The Twitter Underground Economy: A Blooming Business |

– A study on Dealers, Abusers and fake Twitter Accounts

by Jason Ding, Research Scientist, The Barracuda Labs Internet Security Blog

Many people dream of becoming popular or famous, and Twitter provides an outlet to make this possible. Most Twitter users try the standard way to get popular and gain followers: constantly tweet funny quotes or comments, discuss breaking events, or disclose information that many people want (like Guy Adams did). However, some Twitter users look for unusual ways to make themselves appear more desirable and become popular faster. One of these ways is buying Twitter followers, which right or wrong, is a significantly growing trend.

At Barracuda Labs, we consistently find and study fake profiles on social media platforms (reference our study on Facebook Fake Profiles at http://barracudalabs.com/fbinfographic/) in order to better protect our 150,000 customers from being phished or harmed. For the past 75 days, we have been investigating the business of trading Twitter followers on eBay and other websites searched from Google. As it turns out, this underground economy on Twitter is blooming! The results show that this Twitter business is growing very fast to form a series of underground markets.

For quick snapshot, please refer to our most recent infographic, The Underground Economy of Buying Twitter Followers at http://barracudalabs.com/underground/.

The Study

As part of this study, beginning in May 2012, our team set up three Twitter accounts and purchased between 20,000 and 70,000 Twitter followers for each of them from eBay and another website searched from Google. After collecting these followers’ profiles via Twitter API, as well as additional information from eBay sellers and Google search results, we found many interesting highlights of this business, summarized as follows into 3 categories.

Dealers (those users who create fake accounts and sell followings):

There are 20 eBay sellers and 58 websites (within top 100 returns of searching “buy twitter followers” in Google) where people can buy (fake) followers
Twitter username is used to purchase, no authentication is required
The average price of buying 1000 followers is $18
A Dealer can control as many as ~150,000 or more Twitter followers (contact @kashifrox)
A Dealer can earn as much as $800/day for 7 weeks of selling followings if they can control 20,000 fake accounts (estimated on several random fake accounts reaching 2000 followings in 7 weeks and assume each following involved a minimum $20 purchase)
In addition to selling followings from these fake accounts, there are numerous opportunities for expansion into other services: selling tweets/re-tweets to earn additional profits

Figure 1: A dealer trying to sell Twitter followers for up to 150,000

Abusers (those users who bought followers (most of which are fake) in order to look more popular or to use the accounts for selling ads):

There were 11,283 Abusers identified (each has at least 470 fake followers; magic number 470 is explained later, hint: it is related to @GregoryDEvans)
The average Abuser has 48,885 followers
53% of Abusers have 4,000-26,000 followers
75% of abusers have set a URL in their profiles (compared to 31% for random Twitter users)

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