Selling Fake Followers and Likes Can Land You in Trouble With the Law
Fake followers and fake likes have flooded social media in the past few years, which made the New York Attorney General’s Office reach a first-of-its-kind settlement with a company that sold fake social media engagement in an effort to deceive consumers.
While companies have taken action against fraud accounts, in New York selling bots and fraudulent social media activity would now be against the law.
On January 30, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced it had settled with U.S. company Devumi, which had been under investigation after the New York Times revealed its shady social media practices.
James said the now-defunct Devumi LLC and other companies owned by German Calas generated about $15 million of revenue from 2015 to 2017 through roughly 250,000 sales of fake endorsements and engagement for platforms such as LinkedIn, Pinterest, SoundCloud, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube.
The fake followers, likes, & views that Devumi sold came from bot & sock-puppet accounts.— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) January 30, 2019
Devumi also supplied fake accounts that copied real people's social media profiles, and sold endorsements from influencers without disclosing that the influencers had been paid.
According to James, the endorsements from computer-operated “bot” accounts pretending to express genuine opinions of real people deceived social media users by making those endorsed appear more popular or influential. The company also deceived social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube, which have policies prohibiting such activity.
Devumi’s practices “deceived and attempted to affect the decision-making of social media audiences,” including some the company’s own customers who mistakenly believed they were paying for authentic endorsements, the AG’s office said.
Devumi – dissolved last August after her predecessor opened the probe – was employed by a number of high-profile celebrities to help build their online following. Devumi’s customers spanned a range of professions including actors, athletes, business people, marketers, musicians, politicians, pundits and even adult film stars.
Some clients knew the business used fake activity to boost online profiles, while others thought the increased engagement came from genuine people. In some instances, the investigation found, Devumi scraped the accounts of real people without their consent to build fake profiles.
“As people and companies like Devumi continue to make a quick buck by lying to honest Americans, my office will continue to find and stop anyone who sells online deception,” James said in a statement online.
“With this settlement, we are sending a clear message that anyone profiting off of deception and impersonation is breaking the law and will be held accountable.”
Of course, the fake follower business was a lucrative one: CNN notes that Devumi earned approximately $15 million in revenue, but the negative publicity following the Times’ revelation led to the decline of its business, and eventually its closure.
The settlement – which is one of the first actions taken by a law enforcement agency against the practice – makes selling fake likes and followers, and fabricating activity from false accounts illegal in the state of New York. The settling parties will pay $50,000 to cover costs of the New York probe.
The settlement did not address whether the customers did anything illegal, though. James said Calas’ companies might charge $3,997 for up to 500,000 Twitter followers, or $30 for 250 likes on YouTube.
According to the Times, Calas denied that Devumi sold fake followers and said he did not know about social identities stolen from real users.
“Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people’s identities to carry out fraud,” James said. “With this settlement, we are sending a clear message that anyone profiting off of deception and impersonation is breaking the law and will be held accountable.”