart wants to prove that. The deactivation email does not provide any information about what sort of documentation is needed to revoke the deactivation. Three of these workers have tried sending in photos of their drivers' licenses, proof of residence, birth certificates, and social security cards, and had their appeals rejected.
Motherboard reviewed documentation from two shoppers who had been deactivated for having a “linked account[s]” who were reinstated.
In recent months, Instacart’s gig workers have been targeted by hackers and scams that drain their earnings, take over their accounts, and steal their personal data. Many of the deactivated gig workers claim to have had their accounts hacked and broken into by con artists over the past year. Motherboard reviewed evidence that three accounts that have recently deactivated by Instacart had also been hacked by scammers who phished security codes to log in to their accounts and began shopping orders. Freedman was hacked in January.
Each of these gig workers expressed concern that hackers had gained access to their personal data and were responsible for the recent deactivations. These hacks have been rampant not just on Instacart, but on platforms across the gig economy, including on Shipt and Postmates.
In the gig economy, where working conditions are often determined by an opaque algorithm, deactivations are often triggered by a computer rather than a human being. In essence, being deactivated is like being fired by a boss that does not explain itself and that you cannot talk to.
Instacart has grown massively over the past year, becoming one of the largest gig economy platforms in the United States as home-bound Americans have signed up for on-demand grocery delivery during the pandemic and tens of thousands of laid off workers signed up to delivery groceries on the app. Today the online grocery platform boasts more than half a million gig workers in the United States and is expected to go public on the stock market this year at a valuation of $39 billion. Meanwhile, Instacart spent more than $27 million on a ballot initiative in California, known as Proposition 22, that excluded its workforce from a law that would have forced the company to provide basic rights and benefits on the job, such minimum wage guarantees, workers' compensation, and the right to form unions.
One full-time Instacart worker in Seattle, Washington provided documentation that she, her partner, and her friend had each been deactivated for having accounts "linked to another account" in April. None of them recalls opening a new account or engaging in fraud.
"This was my main source of income. I'm very angry at Instacart for the crappy stuff they do to their contractors," the worker said. Motherboard granted the worker anonymity because they feared retaliation from Instacart. "Suddenly, I'm not doing anything or getting income. How can they have such a weak system?"
"We are all devastated," she continued. "We don’t know how we will pay for rent and bills and be able to provide for our families."
Gig workers who've been deactivated say Instacart makes it difficult to get in touch with anyone from the trust and safety team, the only division of the company, which has the power to revoke their deactivations. The team is only reachable via email, and usually responds with canned messages. In documentation reviewed by Motherboard, agents on Instacart's app have promised to escalate these requests to Instacart's Care Team, but have not seen their deactivations overturned.
"I know you did nothing wrong. I really want to get the issue resolved as I can understand the way you are feeling now because of this but its just I hope you understand it something which is not in my hand," an Instacart care agent wrote in to one of deactivated shoppers in April, according to screenshots of the live chat obtained by Motherboard.
Rebecca Maynard, a local newspaper reporter in Virginia, who relies on Instacart for about half her income and the flexibility to take care of a sick family member, received the same deactivation email in April, and has repeatedly contacted Instacart to get more information about what documentation she needs to provide to repeal the decision.
"It's been two weeks since I've been deactivated, and I've lost a lot of income, and I’ve reached out more than 20 times now," Maynard said. "No one has told me what documentation they’re asking me to send. The other problem is they're working exclusively through email. There needs to be a way to talk to an actual person."