Identity theft is often thought of as connected to credit card fraud that leaves financial futures in shambles. But recent developments in the social media world have revealed a new kind of identity fraud that is just as twisted as the old, with a decidedly millennial twist.
Anyone can be a victim, but new businesses are allowing anyone to become perpetrators.
The New York Times reported a slew of companies are taking advantage of public online profiles set up by young people. These companies make copies of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts and follow certain entities with those copies in exchange for money. The copies carry over most of the same identifying information such as names and pictures, but have minor variations to avoid detection.
These companies claim they are simply providing a service, but do not be deceived. This niche industry is downright dangerous and undeserving of your business — it lifts the online identities of normal people and sells them off for pennies.
The main entity in the report, Devumi, claims to manufacture likes and follows on Twitter, SoundCloud or any similar social media that has a malleable algorithm.
Devumi essentially sells the services of bots that will amplify your social presence. With reasonably cheap payment plans, this may seem like a good idea for the budding musician who needs some more YouTube or SoundCloud traffic to boost their profiles.
But for students who are trying to increase their online footprint, more money does not equal more untainted influence.
While the fake profiles appear to be authentic with photos and bios, their activities are dead giveaways. Supposedly, English-dominant profiles will have long lists of favorites and retweets in a language a real person would not understand. Highly unprofessional decisions are made, such as the endorsing of adult film stars. For anyone whose profile is copied, their name is unfortunately associated with whatever entity pays for their copy’s endorsement on social media. The victims often have no idea their identities have been compromised until a potential employer or friend searches for their name online and gets the fake profile first.
This can be absolutely ruinous for job prospects and general existence.
One particular individual named Jessica Rychly in the Times report had her profile copied and sold by Devumi for more than three years. Her fake profile supported celebrities like DJ Snake and Kathy Ireland, and also retweeted unsavory accounts like @PornoDan. The ordeal was enough to make Rychly withdraw from social media entirely.
That same Times report found these companies had a wide customer base that included professional athletes and television stars as well as regular people just trying to boost their online profiles. Celebrities at every level of fame have bought these fake identities in order to boost their own profiles to hopefully obtain higher status and more lucrative speaking engagements.
So, who takes the blame in all of this?
Most of it falls on the social networks themselves. Facebook announced last year as much as 15 percent of the profiles on their site were bots designed to manipulate the platform’s algorithm and make some posts more popular than they would be organically. Twitter doesn’t even have an anti-spam verification for the creation of new accounts.
Obviously, there is little protocol for dealing with this kind of abuse, but more and more innocent people are falling victim to fake news and identity theft every day. If the social networks do not set out to fix the problems they have created, then the user bases that make them so powerful will disappear for fear of their own safety.
Buying followers in the first place comes off as shady and more of a desperate grab for attention than an honest effort to build a social footprint. There are better ways to spend your time and money, and most of them will not include potentially ruinous identity theft.
Jonah Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jonahpbaker