No one expects a message in their Instagram inbox that says, “Hey man, random, but pretty sure this account is pretending to be you and scamming folks.” But that’s exactly what happened to me earlier this year. Opening the link this good samaritan sent, I couldn’t see the profile. For a confused moment, I thought I was being toyed with, but I had been preemptively blocked by the scammer. I rushed into the other room and asked my partner to look up the account on her phone. Sure enough, I was staring back at myself.
Like staring into a mirror, the fake account was using my name, my professional headshot, and photos that I’ve shared from distillery tours and local whiskey events. This person had even stolen a photo I shared of one of our foster kittens. My snapshots were interspersed with photos of Van Winkle Family Reserve, E.H. Taylor, Jr., and other bottles that definitely weren’t mine. I felt bewildered and a bit violated. The last thing I would ever want to be associated with is defrauding fellow whiskey lovers. It felt personal, and I was compelled to figure out exactly what was going on and what my photos were being used for.
The Anatomy of a Whiskey Scam
Since the infancy of the United States, whiskey has often found itself on the wrong side of the law. From the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, the rectifiers of the 1800s, bootlegging during Prohibition, and, more recently, Pappygate, the outlaw image of whiskey feels justified. It makes perfect sense that in the age of social media, the less-than-legal side of whiskey would show a digital face.
After talking with the person who tipped me off, things started to take shape. My doppelgänger was created as part of a ring of Instagram accounts involved in a whiskey-specific non-delivery fraud scheme. In this specific case, there was one main account that was carefully advertising the sale of numerous allocated bottles of bourbon. When the scammer or scammers behind the account collected payment from a customer, they simply wouldn’t ship the product. In fact, the advertised bottles didn’t even exist. The page bearing my likeness wasn’t the ringleader. Instead, it posed as a satisfied customer and often appeared in the main account’s stories. Essentially, my likeness was being used to legitimize the fraud.
“Scammers use fabricated identities and images to attract potential victims. They exploit stolen photos and videos showcasing rare whiskies, offering them at seemingly reasonable prices to entice purchases,” explains the anonymous proprietor of the account Whiskey Scam Alert on X (formerly Twitter). Whisky Scam Alert is at the vanguard of a loose network of whiskey enthusiasts who track down scam accounts across various social media networks. They report the accounts to X and also warn unsuspecting users who publicly interact with such accounts.
This type of fraudulent behavior is not exclusive to rare whiskeys. “You’ll see these scams where people are stealing photos and pretending they’re selling whatever they’ve stolen photos of —Louis Vuitton, watches, whiskey, whatever people might pay for,” says whiskey collector Adam Herz, who has made a name for himself in online whiskey circles for his work in identifying counterfeit bottles and monitoring other fraudulent behavior in the community.
It makes sense that bourbon has found itself in the company of other luxury goods — the demand for premium bourbon has never been higher. According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, sales of premium bourbon grew 13 percent in volume between 2021 and 2022 and demand is expected to rise.
“The hobby and phenomenon have continued to explode so much that you see people now freaking out about getting a bottle of Blanton’s,” Herz says, alluding to that particular whiskey’s tater-bait status. “Whatever people want that they can’t get or it costs a lot of money, [the scammers] are going to have an offer for cheaper.”
“It’s always a little unsettling to see yourself do something you wouldn’t do until you realize, ‘Wait, my account isn’t hacked, it’s just someone stealing my content,’” says whiskey critic Jay West. No stranger to online bourbon chicanery, West moderates the Reddit community r/bourbon, hosts a podcast, and is the editor at Whiskey Raiders. He estimates his professional photos have been used to start fake Instagram accounts three separate times over the past five years — and those are just the ones he’s found.
“There are entirely fake Facebook groups where one scammer will create a bunch of Facebook profiles. One guy is running five, maybe 10 profiles and will pretend he’s started up some private group to trade bourbon in.”
Fraudulent accounts aren’t just harming the drinkers they rip off, they’re also a headache for people who operate in the promotion of legitimately procured whiskeys in the online community. “Scamming in whiskey is becoming almost as pervasive as the love of whiskey itself,” West says. “The appetite of scammers is absolutely voracious. Some days I feel like I spend more time removing fake comments that are enticing people to be scammed than I do creating actual content.”
Scammers often operate small networks of sock puppet accounts, according to Herz. “There are entirely fake Facebook groups where one scammer will create a bunch of Facebook profiles,” he explains. “One guy is running five, maybe 10 profiles and will pretend he’s started up some private group to trade bourbon in.” Using various profiles, the ringleader will make it seem like they and their friends have completed many successful transactions in order to dupe any collector who may stumble into their presence. The appearance of a healthy market might be enough to convince someone who is new to the whiskey world to put up the money to procure a high-status bottle. However, to seasoned veterans, the dubious behavior is immediately apparent.
It’s impossible to know for sure how many fraudulent accounts are operating at any given minute, but over the past few years, the number of scam accounts appears to be increasing across social media networks.
“We are now up to 381 scam accounts suspended and I’m currently tracking 45 active scams, 60 percent of those have been active within the last 30 days,” Whiskey Scam Alert says. “I’ve intervened in potential scam attempts thousands of times, saving people from being victimized and frustrating the scammers’ ability to steal from people.”
Recognizing a Whiskey Scammer
Identifying which social media accounts are run by crooks is simple once you understand their modus operandi. Their pages are usually full of photos of the most recognizable hard-to-find or expensive bourbons. Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton’s, the Antique Collection, and Weller, all distilled by Buffalo Trace, tend to be common fodder. Although the most potent bait comes from Buffalo Trace, the occasional bottle of Old Fitzgerald, Willett Purple Top, or other limited offerings make appearances as well.
“The reality is, we’ve seen our brands and those of other distilleries used as ‘bait’ by scammers,” says Andrew Duncan, global brand director for the Buffalo Trace Distillery. “One just cannot trust bottles purchased outside of legal, regulated channels.” The bottle shots shared by nefarious accounts are usually of varying quality and shot in different styles and with different backgrounds. The variety implies that they are taken from multiple sources.
“Boiler room tactics are a major red flag. They want to strike fast before you’ve had any time to think it through carefully. These methods offer no easy way to get your money back if you are the victim of fraud.”
Unsolicited contact is another major red flag. Scammers will often send direct messages or comment on photos or threads to initiate contact. Keeping communication limited to private channels allows them to deftly avoid automated or active moderation.
“On the spirits subreddits, the most common reports we get from users are like, ‘Hey, I’m getting cold messaged by a guy who’s offering me Weller for $200, I feel like this is too good of a deal,’” West says. Whenever they are alerted, he and the moderation team on r/bourbon issue announcements warning the community not to engage.
Fraudsters also want to get the deal done quickly. “Boiler room tactics are a major red flag,” Whiskey Scam Alert says. “They want to strike fast before you’ve had any time to think it through carefully.” The longer a conversation goes on, the more likely it is that the victim realizes what’s going on.
Unconventional methods of payment, such as cryptocurrencies or through platforms like Zelle or Venmo, are also an alarm bell. “These methods offer no easy way to get your money back if you are the victim of fraud,” Whisky Scam Alert explains.
One more thing to look out for is whether or not these accounts know anything about what they’re selling. Liquor stores, collectors, and other hobbyists all have a basic understanding of what they’re selling or trading, even if the practice remains outside the law in some instances.
But even those who know what to look for sometimes fall for the scams. “These victims are almost always out to convince themselves that something’s real,” Herz says. “And no matter how much you yell at them that this is a scam, they think they’re the ones who have found the one legitimate seller.” Victims often admit that amid a host of red flags, they clung to the hope that they might finally score that bottle of Pappy they can show off to their friends.
Ultimately, if the price for a rare bottle of bourbon seems too good to be true, the seller is almost always a scammer. “There’s no such thing as a retailer that gives random people deals where they leave $1,000 on the table,” Herz says. “It just doesn’t happen.”
The War Against the Scammers
The most frustrating aspect of my ordeal was convincing Instagram to delete the account using my name and photos. Technically, the operation is illegal on multiple levels and against the terms of service of every social media network. It should be simple, right?
“Getting a fake account taken down is either an act of determination or just pure anger,” West says. Most social media moderation works on the assumption that if one person reports a page, they’re probably just angry or they disagree. It takes multiple individuals reporting an account over an extended period for content moderators to take notice and do something.
Even established distilleries have trouble in this field. Due to their products being the most alluring bait, the Buffalo Trace Distillery has often found itself in the mix. In September 2021, online fraud got so bad that the distillery had to make a public statement warning consumers of ongoing scams.
“Unfortunately we have very limited ability to control that space, but we do aggressively pursue items that infringe upon our trademarks,” global brand director Duncan says. Earlier this year, Buffalo Trace’s parent company, Sazerac, won a lawsuit against an online retailer that was selling counterfeit bottles of Weller.
“I think that’s one of the ways these scammers can hang around, because to normal people, offering a bottle of $200 booze seems like a legitimate thing. But we know you’ll never see Old Rip Van Winkle for $200.”
My case certainly felt like a Sisyphean endeavor. After close to three weeks of having friends and family report the fake account, Instagram hadn’t done a thing. The company finally deleted the account, but only after I sent them a photo of myself holding my driver’s license, proving that I was who I claimed to be. It shouldn’t have been so difficult when the impostor was so blatantly fake.
As laissez-faire as social media corporations may seem, scammers don’t make moderation easy. Accounts frequently change their names and profile photos or start afresh. It takes a close eye, time, and effort to track such networks. The individual behind Whiskey Scam Alerts does what they can to document these changes and log detailed records. “I’ve been tracking some of these networks for so long that I can tell they’re scams simply from the phrasing and photos they use,” they say.
Generally, tech companies seem disinterested in aggressively pursuing scammers. Part of the problem with enforcing content moderation or involving authorities in catching scammers is that they are often clueless as to how the bourbon world operates.
“I think that’s one of the ways these scammers can hang around, because to normal people, offering a bottle of $200 booze seems like a legitimate thing,” West explains. “But we know you’ll never see Old Rip Van Winkle for $200. It’s really fascinating having to educate someone whose job is tech support on what the landscape of bourbon is like.”
Herz believes that distilleries and tech companies are helpless or turning a blind eye. “It’s just whack-a-mole,” he says. “That’s an FCC and FBI kind of issue where we just need better government oversight, just like we need with robocalling and other scams.”
He may be right. Months after I reported the account to Instagram, the scammer at the center of the ring I discovered is still active. The account is still advertising rare bottles of bourbon, responding to messages, and has 1,517 followers. As long as the secondary market remains hot, and there is money to be made, the bourbon scammers aren’t going anywhere. Social media networks seem completely unprepared to deal with it.