Celebrities promote stuff on Instagram all the time, from waist trainers to skinny teas to DIY teeth whitening systems. Products rarely look good, but with Amber Rose’s recent plugs for a sketchy background check website, we’ve reached a dismal new rung of vacuous shilling.
Rose is a prolific Instagram hawker, and right now, she’s mostly posting about Slut Walk, an event drawing attention to the way women get shamed for sexuality. Unfortunately, Rose is counter-balancing her feminist event promotion by stumping for a subscription web service that promises to uncover if your BAE is CHEATING but mainly just rips you off by charging for information you could find for free on Spokeo or other people search engines.
One of her many now-deleted Instagram posts about the service reads:
Ever wonder who BAE is textin and callin when you’re not around? Yeah so is the rest of the world...Go follow@phonemarvels and click the link in their bio to find out NOW!
If you click on the link in the bio, @PhoneMarvels brings you to a website called Instant CheckMate, which claims to offer a reverse phone number lookup service that gives people a dossier on their significant others’ potential side pieces:
And why is Instant CheckMate going by the name @PhoneMarvels? Probably because the service has a terrible reputation for false advertising.
I tested it by looking up my own phone number, and it correctly identified my carrier, but located me Bayside, not Brooklyn. And that’s all it did. To see stuff like my address or Facebook account, the service demands a $2 payment. In a small disclaimer, Instant CheckMate notified me that I would authorize the company to charge me every month until I called an 800-number to cancel.
I knew I’d have a bitch of a time canceling, but I needed to see if the service was as scammy as it looked. My $2 got me a misspelled version of my name. For more information, I needed to shell out an additional monthly payment of $23.
I paid up again, why not. When I went to see exactly how much dirt Instant CheckMate had on me, I got a screen saying there was an error processing my request. I could see that I had already been charged. When I tried to reload the page, I was directed to pay for the service I’d literally just paid for again.
At this point, frustrated about the site’s shell game and worried that Gawker Media would not be down with me expensing multiple shady background checks on myself, I looked up Instant CheckMate on Twitter, to see if other people had the same problems. Yuuuup:
The more I looked into Instant Checkmate, the more angry consumer reports I found. People were billed after cancelation. While the service promises an extensive background check, it’s a misleading bargain-bin people lookup service, one that locks users into recurring charges without delivering the level of results promised. When I called the “24/7” customer support line, I was sent to an answering machine.
I still haven’t received a call back.
[Update, 9/30: Turns out that, because I pressed the option for media requests, I was rerouted to an answering machine instead of a customer service rep. Instant Checkmate responded to say that had I called the customer support line, I would have been helped, and that it did return my voicemail message.]
Rose is far from the only celebrity hawking suspicious products on Instagram. Eskimo sister Kim Kardashian got in trouble with the FDA for promoting a prescription morning sickness medication without including all the medical side effects. But this particular shill session stands out as more egregious than most because it looks like Rose is covering up her participation. While her feed is still littered with promos for various services, she has deleted all of her posts about the would-be snooping service shortly after putting them up.
Celebrity Instagram promos are one of the premiere ethically dubious famous-person side hustles of our time, but with a near-total lack of oversight to protect consumers, they make those late-night infomercials look like the gold standard of reliable products.
Update 2:28 pm: A commenter pointed out that Instant Checkmate was the defendant in a class-action lawsuit. “It is, in essence, a classic “bait and switch” marketing practice,” the suit reads. The lawsuit, however, was dismissed.
Update 9/30: I received a letter from Instant Checkmate responding to the article. Here are some of the key points:
Instant Checkmate contends that it does not practice a shell game and said that I got “the exact information that a girlfriend or boyfriend who sees a suspicious number on a significant other’s phone may want to discover -the name of the owner associated with that number.”
Instant Checkmate said “the purported ‘small disclaimer’ is, in fact, clear
and conspicuous language next to a check box that a consumer must
affirmatively check to subscribe.”
Instant Checkmate says it “makes it very easy to cancel, plainly and
repeatedly informs consumers about how to cancel, and staffs its customer
support line with member care professionals 24 hours a day and seven days a
week so it is very easy to cancel.”