Market for Fake Social Network Accounts Still Booming

Want to be popular online? Sites continue to sell fake followers to make people appear to have a large following, but competition has led to a 40 percent drop in prices.

Gathering a following of fake friends online has become easier and cheaper in the last eight months, according to research conducted by security firm Barracuda Networks.

The company, which first looked at the market for fake accounts in August 2012, updated its study last week, finding that real accounts tend to have more followers and more posts or tweets, and have been active for a longer period of time than the average fake account. The average price for 1,000 followers is $11, down from an $18 average in August.

"What we found is that the economy is going really, really strong," said Jason Ding, a research scientist with Barracuda Labs, the global research and threat analysis team of Barracuda Networks. "There are lots of new vendors coming in and a lot of buyers."

In its analysis of the fake followers on Twitter, the company found it could detect which accounts were fake by looking at several characteristics of the accounts, such as the average number of people they were following—60 for fake accounts versus 592 for real accounts—and the source of the tweets—98 percent of fake tweets come from the Web, whereas real tweets are spread out more evenly between smartphones, embedded tweet buttons and the Web.

The most telling statistic, however, is how quickly fake accounts tweeted. While they had fewer overall tweets, the fake accounts posted several messages to Twitter in a batch, creating tweets with a timestamp identical to the minute. The result: Only 35 percent of tweets had unique timestamps, while 96 percent of tweets by real people had unique timestamps.

Barracuda uses the research as a way to better defend its customers, the company said. In its original study, published in August 2012, the company found 20 eBay sites and 58 Websites that sold Twitter followers, and estimated that a dealer can make up to $800 per day, on average. In a study of the characteristics of fake Facebook profiles, the company found that 97 percent of fake accounts identified themselves as female, 58 percent were interested in both men and women, and the fake accounts had 726 friends on average, far higher than the Facebook profiles of real people. In addition, while real people only tagged one friend for every four photos, fake profiles tagged a whopping 136 friends for every four photos.

In its latest analysis, Barracuda researchers studied the prices in the various forums and marketplaces where fake Twitter accounts are sold and spent about $100 to validate a few of the sites. The Barracuda-controlled Twitter accounts were quickly followed by the fake accounts, which allowed the researchers to use the Twitter API to gather statistical information on the types and numbers of accounts.

The company focused on Twitter because it continues to be the social network with the largest market for fake followers, Ding said. While the market is likely worth tens of millions of dollars annually, the benefits to abusers—those people who buy fake followers—remains unclear he said.

"It doesn't help you at all if a fake account follows you," he said. "But, if 20 percent of fake followers have real people as followers, then you might get good results. In that case, you spent very little money for some benefit."

Most of the dealers have moved to creating fake accounts based on real Twitter profiles, Ding said. These accounts have fewer years, use the profile and background images, and use hashtags to tweet some event from the Web. The behavior is designed to make them look more like real Twitter users, he said.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...