The underground economy on Twitter is still flourishing, and it appears to be a buyer’s market for followers right now, with new research showing that the price for 1,000 followers has dropped nearly 50 percent in the last few months.

Barracuda Labs has been tracking the volume of fake accounts on Twitter as well as the prices that various sites and vendors charge for followers. When the company first looked at the climate last year, researchers found that the average price for 1,000 Twitter followers was $18; it’s now down to $11. This suggests that the supply of Twitter accounts available for purchase has spiked and that demand isn’t quite as high right now.

“Since our first analysis and report, we at Barracuda Labs have continued to monitor this activity across multiple social networks. Twitter continues to be the largest offender (or victim) with its underground economy for buying and selling fake social accounts,” Jason Ding of Barracuda Labs wrote in an analysis of the research.

“As part of this experiment, we once again began our investigation by searching on eBay, Fiverr and Google for vendors who sell Twitter followers. Then, we selected several of the vendors with varying price rates for purchasing followers, and spent about $100USD to make a few purchases. After these followers were delivered to our controlled Twitter accounts, we used Twitter API to collect their information and conduct deeper statistical analysis.”

Though the prices for Twitter followers have dropped, the sophistication of the operations selling those accounts has increased. Customers now can select accounts based on geography and also can enjoy guarantees from sellers in some cases.

“Some are extremely sophisticated, such as fastfollowerz.com, which provides extensive features, including 100% 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.,” Ding said.

As Twitter has become the favored platform for scammers, security companies and Twitter itself have responded to try and change their methods for detecting fake accounts and malicious ones, as well. Not to be outdone, the scammers have adapted, trying out new tactics to mimic real Twitter accounts and defeat the detection methods that anti-fraud companies employ.

“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. 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,” Ding said.

The point of all of this, of course, is to make money. So how much are these companies making by selling followers?

“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. 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,” Ding said.

Image from Flickr photos of Rosaura Ochoa

Categories: Social Engineering, Web Security