If you’ve spent any time on the internet at all in the last two decades, one would presume you’re aware of the fact that the web is full of scammers and con artists. Nor do you need to have been personally scammed to be aware of the ways that the internet is used to part people from their savings—the tools available to scammers in the digital age have made the resulting schemes more complex and convincing than ever, and the result is a massively profitable industry of illegal enterprise, often based out of overseas call centers. Classically, their targets are less tech-savvy victims such as senior citizens, who they all too often are able to bully or guilt into sending thousands of dollars before all is said and done.
There’s another demographic that has been particularly susceptible to web scams in recent years, though, one that is more relevant to Paste Drink, and it’s the following: American whiskey drinkers. Across the world of social media in particular, scammers have found a lucrative niche in targeting American bourbon geeks, exploiting both the rampant phenomenon of bourbon price gouging and the unfortunate gullibility of whiskey drinkers who are desperate to acquire rare bottles as hobbyist status symbols. On social networks such as Facebook, Instagram and especially Twitter, scammers are conning drinkers into forking over cash for nonexistent bottles, memberships into fake whiskey clubs, or even “investing” in whiskey casks that don’t exist.
A very typical scam post.
Fortunately, as on other media hubs such as YouTube, the rise of the whiskey scammers has precipitated the emergence of a new breed of public service defenders and scambaiters determined to fight back. These accounts, run by anonymous individuals who simply want to prevent others from being taken advantage of, have dedicated themselves to educating the public about the danger and methodology of the scammers, while simultaneously aggravating and baiting those scammers into giving up identifying details about themselves, which can be relayed to social media moderators or even law enforcement agencies.
Today, though, the Twitter-based whiskey scam defenders are facing their most difficult challenge yet. In the wake of Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, and the tumultuous and chaotic period that has followed, in which numerous banned and restricted accounts have been given amnesty and reappeared on the service, these citizen watchdogs monitoring scam activity have already seen a measurable uptick in the volume of active scammers. Speaking with the person behind one of these accounts, he confided that Twitter’s response to scammers, even when reported with collected evidence, has become slower and more inefficient than ever. It would seem that users have never been in more risk of falling victim to these scams, so let’s examine how they typically work, and how the watchdogs are working to fight them.
You might be initially asking why American whiskey geeks are being targeted, or particularly susceptible to these scams to begin with. The answer is that this is a natural outgrowth of the particular breed of bourbon mania that has gripped the industry in the last decade, driving unprecedented demand for anything with the slightest illusion of “rarity,” and simultaneously sending secondary market pricing on any of those bottles through the roof. If bottles were more available, or being sold at MSRP, there would be no reason for a scammer market to exist, because there would be little profit to be had. But when so many whiskey consumers are already participating in a largely online black market where 300-500% markups are commonplace, that represents an irresistible opportunity for scammers to get involved.
Why do drinkers fall for these things? Well, much of it comes down to the potent mixture of prestige, inexperience and FOMO, or fear of missing out. Many of the drinkers in the online whiskey sphere are relatively inexperienced in the field, and have attempted to jump into the deep end of “rare bourbon” collecting/hoarding immediately after getting interested in the whiskey world. Social media communities such as Facebook “whiskey hunter” groups exacerbate things, converting many of these drinkers to a hive mentality, in which only the most inaccessible brands—mostly Buffalo Trace limited releases—are seen as “the good stuff.” Thus blinded to the quality brands that are more widely available around them, a generation of drinkers has been created who are distressingly desperate to lay hands on brands such as the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, etc.) or Pappy Van Winkle. And because opportunities to legitimately attain those bottles are extremely limited, often coming down to winning liquor store lotteries or raffles at this point, this means that the illegal secondary market is the primary way that most consumers and whiskey collectors are able to reliably score these bottles. And this reality creates a fertile breeding ground for scammers, as consumers hunting for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year to impress their coworkers often fail to truly vet the accounts they’re trying to do business with.
Such a wide variety of fake bottles to choose from!
The most common style of scheme simply involves scammers creating accounts and accompanying websites that advertise bottles for sale that don’t actually exist. These scammers typically steal existing photography of rare bottles, such as shots of Pappy Van Winkle bottles from a store display, and claim to be selling the bottles themselves. They may claim to be the account of a package store, or a secondary market collector, or even the employee of a major distillery. The sophistication of these schemes can vary drastically—some are simple scams being run by individuals without much experience, or even a basic grasp of the English language, while others involve surprisingly advanced levels of training. The latter scam accounts are likely part of international criminal fraud networks, being tied up into all manner of additional financial scams that may revolve around industries such as drugs, weaponry, sex work or cryptocurrency.
There are, however, many other styles of scams as well. For instance, consumers may be tricked into buying raffle or lottery tickets by scam accounts impersonating liquor stores, in the hopes of winning the right to purchase rare bottles. Others have even been baited into fake “whisky cask investment” scams, essentially tricked into purchasing shares of aging scotch whisky casks in Scotland that don’t actually exist.
The anonymous individual running Twitter account @WhiskeyScam has seen it all, and then some. After first noticing the volume of whiskey scamming happening on the social media platform in 2020, he began to get involved in tracking scammer accounts as a hobby. Deciding that he wanted to dedicate his time to preventing people from being duped by the scammers, he began compiling lists of known scam accounts, messaging those who publicly interacted with the accounts, and reporting the accounts to Twitter Support. Remaining anonymous both for the sake of his project and his own protection from scammer reprisals, the @WhiskeyScam account holder interacts with numerous whiskey scammers under a set of aliases, tricking them into volunteering information that can ideally be used to get the accounts shut down.
In the process, he’s essentially compiled a dossier of the many ways that scammers operate on Twitter. When I asked him to provide examples, his responses were long, detailed and authoritative. Here’s an excerpt that whiskey geeks might find helpful:
Most of the scams I track involve a non-delivery fraud, where you pay for a product that does not exist and will never be shipped. Some scam accounts set their bait and simply wait for their victims while others actively pursue their marks. Their websites often look legitimate. They advertise on social media, slowly building their following and inserting themselves into the community by piggybacking on established industry accounts to look authentic. Anyone who engages with them will quickly have them in their mentions or DMs aggressively trying to sell bottles.
Scammers create profiles with false identities using fake photos to attract potential victims. They steal photos and video of rare whiskies from real accounts and businesses, and then offer them at reasonable prices to bait people into buying. They prefer DMs, text, WhatsApp, or email. They prefer payments using crypto, gift cards, wire transfer, and P2P apps like Zelle, Venmo, and Cash App. These methods have no buyer protections, and if you push for more secure payments like credit cards, they always have lots of pre-planned excuses ready.
Once you’ve paid, they often introduce a fraudulent shipping company or insurance arrangement. This is another scam to get even more of your money. These will appear real with login credentials, tracking numbers etc. All fake. You may be asked to continue paying invented fees until you realize you’ve been had. Some victims are taken for thousands. Scams constantly evolve and they change tactics once they stop being effective.
The question, then, is how can the scam defenders strike back? And how much does the Elon Musk era of Twitter complicate things?
It’s important to remember that for the operators of accounts such as @WhiskeyScam and ally @WScambaiter, these accounts are a hobby rather than a paying job, so they can never realistically hope to shut down every scammer, nor devote the kind of time to the mission that an international criminal scam network can devote. But at the same time, they aspire to make life so difficult for the scammers, by consistently getting their accounts shut down and wasting their time with wild goose chases, that the networks supporting those scammers eventually choose to take their operations elsewhere. And indeed, the daily commitment of time and resources that @WhiskeyScam puts into this public service is extremely commendable. As he puts it:
I have a busy career and personal life but I spend my down time during the day scanning through Twitter using various accounts to look for new scams and to track activity from existing accounts. Several times each day I scan through the accounts I’m monitoring and track everything I find, including Twitter IDs, username changes, the various connections between accounts to determine groupings, and to monitor for interested responses from potential victims.
I spend a lot of effort checking replies to active accounts and warn those who appear to be taking an interest. That’s been my focus since I started. I intervene as often as possible to prevent people from being ripped off. I list information through links on my profile and regularly provide tips and tricks to my followers to help them identify scams and to avoid becoming a victim. This has really grown over the last 2 years. We are now up to 281 scam accounts suspended and I’m currently tracking 43 active scam accounts. 53% of those have been active within the last 30 days.
After a few years of doing this, the operator of @WhiskeyScam can typically identify a scam account just by glancing at it. Many are easily identified by their use of the same photography in particular, which led to @WhiskeyScam creating a library of images to cross-reference various scammer accounts. Many of the scammers likewise lack much actual knowledge about the whiskey world, so they can be tricked into saying they have access to brands that don’t actually exist, in order to confirm the presence of a scam. A photo of a fake brand, such as the purple-labeled W.L. Weller below, can be sent to the scammer, who eagerly promises to deliver the goods.
The arrival of Elon Musk’s so-called “Twitter 2.0” era, however, threatens to upset the balance of the battle between scammers and scambaiters. Despite claiming—without offering much in the way of evidence—that his new Twitter had somehow purged bots and scammers while simultaneously decimating the size of the Twitter teams focused on those objectives, @WhiskeyScam reports that the opposite instead seems to be true—that the scammers have been emboldened in the Musk era, and that more of the accounts are simultaneously active than ever. In particular, he fears that whiskey scam accounts might be able to make use of the revamped Twitter Blue system to purchase the appearance of legitimacy with a blue checkmark for $8 per month, potentially turning Twitter into “even more of a scammer’s paradise.” Likewise, the promised “amnesty” for deactivated Twitter accounts could allow many of the already banned scam accounts to return en masse. As @WhiskeyScam put it:
This has been happening. I wouldn’t specifically call it amnesty, but there have been several accounts that have been recently successful in overturning old suspensions. Some going back several months to over a year ago. Some have even been reinstated after two suspensions. Very frustrating. These zombie scam accounts then become harder to shut down.
It has always been challenging and since early on, Twitter was rife with misinformation and fraud. But recent changes there have me concerned. In my experience, Twitter Support has been slower to act over the past few months. They’re swamped with reports and their policies, human review processes, and AI seem to be overwhelmed. Their scam detection and ID methods are not well explained and their approach has been increasingly inconsistent.
In short, the news isn’t good, and things don’t exactly seem to be trending in a positive direction in this latest chapter of the fight against Twitter’s whiskey scammers. Even if the site harbors no specific, malicious intention to side with the scammers, it would seem that Twitter Support is simply so overrun with moderation requests and potentially so understaffed that issues like the ones being reported by the likes of @WhiskeyScam and @WScambaiter continue to fly beneath the radar with disappointing frequency. I can only imagine that their task feels rather Sisyphean in nature, but at least there’s satisfaction in personally intervening to stop someone online from making a potentially costly mistake in sending money to a scammer.
So with all that said: If you’re a whiskey geek hunting for rare bottles, please don’t believe the guy on Twitter with his stock photos of Pappy Van Winkle or E.H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Survivor. As @WhiskeyScam puts it, there is no whiskey. Only regret.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.