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What is a pair of heels worth to Instagram? The social photo service is getting ready to launch its advertising offering to brands after testing the system with a select few and securing a $40 million spending commitment from Omnicom.

But this week I showed how, for marketers keen on Instagram, there is a far more pressing concern. By not exerting any controls or clampdowns, the service is allowing fakers to squat brands’ precious identities, using fake Instagram accounts to pass themselves off as genuine companies — and stealing thousands of followers in the process.

While this problem is experienced by brands of all kinds, it is most pronounced in the luxury goods sector. To delve into the issue, we used BirdSong to analyze 20 luxury brands on Instagram, from Armani to Tiffany. After searching for the brand names in the service, we focused on the top 40 returned accounts for each.

The results should leave marketers as nervous as a model preparing to strut down a wobbly catwalk. On average, these high-end outfitters have 4.75 suspect accounts each, re-using their names, logos, and product images.

Instagram imitators

One brand suffers more than others in the fake stakes. Designer shoe maker Christian Louboutin has not one but 21 Instagram accounts. For a company that goes to such lengths to police counterfeiting of physical products and its online reputation, this will, no doubt, disappoint.

Louboutin’s “Stopfake” team professes a “zero tolerance” approach and, two years ago, won a court case granting it exclusive rights to its iconic red-soled shoe design. But, on Instagram, brands are in the Wild West again, susceptible to imitation at every turn.

If you were Victoria Beckham, you might be forgiven for wishing you had a few more imitators. But for luxury sector veterans that have long wrestled with the problem of fake goods, the problem is chronic. Over the years, such brands have spent millions trying to protect themselves from fakers. But, online, their followers are thrown back into a world of confusion.

Reasons for faking an Instagram account are many. Some people just want the attention — desirable products help them collect new followers. Some of these folks may aim to sell their follower bases. But others, just like in the offline black market, are trying to sell fake luxury goods.

For Louboutin and others, this is a problem. Not only do fake accounts rob them of their rightful followers, they also risk miscommunicating the kind of image companies would choose to portray themselves.

Of the 95 suspect Instagram accounts our analysis found for just 20 brands, it is quite possible that some are owned and operated by official subsidiaries or franchises. But the fact that it is mostly impossible to discern these legitimate operators from the pack of copycats makes the point clear: Even as it begins to ask marketers for their money, Instagram is far from brand-friendly.

Instagram’s rivals have solved this problem. Twitter introduced account verification for companies and individuals in 2009. Even Instagram’s owner, Facebook, has allowed brands to prove their authenticity since 2013. Both services are now building out big ad businesses, long before Instagram has even begun.

Industry forecasts show luxury brands are keen to move plenty of marketing spend from traditional media channels to digital, with social media a particular beneficiary.

Of all the digital activities possible, posting product imagery is these firms’ top online tactic, according to Worldwide Business Research and ShopIgniter. So it’s easy to see why designer fashion, jewelry, and perfume makers would flock to Instagram. It is, therefore, equally worrying that a proliferation of fake images will cause them headaches.

If Instagram, as it aims to sign up advertisers, does not offer brands an environment in which they feel protected, they are not likely to reciprocate by spending with the photo network. To profit from some of world’s largest and richest advertisers, it should urgently introduce account verification, before it opens up its ad offering widely.

My team contacted Instagram about the matter prior to publishing, but the company declined to comment.

Jamie Riddell is co-founder of on-demand social media analytics platform BirdSong.

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