According to its website, SCL Media is “a tech-media company building content brands for multicultural and niche audiences.” Its website lists clients including Netflix, Microsoft, and Comedy Central. But representatives from all three companies said they have no affiliation with SCL Media, nor have they worked with the company in the past.
The influencer marketing industry has exploded over the past several years. According to a 2017 study by Influencer Marketing Hub, 420 new influencer marketing agencies opened in 2017 alone, more than double the amount that opened in 2015. “We’ve seen the industry go from a rising marketing tactic to an essential part of most marketing budgets,” one executive wrote in Adweek. Analysts estimate it’s currently worth more than $2 billion, and could reach up to $10 billion by 2020.
But this very lucrative, very new market still lacks critical infrastructure. There’s no standard method of communication, no formalized negotiation process, and, often, no paperwork. Rates can range widely from brand to brand and are often hashed out entirely via direct message. And because sponsored-content deals typically happen beyond Instagram’s official advertising mechanisms, the company is all but powerless to stop scams.
Eric Toda, head of marketing at Hill City, a GAP brand, said that the influencer industry right now is like the Wild West. “You see a lot of people selling snake oil,” he said, “because the market is so saturated.”
Influencers as young as 13 are entering into brand deals with zero experience in negotiating high-value business partnerships. It’s all too easy for a scammer to entice them with the promise of a big paycheck, then hack their accounts or escape without paying. “It’s an underground world and what a lot of people are doing is representing themselves as Insta experts when they’re hackers and scammers,” explained Lisa Navarro, founder of Espire, a digital marketing agency that works with influencers. “They’re stealing accounts from children.”
Ruvim Achapovskiy, the founder of SocialBomb, a social marketing agency in Seattle, said that he’s seen branded-content scams increase sharply over the past year. They’ve also gotten more sophisticated. Hackers sometimes create their own fake brands to phish influencers, but often they pretend to be representatives from real companies. “They’ll set up some sort of username that’s something that seems like it would be legit, like @LuluLemonAmbassadors,” he said. “They’ll use all the company logos, make it seem as legit as possible, make the bio seem normal. Use the company’s mission statement. It’s super simple.”
Once hackers gain control of an influencer’s account, said Moritz von Contzen, founder of the Dutch social-media agency Avenik, they’ll often hop into the account’s direct messages and begin spamming other influencers with the same phishing links before the hacked influencer even knows what’s happening.