Dealers–Twitter scammers who create fake profiles on the social media site and sell their sets of followers–are adapting their workflow just enough to stay under the social media site’s radar, according to security firm Barracuda Labs, who recently wrapped up a 75 day study analyzing the buying and selling of Twitter followers.
The dealers control the speed and total following of their bogus accounts enough to make a profit yet avoid being suspended by Twitter.
According to Barracuda’s Research Scientist Jason Ding, when the firm started its study in May, it set up three Twitter accounts and purchased between 20,000 and 70,000 followers for each one. In tracking the accounts, the firm categorized profiles into three types of Twitter users.
The study followed the aforementioned dealers, roughly 11,000 abusers, who are users who bought followers to appear legitimate, and more than 72,000 unique fake accounts, accounts set up by dealers to sell followings. While some of the fake accounts were old (@krails has been around since the beginning of 2007), 55 percent of the accounts were less than three months old.
After finding 20 dealers on eBay and nearly five dozen other sites selling followers throughout the internet, Barracuda determined the price for follows fluctuates. A user can gain 1,000 followers for about $18 in most cases, yet in some markets the prices dip as low as $2 or as much as $55 for every 1000 followers, each dealer’s cost depending on users’ perceived legitimacy.
While fake accounts usually follow a high number of people, Barracuda notes that fake accounts rarely follow more than 2001 profiles, suggesting this is the number of followers Twitter uses to gauge an abused account.
During the firm’s study, a handful of stories have surfaced about Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s sudden surge in Twitter followers. Barracuda found Romney’s follower count spiked 17 percent, from 673,002 to 789,924 in just one day last month. A fourth of the followers hadn’t even tweeted and 10 percent of the followers were suspended by Twitter shortly after they were discovered, making them appear rather suspect. Barracuda breaks down statistics behind Romney’s Twitter followers in its study and in the infographic below.
Barracuda Labs looked into a scourge of fake accounts on social network Facebook earlier this year. Using a tool that can find fake profiles, the firm found that 97 percent of bogus Facebook users purport to be female while 43 percent of fake accounts have never updated their status. The research, first presented at the Kaspersky Lab-Threatpost Security Analyst Summit in Cancun, called the scammers’ work “a very profitable venture.”