Twitter Abuse: Market For Phony Followers Worth Millions


Twitter users hoping to boost their status by buying phony followers have spawned a multimillion dollar business, with some people attempting to cash in by abusing the social network, according to a study conducted by researchers at Barracuda Networks.

Twitter abuse is rampant with nearly 100,000 fake accounts being used to sell millions of bogus followers to users, according to the Campbell, Calif.-based network security vendor, which has been monitoring the ebb and flow of fake followers on social networks. In its second annual review of abuse on the social network, Barracuda said Twitter retains the title of having the largest underground economy.

The Twitter underground economy and the entire fake social media industry is growing significantly, said Jason Ding, a research scientist at Barracuda Labs. Fake accounts are also getting increasingly harder to identify as abusers attempt to thwart detection, Ding said in his report.

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"They steal the profiles from regular users, set both profile and background images, maintain a small number of followings, occasionally tweet something original with hash tags from the Web, and even interactively follow each other to have dozen of followers," Ding said. "All of these behaviors are very similar to many real Twitter users and can hardly be classified as abuse actions."

More people are attempting to abuse Twitter to sell phony followers, driving down the cost of purchasing them, according to Barracuda. The average price for purchasing followers has declined from $18 per thousand followers in 2012 to $11 per thousand followers.

Ding and his team identified 52 eBay sellers and dozens of websites on Google advertising Twitter followers. The package options Barracuda analyzed appear to show millions of phony Twitter followers being controlled by the dealers. Some businesses offer guarantees against being spotted by fraud detection engines and 5-year retention protection ensuring that followers won't be dropped. The business can also get more granular, offering phony followers in a specific country or city or fake users based on keywords or phony profile information, Barracuda said.

Barracuda estimates that a few vendors can sell up to millions of Twitter followers, generating a million dollars or more in revenue.

Twitter did not respond to a CRN request for comment.

The San Francisco-based social media site monitors accounts for suspicious behavior and recommends users report accounts they suspect are serving up spam. The company has been under pressure to shore up its security in recent years. In 2011, the firm settled a Federal Trade Commission investigation, agreeing to allow a third-party review of its information security program every two years for the next decade. Fake tweets from the accounts of President Barack Obama and other high-profile users led the FTC to force the social network to bolster its security measures.

Twitter reset the passwords of up to 250,000 accounts following a breach of its systems last February. And in April, the company introduced two-factor authentication to foil attackers' attempts to hijack Twitter accounts.

Barracuda said 63 percent of the fake accounts it identified were created by duplicating profiles from legitimate users. In those cases, a Twitter abuser would add an extra character to a screen name and change the description and location, the company said. Some accounts were duplicated multiple times.

"We found that these fake accounts generally tweet several times in a brief period of a day, and then disappeared for a few days and come back again," Ding said.

The Barracuda researchers believe the abusers use software programs to log in and out of phony accounts, processing phony tweets through the social network in an attempt to keep the accounts viable.

People who sell the phony Twitter followers are trying to dupe some new tools designed to check accounts for the bogus followers. Faker Check from StatusPeople, Fake Followers from Socialbakers, and TwitterAudit.com can attempt to detect signs of a phony account, Ding said, but new techniques are beginning to bypass detection. Dealers manipulate accounts, ensuring that the following-to-follower ratio matches the average for real accounts.

Barracuda identified 1,147 accounts that clearly purchased fake followers. The average abuser has 52,432 followers, the company said.

PUBLISHED JULY 1, 2013