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Be wary of online contacts, warns Israeli after Iran tries to lure him to UAE

Matan Hirsch was contacted through a fake Instagram profile operated by Iranian intelligence agents

Travel blogger and photographer Matan Hirsch. (Courtesy)
Travel blogger and photographer Matan Hirsch. (Courtesy)

An Israeli blogger who was contacted via Instagram by Iranian intelligence agents who tried to lure him to the United Arab Emirates urged caution on Wednesday about speaking to strangers online, days after the ploy was publicly revealed by Israel’s intelligence agencies.

The Iranian intelligence operatives would set up fake Instagram profiles, usually of women in the tourism business, and use them to contact Israelis. They attempted to draw Israelis to meetings abroad with business propositions or offers of romantic rendezvouses with the intent of kidnapping or otherwise harming them, the Shin Bet security service and Mossad intelligence agency said in a joint statement Monday.

One of the Israelis contacted was travel photographer and blogger Matan Hirsch, who runs an Instagram page titled “The Travelling Israeli.”

“A profile named Mary Vidal contacted me,” he told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “I answered one or two of her messages. I saw something was weird in her profile. There were only four pictures, all having to do with Israel.”

A conversation between travel blogger and photographer Matan Hirsch and a fake Iranian Instagram profile. (Courtesy)

The person behind the profile tried to lure him to Dubai to meet her and “even sent me a Happy New Year message at the end of the year.”

Hirsch blocked the profile this week after the Iranian attempt to harm Israelis was publicized by the security agencies.

Hirsch said he never intended to travel to Dubai as he suspected the profile to be fake. But he didn’t anticipate that the true operators of the profile were as sinister as Iranian intelligence.

He said that as a travel blogger he regularly chats with many people from around the world, but would only accept such an invite after forming a genuine connection and verifying the person’s identity — by asking for a selfie picture, for instance.

He urged people to take steps to ensure the authenticity of the profiles contacting them online.

A conversation between Travel blogger and photographer Matan Hirsch and a fake Iranian Instagram profile. (Courtesy)

According to Channel 13 news, another Israeli man had already boarded a plane to meet a woman he had encountered on Instagram when Israeli security officials reached him at the last moment and prevented the meeting from happening.

Authorities also urged Israeli citizens living abroad to be vigilant and not meet or hold online conversations with people they don’t know.

“Security officials call on Israeli citizens who maintain business ties abroad to be aware and vigilant about inquiries on social networks from profiles they do not recognize, and to avoid contact with them,” the Shin Bet and Mossad said.

The countries named by the agencies include Arab countries, Turkey, the Gulf states, and countries in the Caucasus, Africa and Europe.

The Shin Bet and Mossad also said there was a “real concern” that the Iranian intelligence effort could lead to attempts to hurt or kidnap Israeli citizens overseas.

Last month, with international travel again picking up amid Israel’s rapid vaccination drive, the National Security Council issued a travel advisory warning that Iran may try to attack Israelis overseas.

Examples of fictitious profiles used by Iranian operatives to lure Israelis (courtesy of ISA).

The warning from the intelligence agencies followed an apparent act of sabotage Sunday at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site. The incident, which reportedly caused massive damage to the facility, came as the Biden administration moves to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, with Israel opposing a US return to the original accord.

It also came as Israel and Iran are engaged in a maritime shadow war, with both sides blaming the other for explosions on vessels.

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