Having a secure Instagram password is a must, but cybercriminals can use a variety of methods to gain access to your account. Which leads to the question: how do Instagram accounts get hacked anyway?
Every year, cybercriminals generate over $3 billion in revenue from social media attacks alone and hacking constitutes a large portion of these malicious incidents.
To help influencers and business owners protect their Instagram accounts, below we breakdown 6 tactics hackers use to extract personal information and bypass 2-factor authentication.
How do hackers hack Instagram accounts? There are default security features on Instagram, like 2-factor authentication, so how can hackers overcome these?
The general answer to that question is, in most cases, some form of social engineering.
In this context, social engineering refers to the act of manipulating and deceiving Instagram users into willingly providing confidential information.
Instagram clearly states that you can only share original content that doesn’t violate copyright infringement laws. That said, it’s possible for you to commit a copyright violation unintentionally, in which case Instagram would take action and reach out to correct the problem.
This has led to many cybercriminals actually impersonating Instagram representatives pretending to address copyright infringement issues. In these cases, a hacker sends a link to your email or through a private message on Instagram and asks you to log in in order to address the issue. This is a real-life example of a message that was used to hack @wandertears:
You can learn more about this case by checking out this article.
The link leads to a fake page that, even though it mimics Instagram’s login page, is actually designed to collect your username and password details. The only difference between the real page and the fake is a small variation in the URL, which is hard to detect.
To avoid raising suspicion, cybercriminals usually redirect you to one of Instagram’s legitimate FAQ pages that discusses the topic of copyright infringement.
There’s a couple different methods you can use to verify the messages you receive from Instagram. First, urgent Instagram notifications are usually delivered directly through the account interface or via email. If you receive a DM about your account, it won’t be legitimate - even if it’s from a profile that has the name “Instagram” in the username.
Second, Instagram now allows you to see a record of all security and login emails through your account. If you receive a suspicious email directly to your inbox, you should check this part of your Instagram account before opening the message.
From your profile, go to Security>Emails from Instagram. If you don’t see a record of the email, you should delete it right away.
You’re probably familiar with verified badges, the blue pins at the top of Instagram profiles that have been authenticated by the social network. While valuable, this account feature is also at the center of another social engineering that hackers use to break into Instagram.
In this scenario, hackers send a private message or email that offers a chance to add a verified badge, linking to a deceitful website that collects your login information. They may request that you don’t change your profile data, like username or password, until the change has taken effect in order to gain enough time to break into your account.
Here’s an example of a verification badge scam email sent to the owners of pillow business, Cuddle Buddy.
There are a few tell-tell discrepancies here to help you avoid falling for such a scam. For starters, grammar mistakes like excessive capitalization should serve as a warning. Not only this, but the profile the message is being sent from does not belong to an official account nor does it have a verified account. It has the word “Instagram” in the name, but it doesn’t give any indication of being official. Finally, note how the “contact us” text on the blue button is not centered properly, so it’s not consistent with other Instagram content.
To get a blue verification badge right now you need to apply through your profile, and the form you have to fill in should look a little something like this:
Get early access to Notch's insurance for Instagram accounts
Hackers that employ social engineering attacks leverage every piece of information they have at their disposal. For example, they sometimes design suspicious activity alerts that look like a legitimate notification from Instagram, but actually contain malicious links.
According to the Meta-owned social platform, emails from Instagram only come from “@mail.instagram.com” or “@facebookmail.com” addresses. Here’s an example of what a legitimate security email from Instagram looks like:
This security message is for a new login from a device that the user didn’t commonly sign in through. Note how the email address is from a trusted source and how all of the design elements are aligned properly.
Even if the emails you receive look legitimate, we advise that you go to your Instagram account and verify that the security email was sent through there.
Fraudulent giveaways are especially troublesome because they exist in an ecosystem that is packed with legitimate promotional freebies. This form of social engineering can take two different shapes.
In its most traditional version, this type of hack operates like a false verified badge attack. The difference is that the hacker impersonates a big brand, exciting start-up, or similar renowned company that’s offering a big giveaway to specific social media influencers.
Some scammers even have legitimate-looking accounts that have been active for a while and have thousands of followers. The first message usually includes at least one spoofed link leading to a false Instagram login that’s designed to extract the username and password submitted.
A more complex form of fraudulent giveaways and sponsorships can occur when hackers have collected information about you, but still need a few more details to successfully breach your account. Instead of sending you a link to a spoofed login page, hackers may ask you to fill in a survey that asks for personal information, like your date of birth, mother’s maiden name, and other answers to common security questions.
Below is a real example of the phishing email that led to @FlipFlopWanderers getting hacked. Read their full story here.
Never rush or feel pressured into clicking links. Take time to investigate if the email looks legitimate: for instance, check for spelling mistakes and hover over the hyperlink to see if the URL leads to a familiar or safe website. To be extra safe, you could even Google the company supposedly sending the email, and contact them to check if they really did send you an email.
Managing a social media profile can take a huge amount of time, especially if you have a large base of followers. There are many tools that can simplify the process, but you also have to evaluate each platform to make sure it comes from a legitimate developer.
Just as with malicious web extensions, hackers can create counterfeit tools that are supposed to improve functionality, but actually pose a security threat.
These tools usually look and feel legitimate, but bring you very little in terms of functionality and practical value. This type of scheme is not as common because it requires a significant amount of resources, but it’s still used by cybercriminals looking for bigger, more valuable targets.
When this type of attack is successful, target users integrate the counterfeit tool into their social media accounts. This fake tool can be used to set up man-in-the-middle attacks, intercept all data, and extract login details, among other data.
It’s normal to watch your budget, especially in the early stages of your Instagram account. But, working with lesser-known, low-cost tools increases the chances of being targeted by scammers. To avoid this, you should opt for established tools that come from renowned providers or platforms that have been recommended by trusted peers.
All of the social engineering hacking techniques we’ve covered so far require hackers to manually create fake apps and website pages in order to collect details from their targets. With reverse proxy attacks, hackers don’t need to create a spoof website or app - instead they can automate the theft of credentials.
A reverse proxy attack is a type of man-in-the-middle approach - hackers direct victims to a domain that sits in between the user and the legitimate website. The URL will be very similar to the legitimate page, and the overall appearance in the malicious domain mirrors the legitimate page.
When applied to the Instagram context, you could receive a convincing email from a hacker that directs you to Instagram’s login page. What you don’t realize is that you’ve been sent to do this via a proxy server - so when you enter your credentials and log into Instagram, your information - including 2FA - is being intercepted in real time.
Be extremely cautious when clicking on links from your email inbox - always verify an email claiming to be from Instagram by checking your Instagram account. From your profile, go to Security>Emails - if the email doesn’t appear there, it’s likely a scam.
Now that we’ve answered the question “how do hackers steal Instagram accounts?” let's go over the reasons why these criminals may want to target your profile.
Like other types of criminals, hackers and other malicious actors flock to the most popular platforms because these present the biggest financial opportunities. Today, you can generate a significant amount of revenue from a large base of followers and hackers are eager to benefit from this.
Some of the common things a hacker may do once your account is breached include:
Hackers use a wide range of approaches and develop new techniques regularly to bypass Instagram’s default security measures. The number of social media scam victims in the US skyrocketed from 46,000 to 95,000 in 2021, and that number shows no signs of slowing down in the near future.
Learning about the different techniques that hackers use and implementing security best practices as a counter are the first steps to keeping your Instagram account safe.