Some Instagram users brought an old trick to a new audience by luring kids into wiring money through a "Vanilla Reload" card.
Vanilla Reload is a legitimate prepaid debit card designed for people who don’t want to carry cash or credit. But its accessibility makes it an easy tool for scammers, especially when combined with the anonymity of social media.
Mary Gotay’s son Israel learned that lesson the hard way.
“I said, ‘What happened?’” explained Gotay, who lives in Shelton with her two sons. “He said, ‘I drove down to CVS, I got the Vanilla Reload card and I put $200 on it.’”
The scam’s mechanics are nothing new. An Instagram user will post a picture of money or instructions telling people they can “flip their cash.” They usually leave a phone number, and anyone who inquires is told to go to a nearby convenience store and put anywhere from $50 to $1,000 on it.
The scammers say they’ll multiply the card’s balance by 10. All they need is the pin number on the back. But within minutes of releasing the pin number, that balance is gone.
Rich Hanley teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and studies trends in social media. He points out that these scams may seem simple, but they’re designed to target impressionable kids.
In fact, a quick search of "#VanillaReload" on Instagram shows tens of thousands of posts reflecting the same empty promise.
“Kids need to understand that although the Internet is a wonderful tool and it’s a really great way to connect with your real friends, they ought to be suspicious of anyone who is not a real friend in a physical sense,” said Hanley.
He believes kids in general need to practice more vigilance online. Social media has created a culture based on virtual friendships.
However, these scammers show that not everyone on social media is there to be your friend. They simply don’t have your best interest in mind.
“In fact, the opposite,” said Hanley. “They have your worst interest. They’re exploiting your youth and ought to be avoided.”
And you're not alone if you think the damage control seems touch-and-go.
Parents like Gotay have a hard time teaching social media safety, since many of them didn't grow up with it. That’s why the Department of Consumer Protection created resources to help pave the way for both kids and parents who have questions.
“Our own department has a website called www.smartconsumer.gov, which, in very simple language, explains the dangers of a lot of different actions,” said DCP Commissioner William M. Rubenstein.
Another helpful tip is to do some simple background research. While it’s near impossible to physically track these scammers, several users monitor social media and expose as much information as they can.
“They quickly look out for scams like this by posting names with people, usernames or whatnot on these scam sites saying, ‘Avoid people who use these handles,’” said Hanley.
Gotay did just that. As soon as she found out a scammer took her son’s money, she created her own Instagram account to help warn anyone else who might fall for it.
“And I’m going to fight to the end,” said Gotay. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to put it out there and for people to know about it.”
Neither Instagram nor Vanilla Reload returned a request for comment.