Spammers can make your Instagram account automatically follow them [UPDATE]

instaspamAfter this week’s invasion of fruit diet-related spam, it’s clear that Instagram has joined the ranks of Facebook and Twitter as a social network plagued by bots. There are more than a few outlets selling likes and follows, and plenty of faux accounts out there spamming the platform uncontrollably.

But generally, the Instagram spam situation sort of follows the same line of advice your mom gave you about bees: If you ignore them, they’ll leave you alone. Unless you went searching for “ways to get more follows or likes on Instagram” or hit up hashtags like #getmorefollowershere, you’re safe and sound.

instagram spammerAt least you were. Something – be it a bug or another security issue – is now causing some accounts to auto-follow spammers. I unfortunately know about this because mine is one of them. One day about a month ago, I opened up my Instagram app, and was greeted with photos from complete strangers.

Stranger yet, their photos were of the over-hashtagged variety – with plenty of the aforementioned spam tags: #followforfollow, #followback, #followme, #tagsforlikes. Not all of these unrequested accounts abuse the hashtag, but they all have hundreds of likes. They certainly seem like accounts that are out trolling for likes and follows.

I’m not alone here either: Instagrammer “elite” Cory Staudacher (@withhearts) tweeted that the same thing happened to him in April. There are a handful of users who’ve wondered why all of a sudden their accounts were following these random people without warning and against their own inclinations.

The fix is simple: You need to head to your Web profile and check out what applications you’ve given access to. Anything suspicious needs to go. Then change your password. Of course, also stop following the guilty parties who you’ve suddenly found looped into your Instagram feed.

Of course the fact that you can easily dismiss this batch of random, like-hungry Instagrammers isn’t really the issue. It’s the fact that the spamming problem is escalating for Instagram, and it’s happening fast.

Both Twitter and Facebook have taken measures to combat their spam and fake profile problems (to varying degrees of success), but the inundation on Instagram is following a different course. Instead of having multiple ways to interact on the platform, there are really only two ways for a spammer or a bot to get your attention: Either by enabling whatever this auto-follow function is, or by commenting on your photos with the intended marketing message is. On Facebook, you might get friend requests or Messages, but these are easy to ignore, and you might not even notice them for quite awhile (thanks to the oblivious positioning of the Other inbox). Meanwhile, tweets and direct messages feed into Twitter so quickly that spambots can be ignored – plus, Twitter almost has a soft spot for spambots (@Horse_ebooks is a legend).

Whether that’s because text spamming is more forgivable or ignorable, I’m not sure, but I will tell you one thing: Being interrupted in my Instagram browsing by a random photo from a hashtagged-obsessed stranger is much more unpleasant than dealing with whatever spammers or bots can throw at me on Twitter and Facebook.

Instagram feels more personal than other social networks. And this glitch is inherently challenging that. Of course, Instagram is only going to keep getting bigger, and this is to be expected. Hopefully its attempts to weed out the fakes and fakers become a priority, because clearly people are gaming the system and you can bet they aren’t going to stop here. 

[UPDATE]

I was able to get in touch with the engineering team at Instagram/Facebook and get a few answers as to what likely happened to my and these other users accounts. Because I formerly experimented with Facebook “spamming” apps for this article and hadn’t taken away permissions for all of them, it’s likely that one was able to signal my account to auto-follow “power users.” Here’s a statement from the team about my issue: 

“Sorry to hear you had this frustrating experience. As far as we’re aware, there is no way for a spammer to force you to follow people. In this instance, it appears that the permissions for one of the third-party applications you’ve authorized include the ability to follow people on your behalf. We’re following up with this application to ask them to be clearer about how they use the permissions they’ve been granted.”

This is still rather strange because the ones I tested in particular would auto-like random Instagram photos (which was then supposed to prompt random uses to start following me and liking my photos … and it did work, very much so) – but I never saw any evidence of auto-following on my part. It is relieving to know that there’s no hack or security bug or spambot that is messing with accounts. 

However, there are a slew of apps out there asking for your Instagram permissions and more and more are probably going to have this type of function built in – and maybe it wont’ affect your account for a month, like it didn’t with mine – until one day, it does. There are plenty of other Instagram fans out there (admitted addict, here) who will try out a new app built off the platform with some abandon. Which sort of brings us full circle: Instagram is hugely popular, app creation for the platform is unstoppable, and it appears that it could mean you get taken for a ride into Insta-liking and Insta-following. Keep reading those Instagram application permission screens, guys – because outside apps hell bent on Instagram fame are out there in droves. 

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