The Many (Bitter) Flavors of Influencer Fraud

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Social media influencers have been grabbing a bigger piece of the digital ad pie. In 2019, about $8 billion was paid to influencers to promote consumer products; this figure is expected to jump to $15 billion by 2022.

Because there’s big money on the table here, ineffective self-regulation on the part of the industry, a lack of formal certification, plus an FTC that lacks the resources to effectively police the space, it’s no surprise that a new generation of “criminfluencers” (criminal influencers) is rushing into the space.

Not that the FTC hasn’t tried to turn back the fraud tide. In 2016, it went after Lord & Taylor and Warner Brothers for running Instagram and Youtube influencer campaigns that failed to disclose the material relationship between brand and influencer. In 2017, it sent letters to dozens of Instagram influencers who’d done the same thing. But the FTC’s regulatory scope – as well as its ability to enforce its own actions – is limited, allowing many forms of influencer fraud to flourish.

Today, influencer fraud is a $1.3 billion-dollar per year business, according to Roberto Cavazos, professor at the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business, who authored a report on the topic for cybersecurity firm Cheq. $1.3 billion a year equates to about $3.5 million a day, $148,000 per hour, or $2,493 per minute. Who pays for this? Ultimately, you and me — in the guise of higher product prices. This kind of high level social media cheating also penalizes ethical social media marketers who build actual organic audiences, disclose their relationships, and don’t otherwise deceive users, brands, or agencies.

Secret Tricks of Black Hat Social Media Influencers

How do these crafty “Criminfluencers” actually do their cheating? What mechanisms do they use to dupe brands into handing over cash in return for — basically, nothing? Here’s a quick survey of popular tactics favored by these clever, ethics-free people:

  1. Inflating Follower Count. Zero surprise here: ginnying up one’s follower count, usually by buying such followers on the black market, is the go-to tactic for criminfluencers interested in scaling up their phony brand ambassadorships in a hurry. This age-old tactic works well, because most brands (and their agencies) rely exclusively on follower count as a proxy for actual influence, and lack the technical means to distinguish between real and fake people.
  2. Mass Follow/Unfollow Software. Some percentage of people one follows on social media always return the favor. Mass Follow/Unfollow software lets crimininfluencers follow en masse, harvest the follow-backs, and then dump the followers. Repeated often enough, this tactic allows one to build a fake audience fairly quickly. The advantage of this tactic is that the followees are, for the most part, real people (most of whom are likely unaware that they’ve been roped into a illicit growth hacking scheme).
  3. Comment Pods. Much like old-time web rings and guest post networks, comment pods involve informally organized groups of influencers who comment on each other’s posts in a “one (dirty) hand washes the other” scheme, thus driving up engagement metrics (the food that social algorithms are programmed to crave). Because these groups can be organized offline, via email, or other means outside of the platform in question, Comment Pods are effective because they’re almost impossible to detect.
  4. Auto-Like Software. Bots that drive up the apparent appeal of a Instagram and Twitter posts are another fave tactic among the crimininfluencer set. Multiple vendors provide these tools; some might be surprised that today’s social platforms allow them to handshake with their services, but only if you fail to follow the money (social platforms get paid whether the influencer is real or fake, so there’s no urgent incentive to clean things up).
  5. Fake Sponsorships. One efficient way to convince a brand that you’re a bona fide influencer is to boast of your prior corporate sponsorships, even if they never existed. This tactic works well because it’s easy to do (just pose with a product), and few brands or agencies have the resources — or the inclination — to get on the phone with your ersatz “sponsor” to determine whether your relationship was ever on the up and up.
  6. Influencer Identity Fraud. This tactic is nothing more than straight-up identify fraud. A criminfluencer approach a brand — usually using a spoofed email address — posing as the influencer in question, convince the brand to send her one or more products, and then scoots for the hinterlands shortly after the FedEx truck arrives.

There are likely more tactics available to criminfluencers, but those enumerated above appear to be the big ones in 2019. If your job is to funnel money into the influencer economy, obviously, you’ll need to exercise more than a full measure of due diligence.

How to Fight Influencer Fraud
There is no central clearinghouse to vet influencers (perhaps there someday will be), so protecting oneself against influencer fraud isn’t an easy or foolproof matter.

Obviously, you should stay away from influencers who are flagrantly non-compliant with the FTC’s disclosure rules, but detecting other forms of fraud may pose a greater problem. There is AI-enabled software that claims to be able to detect signatures of influencer fraud, for example, rapidly spiking/descending follower counts caused by auto-follow/unfollow bot usage, but experience suggests that wily crimininfluencers will adapt their own techniques (which also may use AI) to remain “under the radar.”

Unfortunately, it appears that many influencers have no fear of the FTC. In March, 2019, TruthinAdvertising.org reviewed the conduct of 21 high-profile influencers specifically warned by the FTC to abide by its disclosure requirements and found that “all but one have continued to mislead their fan base, which range in size from just over 750,000 followers to more than 32 million followers, by refusing to consistently and appropriately disclose their material connections to the brands they are promoting.”

So, for the foreseeable future, “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) will remain the best advice for those contemplating a contract with an influencer or an agency representing such an influencer.