A travel Instagrammer with nearly a million followers is being called a "scammer" by women who say they paid $500 to learn her tricks and tips in a "master class" on social media.
Aggie Lal is best known as the influencer @travel_inhershoes. She has 860,000 followers on her main Instagram, and another 11,000 on a different account.
Her bread-and-butter is dreamy shots of herself in various exotic locations. She describes herself as an "LA-based free spirit."
Recently, Lal's followers were offered a chance to learn from the social media queen herself. She created a 12-week course — called "How to grow your Instagram" — that promised to share "the behind the scene[s] of going from being a broke traveler to becoming a six figure earning travel blogger."
She said the course was inspired by popular demand and is the second she has offered. She promised to share "not only social media techniques, but also photography, video classes, business side of things, and interviews with my favorite creators who are killing it and can add a new perspective to the conversation."
Lal said she wanted her students to not only learn how to run an Instagram account but a small business.
"This course is a unique opportunity to learn first hand from an actual travel blogger who knows the ins and outs of the industry, but also someone who is passionate about self growth and has a business degree and can bring all of it together in one place that is yours truly," her website reads.
The cost of the course was nearly $500. Lal said she knew it was a hefty price tag.
"I wanted the price to be a little 'painful' so it feels like an investment and will discourage people who are not serious about blogging as their future to participate," she said, adding that she would be keeping the class small to "make sure [she] can be reachable to students."
Lal told to BuzzFeed News she enrolled 380 people. At $497 a head, she netted a cool $188,860.
The class was scheduled to run from Sept. 17 to mid-December, with new materials released every week.
But many participants told BuzzFeed News that the course fell far short of their expectations, with some even calling the whole class a "scam."
This week, one participant, writing under the pseudonym "Wannabe Influencer," decided she had enough.
She wrote a post on Medium called "I Was Scammed by a Celebrity Influencer," detailing how, in her opinion, Lal had tricked her and others to pay for a course she didn't deliver.
In response to Wannabe Influencer's complaints, Lal told BuzzFeed News she is offering "anyone who felt disappointed in the whole situation a full refund."
"My intention has always been to inspire this community I dearly love and I would never want you to feel taken advantage of," she said.
And some of her customers are defending her.
"Wannabe Influencer," who told BuzzFeed News she didn't want her real name used out of fear of retaliation from Lal's fans, wrote on Medium she was interested in growing her feed, which currently has about 30,000 followers.
She also said Lal promised if they were dissatisfied with the course, they could drop it in a week for a full refund.
Wannabe Influencer said a red flag came early when Lal issued a "challenge" to her students telling them to use an affiliate link to get more people to sign up for the same course they just started. She also wanted them to sell her presets, or custom Instagram filters.
"How could we ask our own followers to purchase a $500 Instagram Course that we had barely started ourselves?" she wrote.
Another student, Juliet Hatley, who Instagrams @youngblondemom, said this "challenge" also left her very "unhappy." She said she signed up for the course because she works as a social media manager and wanted to use it to grow her business.
She said Lal's insistence they try to sell the course was "confusing."
"Why would we sell this? So she could make more money and we get a 10% commission with an affiliate link?" she said. "Plus, that is against everything most of our brands were standing for and would have made us look inauthentic to followers."
Another student told BuzzFeed News she believed the "challenge" went over poorly because "it just sounded bad the way she put it."
"And some people [made] comments like Aggie already got $500 from us, so why is she asking us to sell her presets?" the student said.
Students got six weeks of training videos from Lal, but after that Wannabe Influencer said the uploads stopped coming. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Lal said she was unable to upload "4 out of 66" course videos due to "hurdles with my health and WiFi connectivity."
Wannabe Influencer said it was confusing for Lal to blame internet issues, but then watch the influencer upload her usual content.
Other participants asked for a refund, saying the course did not meet their expectations. Wannabe Influencer shared a petition with BuzzFeed News that more than 35 participants signed.
Hatley decided to ask for a refund because she felt the course was "was extremely mismarketed."
She cited the promise the course would be kept small, the lack of communication with Lal, and the underwhelming content.
"[The] videos were barely five minutes long, she was never involved with the students, and made a lot of comments that turned people off such as 'when posing for pictures try not to look pregnant' or 'people who work at Starbucks aren’t living up to their potential," Hatley said. "The content was basic information you would find from any simple Google search. Not $500 worth."
Hatley said after being denied a refund from Lal, she reached out to the course platform, Teachable. She said she learned Teachable has a 30-day refund policy.
"People were getting angry with the course quality, and people kept demanding their money to the point that the teaching platform delivered the refunds," Hatley said.
A spokesperson for Teachable told BuzzFeed News that students of the schools they host are entitled to a refund within 30 days of purchase, if the school uses the platform's payment software.
"Once we took a closer look, it was clear that this school owner was not complying with our refund policy, and as a result, we refunded any student that reached out to us within the 30-day window," the spokesperson said.
Hatley said she got her money back from Lal — minus $20 for a "transaction fee" — after arguing with her and reaching out to Teachable. She added she was "immediately removed and blocked" from the class groups and Instagram account @MasterTribe.
Another student, who goes by Ivangellys and who Instagrams @latinaexplorer, said she had to threaten Teachable with a class-action lawsuit to try to get a refund.
"Just a few minutes later, I received an email that they will be refunding everyone, after going back and fourth [sic] for days," she wrote on Medium.
Lal told BuzzFeed News all refunds should be processed by Sunday for those who requested them.
Since Wannabe Influencer's post went live, Lal has addressed the controversy on her Instagram stories. She also has shared supportive stories from those blasting the criticism as "hatred."
In a message to her students, which she shared with BuzzFeed News, Lal said:
"It breaks my heart to have let you down like this, it was certainly never my intention! I was heartbroken because this course was by [sic] baby. It took me and my team months to create almost 9 hours of video classes. I want sincerely apologize from the bottom of my heart to who anyone who feels like what I shared wasn’t enough."
Some students have rallied around her in support. One, named Taimi, told BuzzFeed News she thought the criticism of Lal is unfair.
"Yes, the course was different to what we expected and could have been handled better but it was still useful to many people in the group and is still not even over yet. There's more content to come," she said.
And despite her concerns, Wannabe Influencer said she did find aspects of the program, like a Q&A with a photographer, to be helpful. She added she did find Lal's videos, the ones she saw at least, to be "motivational."
"When it comes to not being on time with giving us videos and content, if she could have just been honest, I don't think there would have been so many angry people," she said.
She's also not planning to ask for a refund herself, because she feels guilty that Lal has faced so much internet harassment.
She said she wouldn't have spoken out, except for she learned that someone new had signed up for the course this week, after all the issues.
"It blew my mind Aggie was accepting money from new students and yet hadn't responded to those who signed up in September since over a week ago," she said. "That just felt wrong to me."