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Instagram influencer Kayla Massa
Via YouTube

How an Instagram influencer scammed her followers out of $1.5 million

Kayla Massa was arrested last week after allegedly using debit cards from social media-recruited victims to deposit huge amounts of stolen money

You can do just about anything on Instagram these days: fake a Coachella appearance, change your identity, and scam your followers out of millions of dollars… apparently.

According to an exposé by Quartz, that’s exactly what influencer Kayla Massa did. The 22-year-old was arrested last week (February 13) after allegedly committing bank and wire fraud, ultimately stealing $1.5 million (£1.2 million). Massa and her co-conspirators’ arrests marked the end of a year and a half long investigation into the scheme, which supposedly scammed over 45 people. Here’s what happened.

WHO IS KAYLA MASSA?

Kayla Massa is a New Jersey-based Instagram and YouTube influencer, known online as @kayg0ldi. Her now-private IG account has over 330k followers, and she has 107k subscribers on YouTube, where she posts challenges, vlogs, and hair tutorials.

HOW DID VICTIMS FALL FOR HER SCAM?

Massa reportedly used her Instagram Stories to promote her scheme, sharing photos of stacks of money, screenshots of bank balances, and money orders, as well as videos of people flashing debit cards and substantial amounts of cash. Her Stories included calls to action like: “If you got a bank account and you are interested in making legal money, (hit me up) ASAP.” Once a victim messaged Massa, she would tell them they could earn up to $5,000 (£3.8k) by letting her friend use their bank account for an “unspecified, but short, period of time”, before asking them to send over an emptied-out bank card and their PIN number, which she later used to deposit large amounts of stolen money. The influencer would tell her followers that the money-making ploy was totally legit, and – according to the complaint against her – would encourage “individuals to empty their bank accounts before providing their debit card and PIN” to “falsely allay any fears of losing money”. Many of Massa’s victims were young, with some being under the age of 18.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED?

The Quartz report details two main cases, though it’s believed Massa and her accomplices scammed over 45 people. The first tells the story of ‘JK’, who met the influencer and her boyfriend at a local McDonald’s to hand over the debit card, PIN, and online login information for the account. In a police interview, JK said Massa told them via DM that her friend had a clothing line, and needed to deposit money in JK’s account as a “tax write-off”. Massa told JK they would soon receive $5k and have their card returned “quickly”. Money order funds – a payment order for a pre-specified amount of money – were credited into JK’s account within a few days, and three purchases, ranging from $450 (£346) to almost $1,000 (£769), were made. A week later, the bank realised that the money orders were fraudulent and recalled the funds, leaving JK’s account with a negative balance. JK attempted to contact Massa on Instagram, but realised they had been blocked by the influencer.

Another victim, known as ‘CF’, told investigators that Massa said she had a brand and would put CF on her company’s payroll, as well as paying them for the use of their bank account. After CF handed over their debit card and PIN, four money orders – each for $995 (£765) – were deposited into CF’s account. Massa then texted CF with more instructions, insisting that CF could earn more money the longer the influencer kept the card; but the following day, CF found that Massa had blocked her phone number and Instagram account. Like JK’s case, the money orders were soon identified as fraudulent, leaving CF overdrawn by nearly $4,000 (£3,078).

A final case outlined by Quartz reveals how a victim – who managed to contact Massa after realising the scam early on – threatened to report the influencer to the police. According to court documents, Massa responded: “Do what you gotta do.” The journalists behind the Quartz story described the scheme as “a new spin on an old scam”, explaining that “the funds from the fraudulently obtained money orders would clear before the bank discovered the fraud”, enabling Massa and her co-conspirators to “withdraw the cash” and “buy new, legitimate money orders with the ill-gotten gains”. As well as the fraudulent deposit scheme, Massa and her accomplices allegedly wrote counterfeit cheques from local businesses, again recruiting victims from social media – this time from Facebook and Snapchat

HOW WAS SHE CAUGHT?

After stopping a black Nissan in the New Jersey town of Winslow, authorities found 39 cheques from a Nissan dealership in the nearby Turnersville, all made out to Keith Williams, though there was no one in the car by that name. The police also discovered two debit cards not belonging to anyone in the vehicle, as well as withdrawal slips and two blank postal money orders. The Turnersville dealership subsequently provided investigators with a list of 679 fraudulent cheques issued from its account,  totalling over $128,000 (£99k). Police reached out to the people whose accounts the cheques were deposited into, and found that their stories matched those of Massa’s previous victims, JK and CF. 

Having already accessed Massa’s details from Instagram, the authorities were able to link a number of the people in the stopped-and-searched car to the influencer. As the Quartz journalists say, although Massa and her co-conspirators’ “social engineering skills were high”, they were “sloppy in covering their tracks”. Fraudulent cheques were deposited into banks belonging to Massa’s mother, while a money order was made out to the influencer’s sister, Leire, using her real name and address. All ten of the accused were also caught on CCTV depositing the counterfeit cheques and making ATM withdrawals from victims’ bank accounts.

Those arrested last week include Massa and her boyfriend Jordan Herrin, both aged 22, her 19-year-old sister Leire and boyfriend Erasmo Feliciano, as well as William Logan, aged 22, former Nissan employee Alex Haines, aged 27, 18-year-old Kevin McDaniels, Andrew Johnson, aged 21, and Jabreel Martin and fledgling rapper Dezhon McCrae (AKA YC Woody), both aged 20.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

There’s no news yet on what will happen to the ten people who have been charged, though they’ll likely stand trial soon. When it comes to the victims, it appears JK’s account was written off by their bank as a loss, while CF’s was closed. Speaking to Quartz, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Scams hurt our community and have no place on Instagram. We have many systems in place to help us catch and stop this activity – including the option to report both content and ads that may include scams.”