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The Weird World of Viral ‘Free Watch’ Scams on Instagram

Photo: Instagram

If you use Instagram like any semblance of a normal person, you probably get ads for fashion. Maybe they’re brands you know, or maybe it’s some name you’ve never heard off, offering an amazing deal. A popular way to get customers is to offer an item for “free” (meaning free plus shipping and handling) and then spend a bit to advertise it in a bunch of feeds. This past spring, a “free” red bathing suit became a minor topic of conversation after it was suddenly everywhere on Instagram.

But bathing suits are far from the only Instagram fashion operation with a low cost and high return on investment. In an awesome new essay, artist Jenny Odell takes a deep dive into the world of Instagram watches, and the tactics that mysterious salespeople use to sell the chintzy accessories.

A number of sites, with generic names like Folsom & Co., Ottega, and SofiCoastal, all sell watches with the same basic strategy: free plus shipping (marked down from an arbitrary price), with a ticking clock showing when the deal supposedly expires, and live pop-ups of watches being sold in real time. These are all artificial sales tactics to force the sale, and they’re not all that new to online retail.

What is relatively new is how easy platforms have made it to run an operation like this. Firstly, the watches appear to be sourced from Alibaba, the Chinese web titan that makes it easy to order cheap stuff in bulk. That is then combined with Shopify, a shopping middleman that handles things like credit-card payments and order processing and passes that info directly to the Alibaba seller. In practice, it means that sites selling these watches never actually keep them in stock before they get sent to the customer. It’s known as drop shipping.

Combine the ability to run a lean sourcing-and-handling operation with the ability to easily target people over Instagram, and you’ve got a pretty simple business that almost runs itself. And if you can get aspiring influencers to do your advertising for you — which many of the watch sellers do — then all the better. All it really requires is some technical setup and someone willing to check Instagram a couple of times a day.

Whether these sites all belong to one person or several is unclear, but they’re good at covering their tracks, anonymizing their domain-name info, and each store uses a different Google Analytics ID. And more importantly, does it really matter? I don’t know who is expecting a top-quality product for only the price of shipping, but if you buy a $7 watch, you’re gonna end up with a $7 watch. Odell’s essay, worth reading in full, is here.

The Weird World of Viral ‘Free Watch’ Scams on Instagram