Hacked Facebook accounts leave businesses out of pocket as ombudsman records spike in Meta complaints

Hacked Facebook accounts leave businesses out of pocket as ombudsman records spike in Meta complaints
  • PublishedApril 23, 2024

As a martial artist, Catherine Wilson gets up each day ready for a fight – but it is big tech that is proving to be her most difficult opponent.

Her Melbourne gyms teach choke holds and leg locks; for the fighters, it’s about having the confidence to take down a bigger stronger opponent.

Online, Ms Wilson has been trapped in a long-running battle to reclaim her business’s Facebook account.

For nine months she’s been begging Meta for access to be restored after her account was hacked.

“It is a total sh*tshow,” she said.

“I’m a mum of two kids, my partner is doing it as well and we were just forced into doing it all hours of the day trying to get this resolved, it’s been a huge burden.”

She’s one of a growing number of Facebook and Instagram users, social media platforms owned by Meta, targeted by criminals.

First, the hackers compromise an account, change the password and then take it over locking out the rightful owner.

Sometimes the hackers spend heavily on advertising using the victim’s credit card details — often on scam ads.

The ABC has reported widely on scams flourishing on Meta’s platforms.

The Albanese government has singled out the tech giant for criticism claiming scams are running “rife”. 

In the United States, there’s been a dramatic and alarming spike in Meta hacking cases, with one state seeing an increase of more than 700 per cent in a year.

Here in Australia, there’s a substantial rise too — with an increase of more than 120 per cent in small business cases against digital platforms since July 2022.

Many of the hacked account holders complain Meta is difficult to deal with, offers mainly generic responses, and getting hold of a real person feels almost impossible.

It’s leading to calls for new powers to force digital platforms to act and large fines if they don’t.

Customer support ‘black hole’

Ms Wilson runs marketing for three Melbourne gyms under the banner Dominance MMA.

She found paying for advertising on Meta’s platforms, Facebook and Instagram, was essential for attracting new members.

Last July she was suddenly locked out of her pages.

“It made me feel sick when I realised that we were hacked.

“The process of what played out afterwards, I felt trapped and very small.”

To make matters worse the hackers started spending her company’s money, lots of it.

Ms Wilson said they set up a $20,000 per day ad campaign for a page called “Hot Trend Today”.

Catherine Wilson and her partner sit on a lounge with a laptop on a coffee table in front of them
Ms Wilson has gyms across Melbourne but lost a key marketing platform when she was hacked.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

She was eventually able to get money back from the bank but the financial impact of being locked out continued.

The real challenge began after she contacted Meta for help.

Despite nine months of message chats, emails and the occasional phone call, she remains locked out, unable to purchase an advertising campaign.

Do you know more about Meta hackers targeting Australian businesses?

Email Specialist.Team@abc.net.au

She has now regained access to be able to post on the pages.

“We’ve definitely fallen into a black hole.”

Her business has suffered and she estimates it has cost tens of thousands of dollars.

In one early chat Meta told her not to expect a quick fix.

“Issues like these can potentially take months to be fully resolved.

“We get a lot of requests related to hacked accounts,” the message said.

Another Meta email suggested staff were overwhelmed.

“Our technical team is currently experiencing huge volumes.”

Other responses repeated reassuring lines about “looking into your concern closely”.

“It was incredibly patronising because our livelihood and our business was being impacted, and they were telling us to have a nice day,” Ms Wilson said.

In one reply she said:

“Received this same email three times with no progress…Just let me know when things are actually being done.”

Despite Ms Wilson putting extra security measures in place, including two-factor authentication, five months later hackers struck again.

This time Ms Wilson’s personal Facebook account was hijacked to get access to the business pages again.

Meta permanently deleted Ms Wilson’s personal account, which removed all of her personal and business-related posts.

“There’s no other business that would be able to provide a service to Australian small businesses and behave in this way,” she said.

Meta in a ‘league of its own’

Anger and frustration with Meta is high across the United States too.

In March, representatives from 40 states wrote to the company about the huge rise in cases involving people having accounts taken over by hackers and then being locked out.

The letter stated:

“The frequency and persistence of account takeovers on Meta-owned platforms puts it in a league of its own.”

In New York, complaints increased tenfold over four years and Vermont’s jumped by 740 per cent in just one year.

Ellen Klem smiles in a portrait styled headshot
Ms Klem is the director of consumer outreach and education for the Office of the Attorney-General in Oregon, USA.(Supplied)

Ellen Klem works for Oregon’s Attorney General, one of the letter’s key signatories.

She told the ABC the volume of Meta complaints was “shocking” but likely to be far worse.

“An increase that’s over 700 per cent (in Vermont) … that’s wild … my jaw fell to the floor.

“North Carolina had a 330 per cent increase, Illinois 256 per cent, Pennsylvania 270 per cent.

“What is most alarming I think about these statistics is that these are just the people that complained … what we’re seeing here is really just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms Klem, the Director of Consumer Outreach told the ABC.

The US states have accused Meta of failing to adequately resource prevention and customer support, pushing the financial burden onto the taxpayer.

The letter questioned whether massive staff cuts were behind customers struggling to find meaningful help.

“The help that they are receiving, if any, is moving way too slowly and we want more from them,” Ms Klem said.

Ms Klem said Meta recently responded acknowledging the concerns.

In many cases, users give up and create new accounts, like Brisbane artist Giles Kilham.

“Dealing with Meta was frustrating,” Mr Kilham said.

“It just goes into some abyss and you never hear anything again.”

He relies on Instagram to sell his work which brings new life to tired vintage paintings by introducing his psychedelic skulls, creeping tentacles and plenty of other weird and wonderful creatures.

Two years ago his account was hijacked after someone he knew also had their account compromised.

The hackers sent him a phishing message pretending to be the other person and he responded.

Giles Kilham bald with a beard stares down the camera
Brisbane artist Giles Kilham was forced to give up his Instagram account when he was hacked.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

“It all happened via direct messages on Instagram.

“They asked for assistance (and) I unwittingly gave the hackers the ability to get into my account and change my password and throw me out.”

Hackers took over and started posting links to Bitcoin scams and direct messaged his 4,500 followers trying to take over their accounts too.

He contacted Meta but despite following all their instructions he was unsuccessful and didn’t regain access and the account appears to have been deleted.

Mr Kilham had to start from scratch which meant waving goodbye to his original handle and his customer base.

“I definitely lost all the engagement (on Instagram) that just dropped off a cliff.

Giles Kilham draws on a framed canvas
Mr Kilham lost engagement and followers when hackers used a phishing scam to target his account.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

“I was getting regular contact about doing commission work and potential illustration jobs and that all sort of just completely disappeared,” Mr Kilham said.

Slow fix to the ‘fastest growing’ problem

The true scale of the problem in Australia isn’t known because there’s no place for every social media user to complain.

Despite that, some are coming forward to Bruce Billson’s office, as the Small Business Ombudsman, in massive numbers.

head shot of man in blue suit wearing glasses standing in a garden
Australian Small Business Ombudsman, Bruce Billson, says the real number of businesses affected by Meta hacks is unknown.(Supplied: Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman)

There have been 140 cases in six months about digital platforms like Meta’s.

“It’s the fastest growing area of business-to-business disputes that my agency is handling,”

“We are a taxpayer-funded resource and this really should be sorted out at the platform long before we need to get involved,” Mr Billson said.

Even with a direct line to Meta, fixing the problem can be slow.

“By the time they get to us, those businesses are exasperated, they are financially harmed and they’re at their wit’s end, and we sometimes can get an outcome for them in a number of days,” he said.

“Even where we’re involved, it can take weeks and sometimes months.”

The ombudsman is now watching to see if mass layoffs at Meta make the situation worse.

“We’re very interested to see how staffing reductions at these platforms impacts on their dispute resolution capability,” Mr Billson said.

“We’d be concerned if an already ordinary level of performance deteriorates further.”

The Consumer watchdog, the ACCC has criticised tech companies handling of disputes and wants the government to introduce an ombudsman which could force them to act.

The government is also drafting a new mandatory code that will impose new obligations on social media platforms to better protect customers against scams.

Some consumer advocates are calling for that to include financial penalties.

Meta was unavailable for an interview and did not respond to written questions. A company spokesman said, “We don’t have anything further to add to your story.”

It’s little solace for small businesses like Ms Wilson’s, who is calling for change.

“The power imbalance is obvious,” she said.

“We’re begging for assistance to get back onto this platform that we now hate.”


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