The underground economy that sells fake Twitter and other social media accounts is now so large that is it easily making millions of dollars for the leading abusers, an updated study by Barracuda Networks has found.
The firm has made a speciality of researching the burgeoning economy that now creates and markets a number of different fake social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube and even the much-ignored Google+, but it is Twitter that is now the core of this industry.
As with the established click-fraud scams, the con is made interesting by the huge currency the Internet places on followers, fans, connections, and views, all of which now have a price attached to them.
For its latest Twitter study, the firm's methodology was simple; spend $100 buying fake accounts from a number of sources before analysing who was selling (the dealers) and buying (the abusers), and the special fake accounts through which the market sells its wares.
Also advertised on eBay and through Google search, the average price had dropped in the ten months since Barracuda first studied the area from $18 (£12) to $11 per thousand.
However, the market has grown in sophistication, with dealers able to localise accounts right down to city or town level. With built-in 5-year retention guarantees, these can now even be purchased on a monthly subscription.
A total of 1,147 buyers of fake accounts were detected, with the average having 52,000 'followers'.
The fake accounts created to act as shop windows for the business showed some interesting characteristics, including similarly low levels of followers, followings, tweets and age, not to mention a tendency to hijack variations of real Twitter users to generate their account names. A final giveaway was that they always tweeted automatically from desktop PCs, eschewing the mobile distribution that has gained popularity with real users.
Barracuda said it estimated some dealers must have several thousand buyers, with an rough average spend of at least $50 each; one dealer must have generated $1.4 million from this size of business which goes a long way to explain why the market is flourishing. And this was for Twitter alone.
“We know on average each fake account is worth $0.011 or 1.1 cent per following, and it was on average following 60 users, meaning each account has already made 66 cents in our study,” said Barracuda Labs' Jason Ding.
“Remember that each of them can be sold at least 2,000 times without any hurdles, worthy of $20 each. Therefore, millions of fake Twitter followers can definitely generate million dollars or more revenue.
Furthermore, consider that most of the Twitter followers vendors also sell Facebook fans, Google+ votes, YouTube views, Instagram followers, Pinterest followers, LinkedIn connections, etc. which in turn multiplies the financials easily into the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
What happens to all these fake accounts and what are they used for?
One answer to this question turned up last year during the run-up to the US Presidential election when the Twitter account of Republican candidate Mitt Romney was suspected of gaining at least tens of thousands of completely fake followers, presumably a present from an over-enthusiastic supporter.