When Fake Accounts Become a Business Model

I guess that some of you may have heard of various scams in social media. Paid likes, paid retweets, etc., have been around for quite some time. There are sites where you can purchase your followers, etc. These services are based mainly on the premise that you build your “likes” count and then your high count of likes attracts even more likes or followers or whatever. Just because others see that you’re doing well on social media and they want to be part of your network. Something like a social media version of the multiplier effect.

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I actually came across a similar strategy coming from a facebook user this time. It was when I decided to enter a competition with a photo of me and my dog, to win some dog food from a Greek e-shop for pets. In that case (described in Greek here), there was this guy that purchased some three thousand likes for 35$ as you can see above, just to be able to win the dog food (which actually cost something like 25$). In that case, I pointed the foul play to the organizers of the competition but they seemed indifferent to the fact that in a competition from a Greek e-shop, the photos accumulated two thousand likes by users from India and Pakistan!

In this new “case” the science behind the scam was even more elaborate (or stupid, you choose). The story begins with a page for a specific conference in which I was interested from a scientific point of view. Of course, when a colleague hit the like button, I got a notification and I also joined by liking. So, approximately two months ago I started receiving notifications and stories in my newsfeed, related to the page and therefore the conference (will keep the anonymity of the conference for obvious reasons).

In one of the recent posts that mentioned a workshop I was interested about, I reviewed the post more closely than others and actually looked at the comments below. I read a couple but something was really “odd” about them. Being myself a researcher, having read tons of related literature, etc., I can spot a text that is somehow weird. So, two good-looking guys had posted some comments like “really taking good care of the stakeholders! That’s great!” and “the best thing is that you’ll be listening to the stakeholders as well“. Really? Well, we do suck up to our stakeholders, more than once and we are not afraid to admit it, but this goes well and beyond!

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True story, comments are not fabricated!

Just wanted to point out that I am not being a racist or a sexist or something similar when I mention the “good-looking” part, but in my line of work, being a researcher and at the same time, really handsome, is something that doesn’t happen very often. Let alone happening two times in a single post…!

So, being a bit sceptic as I usually am, I decided to take a look at their personal profiles. Here’s what I found out…

  1. The oldest available posts the first one had, was from September 9th, 2015 (let’s call this guy Smeagol). The same posts for the second guy (let’s call him Hodor) were also from September 9th 2015…!
  2. Both of them, had inserted/updated details about their studies etc., on the exact same day of September 9th, 2015. Jesus has studied Physiotherapy and Hodor has studied Software Engineering…
  3. Neither of them had more than 150 friends, which is kind of weird for guys that are so handsome (again, no discrimination intended there).
  4. The only activity that showed up on their account was the upload of their profile pic (no comments from any friends there), the upload of their landscape/cover photo and their studies.
  5. In each case, there were some unrelated posts that they did not share with each other (one with Hulk Hogan, another with a video clip and another with a random quote), but they were also posted on 9/9/2015 and then nothing more was posted.
  6. Looking at their likes, I found lots of likes on some cafes and bars, some artists and then out of the blue, on a couple of apps and then the conference of course. Needless to say that although they lived in different areas (like 80km apart), they had some weird common likes in places or cafes.
  7. I found no check-ins in both and no installed apps as well which was kind of weird considering the average facebook user of their age group.

Having completed this comparison between Smeagol and Hodor, I decided to use Google Image Search, to see if their profile pictures were legit or not. When I googled Smeagol, I got the following results:

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Does the guy on the top left look familiar to you?

Clicking on the first photo, I was re-directed to this page where I read “Madonna’s boyfriend, model Jesus Luz…“. So,as it turned out, Smeagol is actually Jesus Luz, which apparently has been Madonna’s boyfriend, a model, a certified physiotherapist and an enthusiast of the topic of the conference I was also interested in. What a small world!

Then, I did the same with Hodor. And found out that this guy is also a model for sunglasses as his photo came up in a thousand websites all over the world. Could not get a name on him, but with the experience of Jesus, I think it will be safe to assume that he is an actual person, just not the one that “liked” the conference.

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Kind of feels like the agent from Matrix looking at you, doesn’t it?

Having reached the conclusion that this is the biggest amount of effort anyone has ever put in, to get one or two “likes” in return, I started digging a bit deeper. I visited other conference posts and skimmed through the photos and names of the people that liked these posts. I discovered this lady here that created her profile on September 8th, 2015, had a few friends and shared a lot of likes in common with Hodor and Jesus (yes, the conference as well) and no check-ins, etc. Then, there’s this guy for whom I found a profile that says he’s from Ioannina, Greece, despite the accent in the aforelinked video. He also posted for the first time on Facebook around September 9th, 2015 (hope you’re getting the thing with the dates so far!). We also have this guy that in reality is a male model for Oakley sunglasses but in our case, he’s an Athenian that studied Computer Science with his first Facebook post dating back to September 9th, 2015. Another girl, again with the first post being on September 10th this time, and her profile pic coming from a website that actually advertises itself as one offering photos that you can use for profile pics! Then, I found Michaela, a Romanian girl that is looking for a job as a babysitter, and apparently at the same time she also has a degree on Physics and of course, lives in Greece. Her first posts on Facebook? September 10th, 2015. To spare the details each time, I also found this Guy Laroche male model from Kavala, Greece that is also a sommelier, and this guy from Nashville that is also a male model and at the same time, a Greek from Grevena.

Seeing that the magnitude of the fraud is greater than expected, I opened a post with 160 likes and applied the following process:

  1. Scroll down the list till you find someone wearing sunglasses or being suspiciously good-looking for a researcher/scientist,
  2. Open their profile and scroll to the oldest post,
  3. Check if it was dated around September 2015,
  4. If yes, add one to the pile and start over

In the end, with a really quick check, I identified a total of ninety (90) potentially (?) fake accounts, out of which, one was not, another was probably fake but had lots of friends, so I am still on the fence with that (although the profile pic was from here), and another 88 (!) that were fake as fake goes! Also, the accounts were not only of Greeks, but also random foreigners, all of them being digitally born around the same time!

Looking back at all the data, it seems to me, that there is a series of conclusions that can be made:

  1. It’s almost aggravating that you find people who call themselves “social media experts” and get paid to promote your event, conference or business in general, and they do so using such practices. There should be a way for customers to check on the page and post likes,  seamlessly with little, if any, effort.
  2. It’s also important to note that the privacy of the people of whom they use the profile photos is seriously violated. This makes me wonder how difficult it would be for Facebook to implement an algorithm that will look into images like I did, to identify potentially fake accounts and then correlate the activity of such accounts based on their region maybe, to discover similar patterns in behaviors.
  3. This also undermines lots of the statistics that Facebook announces related to its user base, or the actual impact of services that are sold on top of it, like targeted adds. Do I want to advertise to 50, 500 or 5.000 fake accounts that may get my message, but without it being actually taken into consideration?

I don’t know if there’s any room for doubt about my results, but I find it hard to believe that all these people used profile pics of eyewear models, made their first posts from August 2015 to September 2015, all related to the basic data Facebook asks for when you create a profile. And all of them having similar likes and posts over the last month or so.

What actually happened is that someone around that time (8/2015-9/2015), created some 100(?) even more maybe, fake accounts, using some made-up names and other info. Then, they opened up shop, offering their services as “social media experts”, selling big fat “user engagements”, “likes”, “shares” to people that were just looking at numbers and nothing more.

On top of that, most of these fake accounts are friends to each other, adding to their friend base, masking their illegality as well. And I truly believe that there is a person that works his/her way through an eight-hour shift, logging in and out from these accounts, liking and sharing, to make something like 800 euros per month. While at the same time, some mastermind behind the scheme, charges incredible amounts of money as a social media expert – and claims that he/she delivers on his/her promises!

Well, I don’t know about innovation and out-of-the-box thinking but I know that this effort surely deserves a medal, an acknowledgement, a certificate, something. That’s why I decided to blog about it and maybe help all the naive and trustworthy of you out there, that still believe in fairytales and dragons (well, I believe in dragons, but at least I don’t believe in those kind of social media experts).

😉

PS: I have at my disposal an excel file with these 90 “suspicious” accounts that I am willing to share with the people that should have this information, over there at Facebook. Or I could actually post them up here. I guess fake people can’t sue, right? Or can they?

 

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