For Rachael Freedman, shopping for on-demand grocery delivery startup Instacart felt like something of a dream job.
Freedman, who is based in San Diego, signed up for the service in November 2020 after staying at home for years to take care of her kids.
“I loved the flexibility. I liked the money. It was good exercise — I was enjoying it,” she told CNN Business.
But in late March, Freedman was abruptly kicked off the platform she had been logging into daily to shop for and deliver groceries. An email from Instacart informed her that her account was “linked” to another account on the platform, a breach of the company’s contractor agreement, according to a copy of the correspondence shared with CNN Business.
According to Instacart, a “linked account” is the term the company uses to describe an account it has detected as having indications of fraud, but it does not mean there is a duplicate account using identifying information of the shopper, or that the shopper’s personal data has been compromised.
Freedman, who was informed in the email that she could appeal, insisted she had only one account and sent documents to Instacart to plead her case: “I have only one account with Instacart … This is either an error or my account has been hacked?” she wrote.
Despite numerous attempts to get the company to review her situation, including through social media, her account remains deactivated nearly a month later. She learned through the app that her appeal was denied without further explanation. A customer service number only exists for customers — not the platform’s contractors, which are directed to utilize a 24/7 chat function within the shopper app or communicate via email in the case of deactivations.
“It’s like a guillotine — you’re cut off,” she said. “Boom, that’s it.”
In trying to piece together what happened, she believes her deactivation could be linked to a scam she fell victim to a few months prior. And she’s hardly alone. CNN Business spoke with four other shoppers who received notifications about their accounts being deactivated in recent weeks which they believe might be tied back to a time when they say they were scammed.
In a statement to CNN Business, Instacart said the linked account deactivations impacted a small number of people.
“We take the safety and security of the Instacart platform very seriously,” the company said. “There has not been a breach or hack of the Instacart platform. To ensure the safest possible experience for all members of the Instacart community, our Trust & Safety team is dedicated to ongoing security measures to eliminate any instances of fraudulent activity on the platform.”
Instacart said an appeal will be approved if a shopper can verify they were deactivated for reasons outside of their control. For shoppers who are impacted by phishing schemes or other types of unauthorized access, it said it has measures in place to help them regain access in a timely manner.
The situations the shoppers described to CNN Business highlight the precarious nature of gig work: They can work at their convenience as it suits their lifestyles, but they’re at the mercy the company’s whims and often opaque or nonexistent processes to redress grievances.
The shoppers were among the over 300,000 independent contractors that began working for the company since the start of the pandemic, as demand for grocery delivery services has skyrocketed and so too the demand for workers to fulfill orders.
The shoppers said Instacart — which has more than 500,000 shoppers and whose valuation has ballooned to $39 billion — hasn’t been responsive to their demands for help, the shoppers said.
Without clear answers from Instacart directly, the shoppers are left trying to make sense of what happened. Each reflected on scam-related incidents that happened months earlier, believing the deactivations could be connected. At the time, the shoppers were each locked out of their account temporarily but Instacart restored their access within days.
In January, Freedman picked up a batch order — two or more small orders from different customer
s — including one for two orange juice containers. She was told by the customer via the in-app chat function to text his wife when she arrived at the location to drop off the order. Upon arrival, the location was a nursing home — and no one by that name lived there. She texted the number the customer gave her and left the juices.
A few days later, she received a call from a person purporting to be from Instacart doing a survey. The person said he would send a verification code to update her system to ensure she received future batches. She believes the code helped the person gain access to her account. (Instacart said that shoppers are made aware they should not share account information with anyone claiming to be from Instacart or with any other third-parties.)
“Within 30 seconds, I was locked out of my account. I got an email saying my phone number had been changed. I panicked,” said Freedman, noting about $1,200 in earnings was sitting in her account.
Rebecca Maynard from Berryville, Virginia, experienced a similar situation. Maynard, who works part-time for a local media outlet and takes care of her disabled mother, started working for Instacart about one year ago. She called it “a lifesaver for me to earn some money.”
In August 2020, she received a call from someone claiming to work for Instacart and asking her to verify her account with a six-digit code. “As soon as I hung up, I thought, ‘I hope this is legitimate.’ I immediately looked at my account and I was logged out. It said my password was incorrect.”
After a few days of not being able to access her account — or earn money through Instacart — Maynard said it was restored. In April, 8 months later, Maynard received an email about her account being linked to another Instacart account.
“I understand in gig work nothing is guaranteed and I knew all along that if I did something wrong, I would be deactivated, but I never thought I would be accused of fraud,” Maynard told CNN Business.
Maynard said she was told via email that her appeal was denied the same day she was informed she was deactivated; she still doesn’t understand why, despite sending numerous follow-up emails and reaching out to the company through social media.
Ruth Wallace, who is based in Hazel Park, Michigan, provided a code to someone purporting to be from Instacart last August and was deactivated earlier this month. She told CNN Business that after working for the company throughout the pandemic, the situation hits especially hard.
“It kind of makes me angry because I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Wallace. “I was a 5-star shopper. Customers loved me. I had good reviews, and I had very few order issues. Just to do this, not explain it, and to completely ignore me is kind of hurtful. [It’s] like, ‘We used you during the pandemic, you did good work, now screw you.'”
On Friday, Wallace was notified via email that her appeal was approved and her account was reactivated. The company did not provide an explanation as to what happened.
Meanwhile, Maynard — who is also more than two weeks into her deactivation — said she’s starting to lose hope that her account will be reactivated. “In some ways, I would hate to even go back to a company that thinks so little of me, but my circumstances are kind of unique and limited,” she said.
“I can’t just pack up and move across the country and find a great job. It’s going to be impossible for me to recreate this flexible income I was able to find. My path forward is to keep fighting.”