Hacking Instagram to Get Free Meals in Exchange for Positive Reviews

This is a fascinating hack:

In today's digital age, a large Instagram audience is considered a valuable currency. I had also heard through the grapevine that I could monetize a large following -- or in my desired case -- use it to have my meals paid for. So I did just that.

I created an Instagram page that showcased pictures of New York City's skylines, iconic spots, elegant skyscrapers ­-- you name it. The page has amassed a following of over 25,000 users in the NYC area and it's still rapidly growing.

I reach out restaurants in the area either via Instagram's direct messaging or email and offer to post a positive review in return for a free entree or at least a discount. Almost every restaurant I've messaged came back at me with a compensated meal or a gift card. Most places have an allocated marketing budget for these types of things so they were happy to offer me a free dining experience in exchange for a promotion. I've ended up giving some of these meals away to my friends and family because at times I had too many queued up to use myself.

The beauty of this all is that I automated the whole thing. And I mean 100% of it. I wrote code that finds these pictures or videos, makes a caption, adds hashtags, credits where the picture or video comes from, weeds out bad or spammy posts, posts them, follows and unfollows users, likes pictures, monitors my inbox, and most importantly -- both direct messages and emails restaurants about a potential promotion. Since its inception, I haven't even really logged into the account. I spend zero time on it. It's essentially a robot that operates like a human, but the average viewer can't tell the difference. And as the programmer, I get to sit back and admire its (and my) work.

So much going on in this project.

Posted on April 2, 2019 at 6:16 AM • 23 Comments

Comments

Thomas FerraroApril 2, 2019 7:00 AM

Yes, clever and all. But I don't think I would be proud of this part:

"Now, none of the content my account posts is owned by me. This is a contested topic — some people seem to think this can lead to some issues. However, if you credit where the content comes from it’s usually not a problem. I’ve never had any issues re-sharing content. In fact, I’ve only had people thank me for sharing their photos. Worst case, someone reports your post and it gets taken down by Instagram. As long as you give credit where credit is due, you should be good."

He is not concerned about whether it is right to steal other people's content, just whether it gets in the way of him getting a free meal.

1&1~=UmmApril 2, 2019 7:37 AM

Yup it looks like it is a lot of work for a 'free meal'.

But it's not a 'free meal' at all.

Look at it from the other side, food in most restaurants is the least expensive part of the operation, you only have to look at the wine list prices to know where they try to make the most money.

They will see the cost of that meal as less than the postage and admin of getting the voucher to him. And way way less than they would otherwise have to pay for advertising via leaflets, local papers, hordings and the sides of busses. Knowing that the eyes on those going to that site are going to the site because they want to.

I would say the restaurants are getting a realy good deal out of his hard work, especially if he also leaves the staff a tip.

But it probably won't last because fairly soon lots of people will do the same thing, and as he notes there is a budjet for advertising.

But whilst it's going for him, I wish him the best at it, he's earned it.

Petre Peter April 2, 2019 8:36 AM

The Social Engineer goes to the restaurant; pretends to be a writer for a famous magazine; asks if they are interested in a review; gets the free meal.

zucApril 2, 2019 9:09 AM

Its OK, most of the followers of the Instagram account are probably bots too.

I predict that in the future, 90% of the world's economy will be bots sending spam to other bots, that filter and repackage it to spam it to other bots.

HumdeeApril 2, 2019 9:38 AM

@zuc

That is not a new observation. Study the topic of clickjack fraud. Some astute commentators think that in the early years Google's entire business model was "fake it till you make it." The problem was that no one could ever come up with hard proof that Google was behind the problem.

More broadly I am reminded of the observation that highly advanced technology is the same as magic.

JasonApril 2, 2019 9:40 AM

Clever, @zuc.

The other problem with this strategy is that the supply of restaurants is not unlimited.

MikeAApril 2, 2019 10:38 AM

@Jason

The supply of restaurants is not unlimited, but neither is the demand from a single person. Even if I lived in San Francisco, and could afford to dine out for every meal, I suspect I could not get around to every restaurant on a list created as a snapshot at a single instant. Many will go out of business before I reach their position in the list, to be replaced by others. Or, you know, I could get bored with the whole process, or maybe die, during this marathon review task.

And NYC has even more restaurants.

But I agree that if "everybody" (or even a noticeable fraction of the populace) did this, the scheme would collapse.

HermannApril 2, 2019 11:06 AM

Hack: gain unauthorized access to data in a system or computer

The story is indeed fascinating but I can hardly call that a hack. Sure, OP is pretty skilled and is knowledgeable about automation/coding. Other parts are mostly trivial webmarketing tactics or Instagram uses (follow/unfollow, repost, direct messages, content scrapping, customization...).

@1&1~=Umm
> I would say the restaurants are getting a realy good deal out of his hard work, especially if he also leaves the staff a tip.
Same, especially if this account manages to attract human users. Even 1% will be enough

@zuc
> Its OK, most of the followers of the Instagram account are probably bots too.
You're statistically right, but it's common sense. Most digital marketers know that too and they are willing to deal with bots noise if they can achieve a decent ROI. Platform metrics may be rigged but the bottom line does not lie.

jdgaltApril 2, 2019 11:43 AM

When you factor in the time and resources the hacker spent on this project, I doubt he saved anything over just paying for his meals. Meanwhile, those of us who will listen have now been warned that this parasitic practice is out there.

SobaApril 2, 2019 11:47 AM

The original Medium article is from February. Instagram shutdown the profile few hours after your post here.

Bruce SchneierApril 2, 2019 12:29 PM

"The original Medium article is from February. Instagram shutdown the profile few hours after your post here."

I am both surprised and not surprised.

Bruce SchneierApril 2, 2019 12:34 PM

"When you factor in the time and resources the hacker spent on this project, I doubt he saved anything over just paying for his meals. Meanwhile, those of us who will listen have now been warned that this parasitic practice is out there."

This is not interesting because of the free meals. Think of this technique used in more sophisticated influence campaigns.

TatütataApril 2, 2019 1:04 PM

and offer to post a positive review

It's not clear whether the review too was created automatically.

A "positive" review? Please, honest reviewing work doesn't work like that.

In the cult film "L'aile ou la cuisse" (1976), Louis de Funès plays a "Guide Michelin" type inspector who visits restaurants incognito and bestows stars on them. In this scene he disguises as a clichéd American tourist (complete with pink suit, purse, Hawaiian shirt, and 5-gallon hat) to check out a particularly seedy establishment. ("Where are the toilets please? Down the hallway, follow the flies".) [for some reason the punch line at the end was cut out.]

in return for a free entree or at least a discount.

Will eat for food!

SobaApril 2, 2019 2:17 PM

Also, after your post, the original writer received many new comments (mostly negative). The author deleted all the negative comments.

SobaApril 2, 2019 2:21 PM

Update: the author unlisted the article. Now it's only accessible if you have the link.

SobaApril 2, 2019 2:28 PM

Update 2: author had been using a background picture on his LinkedIn profile showing him in some TV news program talking about this free meals trick. The picture has been removed.

HumdeeApril 2, 2019 6:17 PM

@bruce

Yes, and what is startling is just how few real people need to be influnced for the viral contagion to happen. Studies in behavorial/social contagion indicate that a critical mass of between 5-15% is all that is needed before ideas and emotional affects begin to spread spontaneously within a targeted population. There have been similar results found by those who study innovation propagation.

So one does not need to fool all the people all the time. Fool some of the people some of the time and these early converts will do the rest of the work of social influence.

TomApril 2, 2019 11:07 PM

@Humdee
Would love a good reference or two, those studies are out of my area, but sound very interesting.

JackApril 3, 2019 4:50 AM

@Bruce : Let me guess, Putin will use this to get all Russians free blinis and Beluga caviar...
Also, how is this a "hack"?

CBApril 3, 2019 7:39 AM

@Hermann

Hacking = using things in creative ways to produce some interesting results that would be otherwise impossible, or hard, or costly, or boring.

Hacking is a mean.
"gain unauthorized access to data in a system or computer" is a goal.

Many means can reach the same goal.
The same mean can reach many goals.

Social engineering, spying, blackmail, etc are different ways to gain unauthorized access to data in a system or computer without hacking.

You can type "IKEA hack" in your favorite search engine to get a glance at a whole area of hacking that doesn't involve computers at all.

1&1~=UmmApril 3, 2019 9:43 AM

History of Hack(ing).

The original term technological meaning came from a University 'model railway club'. Being a Uni of good repute technically the students were not your flat hat old boy types building dioramas. They were engineers in the making and the model trains were just an excuse to do 'engineery stuff' in the way of control systems, just as the first single chip microprocessors started to be available around 100USD...

The competative aspect ment that one heck of a lot of very clever tricks were used to get the most out of what was back then eye wateringly expensive hardware.

Much in the style of the NASA 'Steely eyed missileman' phrase used amongst peers they developed their own acknowledgments of skill over and above the norm and 'good hack' was one of them.

This term spread into the other electronics and microprocessor clubs and spread as common parlance.

Even when the 'dark side' activity started those involved in that scene did not call it hacking. The term 'crack' or 'cracking' for such activities did eventually arise.

Then a couple of decades later, as is often the case 'Journalistic licence' kicked it's great ugly boot into things. They could not be bothered with the nicety of distinction, their intent was to find crime or what could be made to look like crime and dress it up to look to the likes of politicians as a 'think of the children' emotion tug to sell their product.

So in the great jounalistic tradition of the MSM, business as usual with what is now called 'fake news' if done by non journalists...

So what once was a complement amongst peers is now regarded by the general populous as something the equivalent of the 'Red Scare' all thanks to a few yellow news 'hacks' (meaning bad journalists in dictionaries). So there is a touch of irony involved.

For those that are old enough to remember the 'Red Scares' they gave us 'The rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy' and all the evil that went with it.

To quote Wikipedia*,

"'McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.'"

It goes on with,

"'The term refers to U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and has its origins in the period in the United States known as the Second Red Scare, lasting from the late 1940s through the 1950s. It was characterized by heightened political repression and a campaign spreading fear of Communist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents.'"

Non of that could have happened without the yellow press hacks who drove it forward into public hysteria. Which is why we need to be aware of their games, because others can get badly hurt if not killed.

However bad as they were, in comparison to more honest journalists of the time, the yellow press hacks of yester-year appear to have had more integrity than many of the current journalists of what we now call the US MSM.

To quote an anonomous person,

"'Same s41t different day, more of it.'"

* https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCarthyism

Josh RubinApril 3, 2019 9:14 PM

Hah! You think this is a good hack? I have a program that creates religious cults, complete with scripture and history, applies for tax exempt status, collects donations, and threatens to sue nay-sayers.

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