Followers of Mississauga woman’s Instagram lose thousands in social media scam

A Canadian woman’s Instagram account was hacked and used to allegedly scam thousands of dollars from followers. CityNews reporter Faiza Amin with the growing concern over cyber investment frauds that have scammed Canadians out of millions of dollars.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

A Canadian woman is warning social media users to be on the lookout for fraud after, saying hackers took over her Instagram page and scammed thousands of dollars from her followers.

Sharon Mudavanhu, known as @YogaColourist on Instagram, amassed over 82,000 followers on the social media app, many of which are customers and clients.

The Mississauga woman, the owner of a hair studio in the city, says her account was hacked on Oct. 15, and she wasn’t able to access it.

She says hackers are using her page to run an investment scam. Though the page is currently set to private, a screengrab shows a post from Sunday that states, “if you want to invest and increase your money 5/10 times within 1-2 hours, contact Emma!”

Emma Ramirez was tagged in the post, and that profile page shows that they are a “full-time Forex Trader.”

“Well, no one is going to believe that,” Mudavanhu remembered thinking. “It looks like a scam, so I hope no one looks into it further.”

She later learned that some people did.

Mudavanhu said she started to become concerned when an acquaintance said she had been in contact with the hackers through the account’s direct messages inbox. The acquaintance told her whoever was in control of the account was communicating as though it was Mudavanhu herself.

She tried to get in touch with Instagram and Facebook support (which owns Instagram) but did not get a response from either platform.

Since then, she has learned that hackers were able to scam one of her followers out of US$10,000 and a few others out of thousands of dollars because her follower thought it was her. “I started to realize the gravity of this post and people thinking they are talking to me and trusting me,” said Mudavanhu.

From the people who have talked to her, she counts seven people so far who have been scammed out of at least $23,000. One of her followers wouldn’t tell her the exact amount, just saying “she had lost everything.”

Sarah from the United States is one of Mudavanhu’s followers and sent money to the alleged investment scheme. She wouldn’t say how much money she had lost but did say the minimum investment was $1,000.

“It’s more than I feel comfortable losing,” she said. CityNews has agreed not to publish her last name.

Sarah said she had made legitimate investments in cryptocurrency before. She reached out to Sharon’s account to ask her more about the investment and ultimately pursued it. She added that had it not been Sharon seemingly making the recommendation, she likely would not have gone through with it.

“[Sharon] has built a loyal following off of the good person that she is and her amazing and incredible work. So she is a trustworthy person, and someone got in there and took advantage of it,” she said, adding, “It didn’t cross my mind till afterwards that Sharon could have also been scammed.”

Once she realized her mistake, she tried to negotiate to get her money back, but the hackers stopped responding. “I feel betrayed. I feel like I made a mistake.”

She says she has put a claim in with her bank to track down the hacker and get her money back. Sarah said she wouldn’t know if it would work for some time.

Meanwhile, in an effort to warn people, Mudavanhu started another Instagram account, where she detailed her ordeal and warned her followers not to give any money. She also added an alert on her company website, cautioning people that she had no control over her account.

She went to Peel police, where she was dismissed because she wasn’t the victim. However, one officer made a police report to catalogue Mudavanhu’s assertion she wasn’t the scammer.

“I feel like it’s hurting my reputation and the trust people had in me. What could I have done in this situation? These hackers are really smart and are five steps ahead of me,” said Mudavanhu. “I just feel helpless.”

She says she doesn’t care to get her account back; she wants to stop people from being scammed.

CityNews reached out to Facebook about Mudavanhu’s account. They did not answer many of our questions but said they are now working to restore her access to her account. They also advised social media users to take advantage of all of the app’s security features.

“We know that losing access to your account can be a distressing experience,” a spokesperson said in an email to CityNews. “We encourage people to strengthen their security by turning on two-factor authentication and alerts for unrecognized logins, and to visit our Help Center for tips and best practices to keep their accounts secure.”

Mudavanhu was grateful to get her account back but said she was “scared.” She decided to speak with CityNews to raise awareness and warn social media users to be cautious online.

A “mecca” for hackers

Social media is “an evolving tool scammers are using,” said Jeff Horncastle, a supervisor with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. He said and what happened to Sharon is not uncommon, adding that hackers often use a trusted source, as in Sharon’s case, to take advantage.

Between 2017 and 2020, Canadians lost more than $75 million through social media scams.

Investment scams are growing online. In 2017, just over 180 investment scams were committed through cyber means (social media, the internet, and emails), leading to $3.3 million lost. By 2021, that number has increased to $28.2 million and over 530 reports in just the first six months of the year.

At that rate, victims could lose over $50 million to scammers this year, Horncastle estimated. He added these are also only the numbers that have been reported to the Anti-Fraud Centre.

“In reality, the number is much much, higher,” he said. A study from McMaster University found just five per cent of victims report when they have been scammed.

As more people conduct their lives online, Horncastle says hackers will increasingly capitalize on the opportunity.

The Anti-Fraud Centre does not investigate individual cases but does assist police, and fraud reports help them better educate others on potential scams.

“Always do your research and do your due diligence if you decide to invest. That is the best way to protect yourself,” said Horncastle. For instance, with an investment scam, potential investors can check if someone is properly registered as an investment advisor with the Canadian Securities Administrator’s online tool.

Most important of all, he advised, “Just never send any money. If this person has never asked for money in the past, there’s probably something wrong with that request.”

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