Locked Out: Losing access to social media accounts can mean big headaches for users

Experts say the best way to protect yourself is to use preventative measures
Published: Feb. 7, 2022 at 2:40 PM CST

InvestigateTV - In this interconnected world, social media has become the new town square, the new archive, the new marketplace.

As of late 2021, there were 2.91 billion monthly active Facebook users worldwide and about 1.3 billion people have the photo-sharing app, Instagram, according to numbers released by Facebook and Instagram.

People use Facebook and Instagram to stay in touch, to share memories, and now more and more, to build a clientele. Hackers have taken advantage of this growth to gain access to people’s accounts, often targeting weak passwords.

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According to a 2021 Norton Cyber Safety Report, 13% of social media account users detected unauthorized access. Because of the rise in cybercrime, 77% of Americans are taking more precautions online. The report also shows that 53% of people experience anger when it comes to being hacked.

Theresa Harmon knows that feeling all too well. A longtime Facebook user in her personal life, in 2018, Harmon launched an account promoting her small business “All the Trimmings”.

The page was a place for her to display work, connect with customers and allow them to review her business. That all changed on Labor Day of 2020.

She can’t pinpoint the weak link that led her to lose access to her account, but she said the hack was connected to an unfamiliar email address.

“I put in my email, and it was changed with something Hotmail, and I’ve never had a Hotmail account in my life,” Harmon said.

She turned to Facebook for help. Her only point of contact was a page for people with hacked or locked accounts.

“I didn’t get any response from them,” Harmon said. “I’m concerned that people might contact me through my Facebook business page and then not get an answer and think, ‘Well, why would I even hire her? She’s a slacker, or she doesn’t even give me the decency to respond.’”

Harmon said she tried other avenues such as having her friends and family report her account, but she still had no luck ever getting a real person on the line. She said she complained to local police and filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Theresa Harmon is locked out of this Facebook page she used to promote her business. She was...
Theresa Harmon is locked out of this Facebook page she used to promote her business. She was locked out after a hacker changed the email address on her account.(Submitted Photo)

InvestigateTV visited both Facebook and Instagram and could not find a customer service phone number either.

In a late 2021 press release, Facebook admitted to not having live support to help users with their locked-out accounts. The company said it is working on featuring a live chat in 2022 that can help users regain access to their accounts.

Instagram, which falls under Meta, the same parent company as Facebook, also sees its share of hacked accounts. Videographer Quinton Gray lost access to his Instagram account in the nascent stages of building his businesses - Culture Production Company and Quinton Gray Films.

The hacker dealt a blow to his budding business, freezing him out from sharing his passion for film with his followers and friends.

“I had to like completely start over. I lost like 1300 followers, which isn’t a lot, but when I first got started, that was a ton of attention that I could have used,” Gray said.

The hack was just the beginning. Once the hacker took over his account, they posed as Gray and messaged his friends with a scam. One person fell victim.

“They’re like, ‘Yo, like, where’s my money’ and I was like ‘what are you talking about?’ And he was he was like, ‘Dude, like, I gave you my money’,” Gray said.

To regain access to his account, Gray contacted Instagram for help. He said all the platform did was share its “help” articles. When that didn’t work, he got creative.

“I would go into YouTube videos, trying to figure out what I can do to get it back or how can I start posting again, which is the most important thing for me,” Gray said. “I just had to start over from scratch.”

Instagram isn’t just all business for Gray, he said it’s also about sharing special moments. While talking about his own lost account, Gray contemplated the greater appeal of social media, beyond the dollars and cents. He said his father uses it to stay connected to family and the impact would be substantial if his dad was ever locked out.

Quinton Gray shares a moment with his father. For many, losing access to their social accounts...
Quinton Gray shares a moment with his father. For many, losing access to their social accounts could mean losing years of photos.(Quinton Gray)

“Those are a lot of essential memories that I know he cherishes... our whole family cherishes,” Gray said. “So, the moment someone gets hacked and they are not able to get their account anymore, they lose all those personal memories.”

InvestigateTV reached out to Facebook and Instagram for comment about all accounts featured in this story but received no response.

Harmon and Gray are not the only ones that have complained about social media account hijackings. In 2017, the FTC began tracking identify theft on social media.

In the five years since, the number of complaints has doubled. The FTC calls the crime “profile hijackings.”

Identity Theft Reports | Tableau Public

Caption: The Federal Trade Commission collects complaints concerning various identify thefts. Social media numbers have increased over the past five years. (Ftc.gov/exploredata)

Other people locked out of their accounts who did not want to be named told InvestigateTV that they have gone to great lengths to access their accounts, including buying ads in hopes of reaching an employee from the company.

According to the FBI’s latest Internet Crime Complaint report, identity theft ranks fifth highest over the past five years, with more than 35,000 people filing a complaint alleging the use of social media for fraud.

Alex Nette, CEO of Hive Systems, is a cybersecurity expert with more than a decade of experience working with federal and state agencies. He said there isn’t much one can do once the hack happens. To secure your social media accounts, front-end protection is needed.

Nette suggests:

  • Add two-step, multifactor authentication to your account.
  • Don’t reuse the same password; instead let companies recommend a special password for you that is harder to access.
  • If you change a password, don’t make simple changes, such as adding a single digit at the end of the new password.
  • Link your accounts – but remember if one gets hacked, there are chances the other will too.
  • Keep an eye on suspicious activity (usually messages from someone trying to log in to your account).

Nette said hackers will use information gleaned from your account’s page to try to guess passwords. If they can’t guess it, Nette said lists of passwords live on the dark web available for hackers to buy.

“Passwords are really the only way that we in the IT space and the cybersecurity space have right now to secure things,” Nette said.

He said that companies such as Facebook have put those responsibilities on individuals.

“Companies have kind of almost let this go to the wayside,” Nette said.

However, it’s not always a hack that locks users out of their social media accounts. Songwriter and musician Annie Kennedy has been locked out of her Instagram account for two years and still has no idea what happened. She used Instagram to connect with local and international fans and do some fundraising.

“I would just kind of do some marketing there, like, ‘Hey, … these are the rewards I have or the prizes at the end if you contribute,’” Kennedy said. “I could just update people and kind of keep the engagement high while I was doing the fundraising.”

She said she was locked out after trying to log on to her account on a new device. Kennedy said she reached out to Instagram for help.

“But that’s when there’s just a lot of back and forth and automated messages. I couldn’t really talk to somebody, a real person,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said she emailed Instagram for weeks, submitting a photo of herself and her driver’s license side-by-side. Even after that step, she said the company ultimately couldn’t help. She now uses a new Instagram account.

Caption: A seamstress (Theresa Harmon), a videographer (Quinton Gray), and a musician (Annie...
Caption: A seamstress (Theresa Harmon), a videographer (Quinton Gray), and a musician (Annie Kennedy) are all locked out of their accounts.(Daniela Molina, InvestigateTV)

For Kennedy, Gray and Harmon, getting locked out was not only an emotional burden but a financial one too. Kennedy said she hopes that Instagram and Facebook provide more reliable customer service for its users, especially for business owners.

“I think that it would be great if Instagram and Facebook invested more in their user experience. That’d be great... a lot of people use social media for their art or their livelihood, which generates the actual income from those ads for the companies,” Kennedy said. “It would be great if they invested a little bit more energy and time and resources into the user experience.”