Monday, May 08, 2017

USA TODAY asks FBI to probe rise in fake Facebook followers

Elizabeth Weise and Brad Heath , USA TODAY Published 7:54 p.m. ET May 5, 2017

The parent company of USA TODAY said it had asked the FBI to investigate a wave of fake Facebook accounts so large it accounted for half of the newspaper’s following on the social media platform.

Facebook purged millions of those fake accounts from USA TODAY and other publishers three weeks ago, the latest salvo in the social giant’s battle against scammers and spammers seeking access to its platform and its 1.94 billion users.

Those axed accounts included more than a third of USA TODAY’s approximately 15.2 million Facebook "likes" at the time. Executives of Gannett Co., parent of USA TODAY and 109 local news properties, said Thursday millions of its remaining followers also were fake, and it continued to accumulate a thousand phony followers a day.

Facebook on Friday said it's detected additional suspicious activity since its April fake-account crackdown, some of which look similar to the campaign it disrupted in April. Others more closely resemble common fake profiles that post spam comments and attempt to look legitimate by engaging with businesses' Facebook pages.


Facebook has said in filings with the Securities and Exchange commission that it estimates about 1% of its monthly worldwide active users are "misclassified" accounts, which it says includes both fake accounts and those that don't abide by its terms of service, such as people creating accounts for their pets. The company believes the majority of these are outside of the United States. The company declined to say what the ratio between these types of misclassified accounts was.

The continued presence of phony accounts hasn't checked the social network's user growth, but they can cause confusion and havoc for individual users and companies. Fake profiles that masquerade as real people have also caused tragedy, such as the torture and killing of a university student in Pakistan after someone set up a fake Facebook account in his name that allegedly contained blasphemous content.


Facebook suggested three weeks ago that a "major spam operation" had set up the accounts as a way to access and potentially spam and scam its users. These fake accounts follow and comment on publishers’ pages to lend a veneer of credibility that might help the account operators connect with real users while veiling them from Facebook's automatic fake account detectors.


In one way or another, fake Facebook accounts are usually designed to make money. Operators of a scam can use the fake followers to send links to malware or to sell questionable weight loss products or send messages asking for money from someone who claims to be a friend stranded in a foreign country who’s lost their password, said Dennis Yu, chief technology officer with BlitzMetrics.

The true money-making opportunity is getting a real Facebook user to “friend” one of the fake accounts. The average Facebook user has 350 to 400 friends. So even if only one real person accepts the fake account's friend request, it can then attempt to spam all their friends, said Yu.

"It's a numbers game. These fake accounts are cheap to create and if they can get just one person to click on the link they can make enough to cover the cost," he said.


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