‘It was really frightening’: Lorraine Keane on having her social media accounts hijacked

Broadcaster and influencer targeted in campaign of extortion and threats online

Lorraine Keane: ‘After dinner I logged onto Instagram again and my account wasn’t there, it had deleted.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Lorraine Keane: ‘After dinner I logged onto Instagram again and my account wasn’t there, it had deleted.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The broadcaster, businesswoman and social media influencer Lorraine Keane was targeted by a sinister campaign of extortion and threats over the course of the weekend, which saw criminals hijack her social media accounts and threaten to delete all her content and erase close to 40,000 of her followers unless she paid a significant ransom.

Once the hackers had seized Keane’s Instagram account they were able to access her other social media accounts and her mail service and started deleting her posts – stretching back over six years – one by one.

They also sent Keane and some of her followers abusive and threatening messages warning her that unless she paid up they would “burn her business to the ground”.

The nightmare started on Friday evening.

“Like most people I get loads of spam, I must get three or four dodgy texts or mails every single day,” Keane told The Irish Times. “My husband is in tech and always warns us never to open message from Facebook or Instagram, reminding us they will only ever contact us via their actual platforms.”

So she thought she knew enough to keep her safe. “I have been deleting messages for years but then last Friday I got a message on Instagram saying that one of my posts had broadcast advertising rules because it did not contain the ‘sponsored post’ hashtag.”

Under guidelines operated by the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland, ads posted by social media influencers have to be flagged as such.

“So I looked at the message and thought there was a mistake as I hadn’t done a sponsored post for a while. But then I remembered that I had reposted one from another account and then I got the mail saying if I didn’t click the link I would lose access to my account within 24 hours. That is when it all went horribly wrong.”

She clicked the link, entered her details had a quick look at her Instagram account and had dinner.

“After dinner I logged onto Instagram again and my account wasn’t there, it had deleted,” she said.

Almost immediately her phone rang through WhatsApp. It as a foreign number. The alarm bells started to ring, quietly at first.

“I didn’t answer but then a message came in saying: ‘We have your Instagram account, pay a ransom or we will delete it.’ They did not say how much they wanted. After about four a five messages they said: ‘We want 100 dollars, we know you can afford more so pay up.’”

Keane did not open the messages but they kept coming and the calls kept coming too. “It was really frightening to me, they had access to my other accounts. Then they changed the profile pic and my name posted pictures of different women on the account and falsely claimed that it was for sale.”

The messages continued through the night and all through Saturday and the ransom demand climbed to €1,000. “Then I got a message saying they were deleting all my post one by one, one every second and I was told the next thing would be my entire account. I have been building up the account for years and I have 38,000 followers so it is a huge part of my business and suddenly it was like watching someone putting a match to it. ‘We are only one button away from deleting your account,’ they told me.

“It is a really big part of my business and my livelihood and so much of what I do with Fashion Relief for Oxfam is tied up with it. And then I started getting threatening messages from other people too and my followers were also being targeted.”

The Instagram and Facebook helplines were both closed so she went to the gardaí. Keane “filed a report with the gardaí and they were very helpful and said they would contact Facebook and Instagram to freeze the account so that at least my business wouldn’t be burned down. I didn’t think there was any point in reporting it to the gardaí but they immediately got in touch with Facebook and Instagram at least I knew I had people on my side.”

She knew that would take time. She also made contact with cybersecurity expert Paul C Dwyer who pointed out steps she could take to lessen the damage and save at least some of her data.

“The phrase these guys use is ‘owned’ and it is for a reason,” Dwyer told The Irish Times. “When this happens they own you and they effectively take over your life. We have a virtual life, years of work can be taken away in an instant by someone on the other side of the planet.”

He said: “If it was happening in the real world there would be outcry if someone was trying to steal your wallet every time you left your house it would be all over the news but it is happening every day online.”

He pointed out that the criminals “go where people go” which is why they have been more active than ever since the start of Covid-19. “This was a mid-level cyber criminal doing this to Lorraine Keane. They would have been looking for 10 or 15 grand and she probably wouldn’t get her data back anyway.”

Dwyer stressed that when this happens, people like Keane often blame themselves and beat themselves up for following a link. “People need to remember that that she is the victim here, she is the victim of organised criminals who are doing this to thousands of people every day. They just have to be lucky once. We have to be on our guard every single time.”

Keane did eventually make contact with Instagram who froze the account and returned it to her. The data is currently being restored but she remains unsure how much of it she will get back. She has also been scarred by the experience and wants what happened to her to serve as a warning to others of the need to be ever on the guard against the criminals.