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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Fake Twitter Accounts Remain Multimillion-Dollar Business

Barracuda Labs digs into the market for buying Twitter followers

Fifty-five websites in the top 100 Google search results for "buy Twitter followers" were found selling fake accounts -- exemplifying a thriving market that is growing increasingly competitive.

According to a study done by Barracuda Networks' research arm Barracuda Labs, the average price for thousands of followers has dropped more than 39 percent from $18 last year to $11. The price drop is likely due to growing competition -- 49 out of the 55 Google results are new vendor websites -- which has also prompted several dealers to begin providing new features to promote their services.

"Some Dealers provide location-targeted Twitter followers, either Global or USA specific, and some provides monthly subscriptions," explains Jason Ding, research scientist at Barracuda Labs, in a blog post. "Some are extremely sophisticated, such as fastfollowerz.com, which provides extensive features, including 100 percent active followers, 5-year retention protection (no followers drop in 5 years), guarantee to pass StatusPeople detection, geo-target by country or city, target by keywords or profile information, monthly subscription, daily delivery, etc."

As part of its research, Barracuda Labs identified 99,494 unique fake accounts created by sellers. The average age of these fake accounts is 30 weeks. Typically they are following 60 users, tweeting about 77 times and have 32 followers. Sixty-three percent of these accounts (62,982) are created by duplicating profiles from real users.

The difference between the behaviors of the real Twitter users and the fake accounts is significant. While the duplicate accounts tweet an average of 85 times, the real accounts they are based on have tweeted an average of 1,995 times. They also have an average of 330 followers, as opposed to 39 in the case of the duplicates.

Among the 1,147 "abusers" found using fake accounts, 55 percent have set URLs in their profiles. The average abuser has 52,432 followers, though the majority (60 percent) has between 4,000 and 26,000. Sixteen had more than 1 million followers.

"Fake Accounts have greatly evolved to mimic real Twitter users in order to avoid abuse detection by Twitter, as well as to evade the spotlight of general users," notes Ding. "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 web, and even interactively follow each other to have dozen of followers. All of these behaviors are very similar to many real Twitter users, and can hardly be classified as abuse actions."

Purchasing Twitter followers continues to be a subject of controversy. While some argue that it can be used to successfully promote a person or brand, others argue that it is unethical and can be damaging if exposed.

Still, Ding estimates the market for these services to be worth millions of dollars. For one, a few vendors can sell up to millions of Twitter followers. Second, Barracuda Labs has identified abusers who have their followers up and down at the million-follower level.

"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," he explains. "Remember that each of them can be sold at least 2000 times without any hurdles, worthy of $20 each. Therefore, millions of fake Twitter followers can definitely generate million dollars or more revenue."

Most of the vendors selling Twitter followers also offer similar services for Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and other social media sites, he notes, adding that the "Twitter Underground Economy and the entire fake social media industry are fast and 'healthy' growing."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a ... View Full Bio

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