The Food Scam Side of Instagram

The Lempert Report
May 13, 2019

Chris Buetti, a New York City-based data engineer, has a detailed post on Medium on just how he used Instagram to scam free food from some of the finest restaurants in the city.

The overused term “influencer” these days refers not to the expertise of an individual but rather to their number of social media followers that brands, or all kinds, not just food clamor for and offer paid sponsorships and endorsement deals, free products, free trips and just about anything they can to move the needle for their products’ awareness and hopefully, sales.

So Buetti programmed an Instagram influencer bot which is completely automated: “Since its inception”, he told The Take Out, “I haven’t even really logged into the account. I spend zero time on it.” The bot automatically scraped photos from other New York-centric Instagram accounts (which is legal) and added captions and hashtags that were indistinguishable from what a human would write. Through artificial intelligent, Buetti “taught” the bot what types of photos were of the best quality, and also programmed it to follow, like, and engage with commenters. The account garnered more than 25,000 followers, and is still growing.

He then wrote more code so that the account would automatically find Manhattan restaurants on Instagram, and reach out to them with a semi-customized message: “We would love to make some sort of deal with you to sponsor your establishment. … In exchange, I would ask for a free experience, small gift card, discount, or coupon to your place.” It worked, reports The Take Out, as his Gmail inbox filled up with offers. 

In his own blog post he writes “The results are better than you might initially imagine. I have restaurants basically throwing gift cards and free meals my way in exchange for an Instagram promotion.” He even posted screenshots emails from restaurants, redacted to protect their identity, that reveal the stark tit-for-tat world of influencers: “We’d love to offer you and a guest dinner in exchange for a post. Here’s the offer: 2 small plates, 2 entrees, 2 rounds of drinks or 1 bottle of house wine.”

Restaurants, grocerants and brands beware.