Opportunists Are Preying on Instacart Shoppers as Bots Ramp Up on the Platform

A middleman is dubiously offering Instartcart shoppers the chance of more reliable work in exchange for thousands of dollars.
May 8, 2020, 4:08pm
Instacart
Image: PATRICK T. FALLON/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Opportunists are trying to find ways to extract money from Instacart shoppers, some of whom are increasingly desperate for work during the coronavirus pandemic. In one case, a middleman asks Instacart workers for thousands of dollars with the dubious promise that they are able to change a shopper's account in Instacart's backend to let them work at specific stores, providing more reliable work.

The news signals increasing competition among Instacart shoppers, who in recent weeks say that they have seen their chances to work dry up as the platform has been flooded with hundreds of thousands of new shoppers. The battle for work has also become fierce due to multiple people developing bots that give some drivers the ability to scoop up delivery jobs faster than people who aren't using automated tools. Now other people are trying to potentially scam shoppers with more schemes.

"I'm skeptical if he's actually legitimate or just scamming shoppers for money in hopes for some secret access to batches," an Instacart shopper and administrator of an Instacart shopper Facebook group who first alerted Motherboard to the scheme said. Motherboard granted the admin anonymity to protect them from retaliation from Instacart.

Do you have internal documents from Instacart, have access to an Instacart bot, or know about other schemes on the platform? We'd love to hear from you. You can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

Instacart has two general types of shopper on its platform. The first, "full-service shoppers," make up the majority of the Instacart workforce; they receive orders on their app, drive to the store that has the items, find the items, purchase them, and deliver them to the customer, using their own vehicle and paying for any expenses related to that. The other type of shoppers are "in-store shoppers," (ISS) who are paid hourly, and only work inside a particular store picking up items, meaning they don't have the expenses of buying gas or maintaining their vehicle. In-store shoppers are officially employees of Instacart, while full-service shoppers are gig workers who are classified as independent contractors. For that reason, some workers may be more attracted to the in-store shopper position, or at least might think that it will provide them with more predictable work as new people sign up to be full-service shoppers.

In this scheme, a middleman says they know an insider at Instacart who will change a shopper's account to that of an in-store shopper, for a fee.

"All I do is message my friend at IC [Instacart]," the middleman wrote in a text message to the admin. "He changes your status. No third party apps. Can't get kicked off. Nobody I know of in almost a year has been kicked off."

In the text messages with the admin, the middleman asked which specific store the admin wanted to be an in-store shopper at.

"Every morning, you go in and pick the orders you want. Kroger for example, you shouldn't have any orders less than $60 ever. You can pick 5 at a time," the middleman continued, adding that becoming a shopper at Costco is also possible. The middleman said the price of their service was between $500 and $2000 depending on the store.

An Instacart internal support associate, which is a position at the company which deals with issues around workers, told Motherboard "ISS shoppers only work at one location in general." Motherboard granted the person anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to the media.

There is no indication that the middleman actually has access to an Instacart insider. Because in-store shoppers are technically employees rather than independent contractors, becoming one would theoretically require more administrative tasks and paperwork than a simple checkbox change on an account.

"The safety and security of the entire Instacart community is our top priority. We have several robust security measures in place to ensure the security of the Instacart platform. Selling or purchasing batches is not an authorized use of the Instacart platform and is a violation of our Terms of Service," an Instacart spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement. "Anyone found to be engaged in any type of inappropriate or fraudulent use of the Instacart platform, including selling or purchasing batches or utilizing any of these types of services will have their accounts immediately deactivated. We advise shoppers not to engage with any individual or company that claims to provide priority access to batches or other unique access to the platform, particularly those that request sensitive information such as Instacart usernames, passwords and/or credit card information," the statement added.

Over the past few weeks Motherboard has spoken to several Instacart shoppers who feel the platform is not doing enough to police the presence of bots and other automated tools which aim to grab batches of work before another human shopper manages to.

"Amazon has had people using similar software for years, and it's still ongoing. Meaning a company at the level of Amazon hasn't even put a stop to it," the admin said. "It makes me think that Instacart just really doesn't care whatsoever."

In March Instacart gig workers held a huge nationwide strike to protest against the company not providing them with basic protective equipment and or paid-leave for those with preexisting health conditions.

Edward Ongweso Jr contributed reporting to this piece.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.