Turkish Group Using Phishing Emails to Hijack Popular Instagram Profiles

In some cases, attackers have demanded ransom, nude photos/videos of victims in exchange for stolen account, Trend Micro says.

5 Min Read

UPDATE: This story was updated 03/01/2019 with comments from Instagram

A group of Turkish-speaking hackers is hijacking popular Instagram profiles, including those belonging to actors and singers, and, in some cases, promising to turn back control to the victims in exchange for a ransom or nude photos and videos.

Researchers from Trend Micro say they have recently observed several incidents where the group has been using a phishing scam to take over the Instagram profiles of people with between 15,000 and 70,000 followers. They have subsequently changed the primary contact information associated with the breached accounts to lock the original owners out.

The victims have ranged from famous personalities to owners of small businesses like photo equipment rental stores, the security vendor said in a report released Thursday. 

Owners of the stolen accounts have typically not been able to recover control using Instagram's account-retrieval processes or even after they have complied with the ransom demand. Trend Micro's report does not identify any victims by name nor does it revealed how many Instagram users might have been impacted by the current campaign.

"Trend Micro has not seen any evidence of the Turkish group targeting business Instagram accounts," said Trend Micro threat researchers Jindrich Karasek and Cedric Pernet, in emailed comments to Dark Reading. "Their attacks were aimed directly toward popular individuals' accounts, including those of influencers, actors, and other rich and famous people."

Karasek and Pernet said Trend Micro has so far not seen any evidence that the Turkish group's attacks could be the first step in planning another campaign with different targets. But that possibility cannot be ruled out. "Trend Micro continues to monitor this activity that can potentially be a part of a bigger campaign," the two researchers said.

This is not the first report about Instagram accounts being hijacked by cybercriminals. Last August Mashable reported a campaign in which attackers believed to be operating out of Russia gained access to hundreds of Instagram accounts and subsequently locked the owners out by changing the primary email and password associated with the accounts. In many cases, key information, such as user handles and profile pictures, were changed as well, though the original posts from victim accounts were typically left untouched, Mashable had noted.

Then, as now, victims were typically unable to regain control of their stolen accounts. Many reported being frustrated by their inability to get Instagram to resolve the situation for them.

Bait and Phish
According to Trend Micro, the Turkish-speaking group behind the latest campaign is using phishing emails to try and get targeted victims to share their Instagram account log-in details. The attackers first search for and identify high-profile or popular Instagram accounts. Then they have been using previously hacked accounts to "follow" the targeted victims and get their email addresses using Instagram's "send email" function, Trend Micro said.

"The compromise starts with a phishing email pretending to be from Instagram," the company stated. "The email prods the potential victim to verify the account to get the Verified badge for the user's Instagram profile."

Users who click on the link are redirected to a phishing page that asks for the user's date of birth, email address, and password. The hackers have been using that information to change the primary email and password information so the original user can no longer log in or recover the account.

"However, this method doesn't work against two-factor authentications unless the attacker has stolen the victim's smartphone or another device that works with their two-factor authentication setup," a Trend Micro's spokeswoman noted.

The Turkish group's motives in hijacking the Instagram accounts appear somewhat unclear. The attackers interacting directly with the Instagram victims are likely motivated by the possibility of gaining notoriety within the hacker community, Karasek and Pernet said.

Attackers that are doing the actual coding and establishing infrastructure for the attacks may be motivated by the possibility of spreading the same scam or spreading other scams through the compromised Instagram accounts, they noted. "In the case of digital extortion, attackers can also get money, nude photos, or video, etc., by telling the victim they will give them their account back in exchange."

Currently, there is no direct proof that other groups are doing the same thing, Karasek and Pernet noted. "Due to the widespread use of the Instagram platform, it is easy to target people and businesses with phishing scams," the researchers said.

In emailed comments, an Instagram spokeswoman warned users to be on the alert for account takeover attempts. “Be wary of any communication alleging to come from Instagram," the statement said. "We will never proactively email you about verification, and we will certainly never attempt to sell you verification."

Beyond ads, Instagram does not sell any products or services in-app or via email, the statement said. It urged users to ensure two-factor authentication is in place as an extra security precaution.

Instagram also has noted that when it detects changes being made to an account, an alert is sent to the original email associated with it to notify users of the change. The alert provides a link that allows users to reverse any unauthorized changes, Instagram has noted. But, according to Martin, attackers belonging to the Turkish group in some cases have figured out a way to make multiple changes to the email address so the hacked Instagram account "forgets" the original email address.

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About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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