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Real money, fake musicians: Inside a million-dollar Instagram verification scheme
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Real money, fake musicians: Inside a million-dollar Instagram verification scheme

  • Influencers, socialites, models, businesspeople and all manner of clout chasers rely on Instagram to flaunt their lifestyle, generate income and establish a personal brand.
    Gerd Altmann/PixabayInfluencers, socialites, models, businesspeople and all manner of clout chasers rely on Instagram to flaunt their lifestyle, generate income and establish a personal brand.

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

To his more than 150,000 followers on Instagram, Dr. Martin Jugenburg is Real Dr. 6ix, a well-coiffed Toronto plastic surgeon posting images and video of his work sculpting the decolletage, tucking the tummies and lifting the faces of his primarily female clientele.

Jugenburg’s physician-influencer tendencies led to a six-month suspension of his Ontario medical license in 2021 after he admitted to filming patient interactions and sharing images of procedures without consent. He apologized for the lapse and is currently facing a class-action lawsuit from female patients who say their privacy was violated.

But on Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer, and in roughly a dozen sponsored posts scattered across the web, Jugenburg’s career and controversial history was eclipsed by a new identity. On those platforms, he was DJ Dr. 6ix, a house music producer who’s celebrated for his “inherent instinctual ability for music composition” and who “assures his followers that his music is absolutely unique.”

It’s an unconvincing persona — perhaps even less so once his “music” is played. But it was enough to secure what he wanted: a verification badge for his Instagram account.

The coveted blue tick can be difficult to obtain and is supposed to assure that anyone who bears one is who they claim to be. A ProPublica investigation determined that Jugenburg’s dubious alter ego was created as part of what appears to be the largest Instagram account verification scheme ever uncovered. With a generous greasing of cash, the operation transformed hundreds of clients into musical artists in an attempt to trick Meta, the owner of Instagram and Facebook, into verifying their accounts and hopefully paving the way to lucrative endorsements and a coveted social status.

Since at least 2021, at least hundreds of people — including jewelers, crypto entrepreneurs, OnlyFans models and reality show TV stars — were clients of a scheme to get improperly verified as musicians on Instagram, according to the investigation’s findings and information from Meta.

In response to information provided by ProPublica and the findings of its own investigation, Meta has so far removed fraudulently applied verification badges from more than 300 Instagram profiles, and continues to review accounts. That includes the accounts of Mike Vazquez and Lexie Salameh, two stars of the MTV reality show “Siesta Key.” Rather than get verified for their TV work, they were falsely branded online as musicians in order to receive verification. They lost their badges approximately two weeks ago and did not respond to requests for comment.

Jugenburg did not respond to a phone message left at his Toronto practice or to emails detailing evidence that he had paid for his Instagram verification. He has told media outlets he intends to vigorously defend himself against the class-action suit.

The scheme, which likely generated millions in revenue for its operators, illustrates how easily major social, search and music platforms can be exploited to create fake personas with real-world consequences, such as monetizing a verified account. It also underscores how Instagram’s growth and cachet combines with poor customer support and lax oversight to create a thriving black market in verification services and account takedowns for hire.

Influencers, socialites, models, businesspeople and all manner of clout chasers rely on Instagram to flaunt their lifestyle, generate income and establish a personal brand. Some influencers and models told ProPublica they face a barrage of impostor accounts trying to run scams to trick their fans. They also run the constant risk of malicious actors fabricating evidence and filing user reports to convince Instagram to ban their accounts. They see a badge as one of few options available that can help them protect their accounts and business. Others covet the blue tick as a status symbol. The result is a steady supply of well-heeled customers willing to pay five figures to get verified. (Meta is reportedly working on enhancing its customer support.)

The verification scheme identified by ProPublica exploited music platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, as well as Google search, to create fake musician profiles. The songs uploaded to client profiles were often nothing more than basic looping beats or, in at least one case, extended periods of dead air. They credited composers with nonsense names such as “rhusgls stadlhvs” and “kukyush fhehjer.” The Meta employees tasked with reviewing the musician verification applications apparently failed to listen to the tracks or look too closely.

The people running the scheme also purchased articles promoting fake artists and their music on websites, including hip-hop publications like The Source and ThisIs50.com, a music and culture site affiliated with rapper 50 Cent. They often bought fake comments and likes for clients’ Instagram posts to make the accounts look popular and purchased fake streams for songs on Spotify, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the operation. One source said some clients were told to rent a recording studio and post photos on Instagram that made it look like they were working on music. (The Source and ThisIs50.com did not respond to emailed requests for comment.)

“You can make a Spotify account or Apple Music account and boost the streams and get fake music press very cheap. It’s quick and easy,” said the source, who asked not to be named due to fear of retaliation.

A Spotify spokesperson said the company identified artificial streams, which are often generated using bots, on many of the 173 profiles provided by ProPublica. The company has removed more than 100 of the artists from its platform.

“Fraud is an industry-wide issue that we take very seriously,” Spotify spokesperson Zachary Kozlak said. “Spotify invests heavily in automated processes and manual reviews to prevent, detect, and mitigate the impact of artificial activity on the platform. We’ve removed the content in question we found to be manipulated.”

Apple Music did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but it has removed music from the profiles of many of the dubious artists identified by ProPublica.

Using domain registration records, corporate and banking documents, information from online platforms, and interviews with clients and people with knowledge of the scheme, ProPublica was able to identify the person at the center of the plot. He is a Miami-based aspiring DJ and would-be crypto entrepreneur named Dillon Shamoun. With little or no interference from Meta, Shamoun built a verification-for-pay juggernaut while also burnishing his own image by using the same digital manipulation techniques he offered to clients.

Shamoun appears to have hawked his Instagram verification services to a cadre of Miami nightlife impresarios, restaurateurs, jewelers, models and others. He also transformed his model-influencer girlfriend and his older brother, a mortgage broker, into musical artists in attempts to secure account verification.

In phone interviews with and text messages to ProPublica, Shamoun, an athletic, bearded 26-year-old, denied any involvement in the scheme and said he does not sell account verification services. He said he works on FanVerse, a crypto startup that enables creators and influencers to sell NFTs of themselves, among other projects.

“People know who I am and my character and what I do for business, and it has nothing to do with Facebook or Instagram,” he said.

After being provided information by ProPublica, Meta confirmed Shamoun’s key involvement in the fake musician verification scheme. It banned him from its platforms and removed his Instagram and Facebook accounts. The company said that Shamoun’s scheme was a sophisticated operation and that Meta works to thwart the sale of fraudulent services to users of its platforms.

“Scammers selling fraudulent services continue to target online platforms across the internet, including ours, and constantly adapt their tactics in response to industry detection methods,” said a Meta spokesperson, who asked not to be identified due to security concerns related to this story’s subject matter. “We urge people to keep vigilant and never pay for verification status because it violates our Terms. Whenever we identify a scheme like this, we take action - and that means not only will someone who’s paid for verification lose their money, they’ll lose their verification status, as well.”

When asked if any Meta employees or contractors were involved in the scheme, the spokesperson said they can’t comment on internal personnel matters or investigations.

A falling out between Shamoun and a business partner, combined with scrutiny from Meta and ProPublica’s investigation, has unleashed a vicious round of finger-pointing that exposed the underworld of social media manipulation and verification services.

In response to questions from ProPublica, Shamoun said the scheme is all the work of Adam Quinn, a prominent Instagram creator who previously worked with mega-influencer and boxer Jake Paul, and who has collaborated with musicians and celebrities for online promotions. Quinn’s Instagram account had more than 2 million followers when it was removed by Meta in June. The company sent him a cease-and-desist letter that month accusing him of selling account verification services, running celebrity giveaways that inauthentically boosted followers for Instagram accounts and offering to reactivate disabled Instagram accounts for a fee.

The Meta spokesperson said the company had collected evidence of Quinn’s involvement in selling verification services before its recent move against Shamoun for the fake musician scheme.

In comments to ProPublica and in a legal letter sent to Meta, Quinn acknowledged he sold account verification in partnership with Shamoun. He denied being personally involved in account reactivation, and he said his giveaways were in line with Meta’s rules and did not result in fake followers. An archived version of his company’s website lists a menu of “Instagram Growth Packages” ranging up to $7,500 and promising to deliver 100,000 followers using the giveaway model.

Quinn said he had used his connections and Instagram account to refer clients to Shamoun and had received a portion of the resulting fees. Clients typically paid $25,000 to verify an account, though Shamoun has at times charged more than $100,000, according to Quinn. He provided ProPublica with a bank document showing wire transfer information for Shamoun’s company, as well as two agreements from this year that said Quinn and Shamoun were partners in a “Social Media Verification” business. One agreement, signed in June, stipulated that Shamoun’s company was responsible for the client work to “ensure successful Verifications.” A source close to Shamoun, who asked not to be named to avoid jeopardizing their current job, verified the authenticity of the agreements but claimed Quinn was the one submitting fake musician verification requests. The language of the agreements appears to dispute this claim, as do Meta’s findings.

ProPublica also obtained a copy of a business proposal from Shamoun’s company, Rumor LLC, that pitched a range of online marketing services, including social media verification.

In his lawyer’s letter to Meta, Quinn denied submitting fake musician accounts to the company for verification. He said Shamoun created and controlled the process and handled the submissions. He also accused Shamoun of supplying information to Meta in an effort to get Quinn’s and Quinn’s girlfriend’s Instagram accounts removed in June.

“I believe that I am a victim of circumstance here, being unjustly attacked by someone not only violating Meta’s terms and conditions, but abusing the system put in place to prevent people like him from doing what they do,” Quinn’s letter said.

The implosion of the scheme has left Quinn and Shamoun banned from Instagram and other Meta platforms and has put an end to their lucrative business partnership. It has also left more than 300 recently de-verified clients angry that they paid tens of thousands of dollars for nothing.

For his part, Shamoun insisted that any information linking him to the scheme was fabricated by Quinn in order to frame him.

“As stated, I’m a very influential individual in Miami, that’s why I’m being framed by someone who’s now a ghost online,” he wrote.

Shamoun said he had over 70 pages of evidence showing Quinn is responsible for the entire scheme, as well as other types of platform and account manipulation. When asked to share that evidence with ProPublica, he said he could not because he is bound by unspecified nondisclosure agreements. Shamoun also said he is working with Netflix on producing a film or series based on the documents.

“I’m going to make something even bigger than ‘The Tinder Swindler,’” he said, citing a recent hit Netflix documentary about a scammer who dated women and made off with their money.

Netflix did not respond to a request for comment.

Battle for the Badge

The criteria determining who is eligible for verification are not always clear-cut, but Instagram says accounts must be authentic, unique, complete and notable.

Besides offering clout, a blue check mark provides social proof that the account holder is who they say they are. Verified account holders may also get access to new features before they’re available to the general public.

Meta’s policies forbid users from selling account verification as a service and from misrepresenting their identity in order to receive a badge. But people have been selling Instagram verifications for years. A 2017 Mashable article reported that people were paying thousands for a blue tick.

As demand for verification rose over the years, Meta developed verification criteria for various categories of people or brands, including music, fashion and entertainment. This scheme shows how those criteria can be used as a road map by people like Shamoun.

Shamoun “had the most volume out of anybody,” said a source who has bought verification for clients and frequents the dark web chats and Telegram channels where people offering the service congregate. The source, who asked not to be named in order to protect their Instagram accounts, said Quinn’s high profile also helped bring a steady flow of clients to the operation.

Among those clients were multiple performers on OnlyFans, a popular platform among adult entertainers who can charge users for access to members-only photos, video and communications. One model, who said she declined an offer from Shamoun to get verified, told ProPublica that OnlyFans performers in particular see value in verification. She said they are often targeted by extortion schemes whereby hackers file false reports and get a model’s Instagram accounts removed, and then offer to reactivate the account for a fee. The OnlyFans model spoke on condition that her name not be used, as she feared reprisals for speaking out.

“A lot of people will impersonate you if you’re an OnlyFans girl and put a link up and pretend to be you” in order to scam fans, she said, adding that she feels Instagram is more strict about content posted by OnlyFans performers, and that losing an account could result in a drop in revenue.

Making a Fake Musician

Jugenburg’s online profile as DJ Dr. 6ix is typical of the work done by the operation: a raft of paid press articles extolling the DJ’s musical genius, false claims about his popularity and background, profiles on major music platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer, and songs that often consist of a simple looped beat.

On Spotify and other music platforms, Jugenburg had five songs with titles such as “Umbrella,” “Mysteries” and “Next Party.” One of the songs showed it had been streamed close to 60,000 times, but included 90 seconds of dead air and credits an apparently made-up writer: “gbfred gtfrde.” The source with direct knowledge of the operation said fake Spotify streams were bought for songs to make clients look convincing if a Meta employee ever checked. Spotify removed DJ Dr. 6ix’s profile after being contacted by ProPublica.

DJ Dr. 6ix’s Spotify bio claimed he was featured in publications such as “EDM.com, The Source, & Billboard.” Jugenburg does not appear on EDM.com or in Billboard, but he was featured in an apparently paid article on The Source. It falsely describes him as a Los Angeles-based artist and says his song “Umbrella” has “firmly established himself as one of the most well-known musicians of his generation.”

That same line appears in at least nine other apparently paid articles about other likely Shamoun clients. On those and other occasions documented by ProPublica, his operation apparently reused the same article text and simply swapped in different artist and song names.

The lack of effort put into the paid articles wasn’t an accident. The operation also reused songs for clients. It was an assembly line for Instagram verification. The source with knowledge of the process said the goal was to secure a badge for a client in 30 to 45 days.

Here’s how it worked: The first step is to have a client produce photos in lifestyle poses and situations that made them appear to be an artist or someone with a high cultural status. Client profiles reviewed by ProPublica often showed people posing in front of expensive cars, in designer clothes or near private planes. In some cases they appeared behind or near a DJ booth or in a recording studio.

As clients produced their content, Shamoun and his small team commissioned articles and music for them. Many paid articles featuring fake artists are credited to Lost Boy Entertainment, a PR firm. Cofounder Christian Anderson confirmed that the articles placed for the fake musicians, and for Shamoun, were paid placements, or what he called “advertised press.” He said he wasn’t sure who paid for them because they were likely purchased via his company's account on Fiverr, an online marketplace.

“After this has been brought to our attention we are working on taking many of these articles down already. We weren’t aware of the end goal,” he said in an email.

As for the songs, the source with knowledge of the operation said basic beats can also be purchased on Fiverr. With music in hand, the music and artist profile information was uploaded to Spotify, Apple Music and other platforms.

Clients were then told to start posting their content on Instagram. The operation also purchased fake likes and comments on Instagram posts that featured music content. The source said they were unaware of any instances where Instagram flagged likes or comments as potentially inauthentic.

“If you’re an Instagram employee with a heavy workload, are you really gonna check the comments on every submission?” they said.

The source said they also worked to ensure a client’s Google search results would present them as a musician. Google itself proved helpful in this regard. Once articles and music profiles were indexed by Google’s search engine, the site generated a “knowledge panel” in search results for the person’s name. The box appears next to search main results and identifies the person as a musical artist, offering links to their online profiles and music. In the eyes of Google, the client was now a real musician.

A Google spokesperson said that close to 80% of the 173 people identified by ProPublica as likely Shamoun clients were labeled musicians in these auto-generated knowledge panels. The company said because these individuals had profiles on Spotify and Apple and were the subjects of articles, they met the criteria to be labeled as musical artists. It’s not Google’s responsibility to determine whether the artists are legitimate, according to company spokesperson Lara Levin. As of now, these people remain marked as musical artists when you search for their names on Google.

The source said Shamoun claimed his actual costs for each verification submission amounted to roughly $1,500. He typically charged clients $25,000 for each verified account, making the operation hugely profitable, they said. Meta kept approving fake musicians, and the clients kept coming.

One client is Alfredo Troia, who sells custom jewelry out of a Pembroke Pines, Florida, shopping mall and goes by the moniker Goody the Jeweler. His verified Spotify profile had a total of seven songs and 180 monthly listeners prior to being removed by the company. While all of his music is electronic, his profile image shows him sitting next to an upright piano, reading what appears to be sheet music. Writing credits for his music list names such as “wehkuudhs wehdgjg,” “trudbkds prosbhkdfs” and “caddfhjksf probfbksd.” His song “Jungle” also sounds the same as DJ Dr. 6ix’s “Umbrella.” He did not respond to requests for comment. He lost his Instagram badge, and his music was also removed from Apple Music and Deezer.

Akop Torosian, a bakery and gym owner, had four songs on his Spotify page under the name No Limit Boss. One track, “Despair,” which sounds like an audio sample played on loop for more than four minutes, was described as an “opus” in a likely paid March article published by Muzique Magazine. (Muzique did not respond to emailed requests for comment.)

In June, Torosian was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on a complaint of attempted murder after he allegedly threatened one of his employees with a weapon. He pleaded not guilty in that case. The arrest came days after Torosian was accused of making racist comments about a Mexican juice vendor. In 2015, he was sentenced to three years of probation for a weapons charge related to a triple shooting. His Spotify profile was recently removed, and his Instagram badge was recently revoked by Meta. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Several OnlyFans models were also verified as musicians. Desiree Schlotz, Hannah Palmer and Lauren Blake boast a total of 4.7 million followers on Instagram, and each had songs, music profiles and paid articles presenting them as musicians. All three lost their Instagram badges, and Spotify removed their songs. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Nicky Gathrite and Tara Electra (whose name in corporate records is Tara Niknejad) are the co-founders of Unruly, an LA-based agency representing models and OnlyFans performers. They were also falsely verified as musicians. Both recently lost their badges.

In a phone call, Gathrite denied any knowledge of the paid verification scheme. When asked if he’s really a musician, he said, “If you Google me you can see that I am.” Google searches on his name brought up an automatically generated knowledge panel describing him as a musical artist. Electra did not respond to a request for comment.

Gathrite's company, Unruly, has also had connections with FanVerse, the Shamoun startup that sells NFTs of models and influencers. Shamoun's company, which was then called FansOnly, was listed as a sponsor of Unruly's Halloween party last fall. (Gathrite, through an attorney, denies a personal relationship with FanVerse.) Mike Vazquez, the “Siesta Key” star who lost his badge after being falsely verified as a musician, is a partner in FanVerse.

Gathrite did not respond to follow-up questions sent by email, and Vazquez also declined to comment. Shamoun did not respond to questions about his connections to Vazquez, Gathrite and Unruly.

“From a Sales Guy to a Music Sensation”

Shamoun seemed a natural fit to oversee the manufacturing of dubious musical artists.

He grew up in the Detroit area and has performed as a DJ under the name “Not Dillon.” As early as 2020, he began placing paid articles to promote himself and his ambitions in the music industry. Like those discussing his clients, the articles made exaggerated or false claims about Shamoun’s accomplishments.

“From a sales guy to a music sensation, Dillon is breaking records with his music and has established himself as an emerging name in the industry today,” reads a January 2020 article placed on an Indian news website.

Another apparently paid article from the same month on a different Indian website claimed Shamoun had “over 10 million streams on the music which he has created.” His two songs as Not Dillon on Spotify have less than 200,000 streams, and an old SoundCloud account in his name has six songs with less than 1,000 total plays. ProPublica could not find evidence of significant audience interaction on other platforms.

Over the next two years, his questionable claims of fame and success grew.

Back in 2020, online articles said he had played at a handful of music festivals. Shamoun’s website claimed he was involved in “branding and playing 12 of the world’s most reputable music festivals.” When he spoke to a ProPublica reporter this month, he claimed to have sold a major music festival to Live Nation. He declined to name the festival or provide additional information to back that up. It appears any supposed windfall from that sale may have been minor: Records show that a Dillon Shamoun with an address that matches public records for the aspiring DJ received a Payroll Protection Program loan of $18,540 in April 2021. Loan data lists Shamoun as working in “Marketing Consulting Services.”

Shamoun’s personal site also claimed he has two certified gold records, and that he planned to release music with top artists Tyga and Tory Lanez in 2021. There’s no evidence of any of that. Shamoun did not reply to questions about the PPP loan or his claims about gold records and working with major artists. His website was taken offline after ProPublica reached out. Management for Tyga and Tory Lanez could not be reached for comment.

Shamoun’s musical career exists in a haze of dubious claims, but there’s overwhelming evidence connecting him to the Instagram verification scheme, which he denies all involvement with. Multiple former clients confirmed that he sold verification services, and Shamoun is also listed in Whois records as the owner of close to 200 web domains featuring the names of people who have dubious musician profiles created by the scheme. There’s djdrsixmusic.com for the plastic surgeon, as well as melodymoralesmusic.com, the website of Shamoun’s girlfriend. She recently lost her verification badge as part of Meta’s move against fake musical artists, and her account, @mell, is no longer active. Morales’ three songs were removed by Apple and her account was taken down by Spotify after ProPublica reached out. Her website was also taken down after a reporter contacted Shamoun. In a text message, she declined to comment.

Shamuon also owns the domain name djtylerrumor.com. His older brother Tyler Shamoun, a Detroit mortgage broker, was branded in paidarticles and on Spotify and other platforms as DJ Rumor in a failed attempt to receive verification. Tyler Shamoun did not respond to emails or messages containing a detailed list of questions.

In text messages and phone calls, Shamoun kept citing one piece of evidence against his former partner: the fact that lawyers working for Meta sent Quinn a cease-and-desist letter in June. Shamoun said the lack of action by Meta against him showed he was not involved. “If it were true, I’d be in the same predicament Meta put the actual person in,” he said, referring to Quinn.

On Aug. 16, four days after Meta was contacted by ProPublica, the company sent Shamoun a cease-and-desist letter and banned him from its platforms for selling account verification services.

“As a result of our investigation, we’ve sent a cease-and-desist letter and removed related fraudulent verifications on our platform,” said the Meta spokesperson.

Days later, Shamoun messaged a prospective client with an offer: He could get their Instagram account verified for the low price of $15,000.

Clarification: This story was updated by ProPublica to clarify the nature of the connection between Nicky Gathrite’s company, Unruly, an agency representing models and OnlyFans performers, and a startup by Dillon Shamoun, FanVerse, which sells NFTs of models and influencers.


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