So many Instagram influencers need help regaining access to their hacked accounts that a white hat hacker who helps them is now charging thousands of dollars for the service and considers it his full-time job.
Even after Instagram introduced new measures designed to help hacking victims, an increasingly shady underground trade in pulling back control of Instagram accounts is growing.
"I charge depending on the difficult[y] to access the account," Juan Diego J Pelaez, who describes himself as an Instagram expert, wrote in an email.
In January, Motherboard reported how Instagram influencers were turning to Pelaez when hackers took over their accounts and held them to ransom, usually for a few hundred dollars. The hackers would often pose as brands wanting to sponsor the influencer and phish their password. Sometimes the hackers just deleted the account after receiving payment, though.
When Motherboard previously covered Pelaez and multiple hacking victims, he helped those particular ones for free. But now he usually charges $1,500—which can be more than the fee asked by hackers—Pelaez wrote in an email. He claimed he also uses some of the money for charity. Typically Pelaez asks clients for their Instagram details and email login credentials to handle the account recovery process on their behalf. Paleaz also previously suggested to Motherboard he may engage in hacking in order to help people.
"Of course the number of people who contact me increase so much! Cause there is not help from Instagram. They received the answer that they has to start again a new account," he said.
Know anything else about Instagram account hacking? You can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, OTR chat on email@example.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instagram influencer Kate Sennert contacted Motherboard after hackers held her account ransom for $300 and she started speaking to Pelaez.
"I am not terribly concerned with the issues of him charging a fee or how reasonable that fee is by my or others' standards. From my perspective, my IG account is valuable and if Juan is the only reliable and efficient option I have for recovering it 'intact' or as close to 'intact' as possible, within less than a month's time, I am willing to pay for that," Sennert wrote, adding that one of her main concerns was that the hackers may use her account to then target other influencers.
"I am not sure about Juan anymore. I have heard multiple stories of him charging crazy amounts of money."
She wanted to be sure she was speaking with the real Pelaez and not a hacker imitating him though, Sennert wrote. Sennert forwarded Motherboard an email conversation she had with the other Instagram hacking victim.
"I am not sure about Juan anymore. I have heard multiple stories of him charging crazy amounts of money," the second victim wrote.
Sennert also shared WhatsApp messages between her and Pelaez. The operation is somewhat professionalised, with Pelaez sending prospective clients a link to a WhatsApp chat he describes as the "support channel" where he then asks them for the information required to try and unlock their account.
The WhatsApp messages show Pelaez haggling with the hacking victim.
"Normally I charge more than 1.500 usd but I can charge you only 1.200 usd, cause its [sic] a lot of work and takes time," Pelaez writes.
When Sennert hesitated at handing over her Gmail password, Pelaez then sent her several articles about his previous work and upped his price back to $1,500. (Sennert told Motherboard they eventually agreed on $800.)
Pelaez told Motherboard, "I can't work for free."
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