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Study Looks Inside the Fake Twitter, Facebook Account Marketplace

Ever wonder how some Twitter accounts seemingly became so popular overnight? According to Barracuda Networks, it is not always due to the person's celebrity or charisma, but instead is tied to a thriving black market for phony social networking accounts.

To get a better look at the issue, Barracuda Networks set up three Twitter accounts in May and began purchasing 20,000 to 70,000 Twitter followers for each account from eBay and other sites. The company found 20 sellers on eBay and 58 websites out of the Google Top 100 search results for "Buy Twitter followers" that are selling fake Twitter profiles.

Fake Twitter FollowersThe typical price for buying fake followers is $18 per 1,000. The average abuser, the company said, has 48,885 Twitter followers, and the average fake Twitter account is following 1,799 accounts.

The company also analyzed more than 70,000 fake Twitter accounts being used to sell fake Twitter followers. Sixty-one percent of the fake Twitter accounts analyzed by Barracuda are less than three months old. The average age of a fake Twitter account is 19 weeks.

"So far, we haven't seen any of these fake accounts sharing malicious links – only spam," said Jason Ding, research scientist at Barracuda Networks' research arm, Barracuda Labs. "We are still collecting all of tweets from these fake accounts and will continue to check the URLs against our internal detection systems."

There are two main purposes for buying Twitter followers, said Jason Ding, research scientist at Barracuda Networks' research arm, Barracuda Labs. The first is to look more important or popular to friends, colleagues and others. The second, he added, is to promote a website or deliver ads because a higher fee can be charged if a person's audience is bigger.

Late last month, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney came under fire for a conspicuous jump in the number of people following his Twitter account. According to an analysis by Barracuda, nearly all of the accounts following Romney are new – more than 80 percent were less than three months old as of Aug. 3, and 25 percent were less than three weeks old. One in four of the accounts had never sent a tweet, and 10 percent were already suspended by Twitter.

The research from Barracuda comes not long after Facebook admitted in its 10-Q filing that 8.7 percent – or roughly 83 million – of the accounts on the social network are fake.  Of that 8.7 percent, about 4.8 percent are "duplicate accounts" ; about 2.4 percent  were "misclassified accounts" that represent someone or something besides the user, such as a business ; and about 1.5 percent classified as "undesirable" that violate Facebook's terms of service.

"The main purpose of these fake (Facebook) accounts seems to be promoting websites selling fake products -- so you can say they are spamming, like tagging all their friends constantly, etc," Ding said.  "However, it is very easy to see how these links could easily be replaced with phishing or malicious URLs."

According to Ding, fake Facebook accounts can be purchased on eBay and other sites just like phony Twitter accounts can. Barracuda has even seen people purchasing a Facebook "Like" to the tune of $33 per 1,000 Likes.

“Fake users should be a huge concern to both Facebook and Twitter because of the threat they create to user trust, online security and the overall community feeling of the social networks,” said Dr. Paul Judge, chief research officer at Barracuda Networks, in a statement. “This obviously threatens advertising revenue as organizations begin to question the true visibility and reach of their ad campaigns."