Your Instagram has been hacked. Who are you going to call?
There’s nobody to call.
This is true of most tech giants’ free services. If your Facebook account gets hijacked or you lose access to your Twitter account, your options are limited to submitting an automated online form and hoping an actual human being gets back to you. The companies provide help centres online, but they provide no direct way to email or call for support, their spokespeople confirmed.
And if someone does respond by email, that may not resolve your issue.
Michelle Barrios, a Hayward resident, said she received a notification last fall that someone had logged into her Instagram account from another country and changed her password. When someone from Instagram responded to her request for help, she said was told she had violated the company’s terms of service. She wrote back to explain she had been hacked and could no longer access her account.
"I never heard back from anyone again," said Barrios, a dance studio owner. "For me, it was more sentimental. A photo of (her daughter) Brooklyn the first time we made blueberry muffins, family pictures on holidays or special moments of my kids."
She followed the steps the company asked her to take to try to get her account back, including taking a selfie and sending it along. That didn’t work, and after trying about 10 more times to reach the company and receiving no response, she gave up and opened a new account in January.
Leila Devine of Fairfield said she had a similar experience. After her Instagram account got hacked, she could no longer log into it. The US Forest Service employee also sent a selfie to Instagram, to no avail. A human being emailed her back once, but she said she has tried to contact the company more than 10 times since and received no response. Three weeks later, she opened another account. But she has lost access to more than 600 photos she had posted – for her family and friends’ eyes only – over the years, only half of which she had backed up.
"I’m concerned about who has access to those photos now," Devine said, adding that she has turned on two-factor authentication for her new account and plans to change her password more often.
An Instagram spokeswoman says there is no way to recover photos that are lost with a hacked account, an important thing to know for people who delete their photos from their phones after sharing them.
"We need to do better on this, and we’ll have something to share soon on what steps we’re taking," the spokeswoman said.
Other users’ stories range from having their hijacked accounts posting or tweeting pornographic images to losing Facebook messages from a loved one who has died to getting messages out of the blue from a deceased user’s account.
Many take to the social media platforms to complain publicly. A recent tweet from Instagram user Ashley: "Hey @instagram your support system sucks. My account was hacked weeks ago and someone is now posting porn. Appreciate the prompt response, now my grandma and cousins are going to block me. Though I haven’t been missing the app, maybe should just delete. Thanks for nothing!"
In his book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, longtime Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee criticized tech companies’ approach to user service: "The customer service department is reserved for advertisers. Users are the product, at best, so there is no one for them to call."
That’s by design at most companies that offer free online services. In I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, a 2011 book by Douglas Edwards, he wrote that as Google was beginning to grow, co-founder Sergey Brin asked, "Why do we need to answer user email anyway?"
Problems have multiplied as the companies’ user bases have skyrocketed. Instagram cited its scale (1 billion users, a spokeswoman pointed out) as one reason all user questions are routed first to an automated system. Facebook, Twitter and Google said they use a combination of humans and automation – but mostly automation, and in Google’s case, forums made up of other users – to respond to users’ concerns. A Google spokesman said the company focuses on making sure user accounts don’t get hacked in the first place, something he said is rare.
In an interview, Edwards said, "There’s a larger perspective that if there’s a problem, it’s probably the user’s fault, since the product the engineers built works just fine. Especially if the service is free, there’s not much urgency around hand-holding those users who can’t figure it out for themselves."
While many tech giants don’t charge a fee to use their platforms, there’s growing sentiment that users pay by providing them with personal information. Governor Gavin Newsom’s staff is drafting a proposal for a data dividend, which would compensate people for companies’ use of their information.
When users do regain access to their accounts, security experts say they’re probably just as safe as they were before. They recommend turning on two-factor authentication and using strong passwords. But hackers could continue to try to use information they accessed to open other accounts, or retain control of the accounts they hijacked.
"It’s definitely a real concern," said James Plouffe, a lead security architect at MobileIron, a Silicon Valley security software startup. "As soon as you have access restored, check the account recovery procedures to make sure they’re yours, not your attacker’s."
Gary Davis, chief consumer security evangelist for security giant McAfee, said "the most lucrative data" for attackers is family names and birthdays because "typically that’s what you use in some sort of password scheme". He added that choosing hard-to-guess passwords is more important than how often they are changed.
Getting help from the tech giants
Here's how you can find help when you have a problem or question for these companies.
Google: Help centre; no direct email or phone number.
Facebook: Help centre; no direct email; no humans at phone number.
Instagram: Help centre; no direct email; no humans at phone number.
Twitter: Help centre; no direct email or phone number. – The San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service