Cash Smarter

September 19, 2016  by: Aaron Crowe

The Frightening Side of Free

The Frightening Side of Free


My Instagam account was hacked awhile ago, and how easily it was done and the site’s inability to help me has set back my acceptance of free social media accounts online.

It’s not enough to make me want to delete my email account — as one prominent person did after learning of Colin Powell’s hacked email account — but it’s enough to seriously get me to put less of my personal life online. I already have much of my professional life online, and I rely on it and my name to help me get more work as a freelance journalist. My name, after all, is my business website.

And by hacking, I don’t mean that my private Instagram account that I only allowed people to see via invitation was published publicly — though that or something worse may have happened and I don’t know about it. By hacking, I mean that my account was taken over by someone else and I can’t get it back.

“That’s not the end of the world,” you might say. Agreed. I can sign up for another Instagram account very easily. And any photos that I put up there that I wanted to keep have already been uploaded from my phone to my computer, so at least those aren’t lost.

What worries me is the unknown, how easily this happened, and why Instagram doesn’t seem to give a hoot that my account was stolen. What is the new owner of the site doing with my photos? Are my other social media accounts in danger? Is everyone this vulnerable?

Here’s how it happened

I’ll try to make this short and easy, though it may sound more confusing than it is. One day I opened the Instagram app on my phone and I was unable to log in. I got a message that my account didn’t exist.

While I admit that my password probably wasn’t the most secure one, it wasn’t as basic as my name123 or something too easy. Somehow, I guess, my password was stolen.

I went to Instagram’s Help page, which isn’t so helpful in going beyond the FAQ and getting a hacked account back. I’ve filled out their request for help form three times, and the company’s first response was like something George Orwell would dream up.

Maybe this is what we get when we think we deserve everything free online.

To prove I was who I said I was, they wanted me to write a code on a piece of paper that they emailed me, and to hold it in front of me and take a photo of myself holding this code. I did this and sent it to them, even though it seemed fishy and I felt like a hostage proving I was alive.

About a week later I got an email from Instagram that my account was returned. It was, in a sense. The photos were available for viewing by people I had already approved, such as my family, but I couldn’t log in with my password.

When I tried to lot in with the email address that I set up the account with, I got a message that the email address was invalid and that my account belonged to another email address. To make a long story short, I discovered that the email address was for some guy in Japan.

I’ve since emailed Instagram twice for help, with the second query leading to instructions for me to change my password with the email address I have for the account. The problem is that my email address no longer works on the account because the hacker changed it to his.

Free isn’t really free

freeI’ve just about given up hope that I’ll ever get the account back, and I’m wary about setting up another account. I’m kind of bummed that I lost it for the simple reason that I signed up using my name — aaroncrowe — without a period, dash or number in it, and now that’s gone.

I used it to share photos with my friends and family, and to check what my daughter, 11, is doing on there.

I doubt I’ll go back to Instagram. In the hierarchy of social media, it’s probably not a big loss. Or maybe I’ll get lucky and get my account back somehow. I keep getting robocalls on my phone, but I still use it.

The bigger issue is how a free service can quickly be turned into something frightening, and how there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it.

Maybe this is what we get when we think we deserve everything free online. Or expect a photo sharing site to keep our photos safe. Why should I expect excellent customer service from a site that’s free? I shouldn’t and I no longer do.

Since this event I’ve changed my passwords at as many sites as I can remember doing business with. I’ve also stopped using as many sites and I use Unroll.Me daily to unsubscribe from emails I no longer want.

Will I eliminate Facebook, Twitter, my business websites, email accounts and other ways I share information? No. They’re helpful sites that help me do business and keep in contact with people. But I’m a lot less likely to put as much personal information online as I used to, and I’m especially wary of free apps and websites.

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