Fake accounts are not uncommon in the multi-billion dollar influencer market. The influencer database HypeAuditor uncovered such fraud and CEO Alexander Frolov explains how it happens and how you can recognize fake fluencers.
Business Insider Intelligence estimates that the market for influencer marketing could be worth $ 15 billion by 2022. That should be the case for users and marketers with the immense number of users on platforms such as YouTube (two billion monthly active users), Instagram (over one billion monthly active users), Facebook (2.6 billion monthly active users) or TikTok (over 100 million in Europe alone monthly active users) hardly surprising. While various new social commerce solutions are currently attracting the interest of brands, advertising via popular influencers remains an important aspect in the marketing mix of many companies.
But where a lot of money is made, attempts at fraud are not far away. The Russian influencer database company HypeAuditor has already categorized around 50 types of fake accounts. But how can outsiders tell whether creators have bought 1,000 likes on TikTok for just 90 cents or are buying story views on Instagram or even using comment pods? we have with Alexander Frolov, the co-founder and CEO of HypeAuditor, to learn more about fakefluencers and give you insights from the renowned analysis company.
“It is possible to buy 1,000 fake followers on TikTok for three US dollars”
Frolov explains this to us in an interview and thus points to an immense problem in the influencer market: fake fluencers and fake accounts. The influencer database HypeAuditor, which he runs, comprises more than 19 million female influencers. Founded in 2018, it already has more than 750,000 users worldwide, making it one of the fastest growing influencer databases in the world. Offices in St. Petersburg, London, New York and Indianapolis already speak for themselves.
With HypeAuditor, brands can easily filter out influencers who fit their strategy – and not just find those with the greatest reach. Well-known and globally operating brands such as Unilever, Michelin and Philips rely on the company and its expertise in influencer marketing. HypeAuditor helps you and all other users to uncover fraud in the already huge influencer environment – the platform can also be used to find out what is currently hot in a country, region, niche or target group.
The extent of fraud tactics becomes clear on what is possibly the most relevant social platform for most influencers, Instagram. The HypeAuditors report on the “State of Influencer Marketing in Germany” shows that over 25 million people in Germany use Instagram (as of August 2020). However, almost 25 percent of all influencers in this country have over 50 percent inauthentic comments.
Another finding of the report is that involvement in fraud activities in accounts in Germany is more common the larger the accounts are. Macro influencers with over 100,000 followers are particularly affected (58.9 percent).
The fraud tactic around Comment Pods – blogger groups on social platforms that agree to comment on posts there – is more likely to be used by small accounts with follower numbers between 1,000 and 5,000. These pods are difficult to spot in content because Nick Baklanov from HypeAuditor explains:
A blogger from such pod would make a post and throw a link to the chat with some comment: ‘likes, comments (3 words and more), saved.’ And then he / she would go up the chat to see the last 10 tasks from other bloggers and carry them out. This method is definitely hard to see with eyes only as there are real people with real accounts and high-quality content, and they would write extended comments.
In order to gain more insight into the world of fake fluencers and to receive tips on how to recognize them and protect yourself against them in your own campaigns, we asked HypeAuditors CEO Alexander Frolov a series of questions. Here are the insights and tips from the experts.
The interview with Alexander Frolov, co-founder and CEO of HypeAuditor
OnlineMarketing.de: How do fake fluencers circumvent Instagram’s security guidelines? What systems do you work with so that your account is not blocked or the range is restricted?
Alexander Frolov: The protection mechanism of Instagram is basically based on limit values for certain actions. For example, if an influencer subscribes to a large number of new accounts in a short period of time and exceeds the limit, this action will be blocked for him. This means that the influencer can no longer subscribe to new accounts for several days. The automation services regularly test these limits to find out how many likes or comments they can leave before the action is blocked for them.
Instagram constantly updates its anti-spam and fraud mechanisms. If a fake fluencer uses a questionable automation service today (for example follow / unfollow or mass story viewing), then the account may be blocked for it tomorrow.
Are you familiar with “Brand Ambassador” inquiries, in which smaller companies write to small accounts on Instagram via strange third-party accounts and ask whether they want to become Brand Ambassadors, whereby the role of these “ambassadors” is more likely to be used for cheap branding?
Reputable companies that want to work with an influencer almost always write an email. A DM (direct message within the platform) is the exception, but can occur if the influencer does not provide an email address in his profile, for example. Basically, companies always contact influencers first and never ask them in a comment or DM to be contacted.
Bots, on the other hand, send DMs to as many people as possible and make as many comments as possible. So fraudsters keep finding users who fall for their scam, which unfortunately happens far too often. Fraudsters have to constantly create new fake accounts as these are often closed by Instagram. You would never use your “real” account for this, as this could also be closed.
When a brand realizes the value of working together and reaches out to an influencer, the brand would offer them payment or at least a free product. In contrast, scammers try to sell their “brand ambassadors” their products and at the same time promise them a paid collaboration in the future.
Can you even beat the profiles that bots use without bots?
In the long run, an honest influencer who regularly publishes content and communicates with their audience will be far more successful than a scammer who buys followers and uses dubious methods. Of course, there is still the possibility that fake fluencers work with brands from time to time, but this usually does not end in a long-term cooperation, as the fake fluencers do not deliver good results. When an influencer works honestly, he is investing in his future and developing long-term influence. This helps him to build sustainable partnerships with brands.
Would it make sense to focus more on verifying smaller accounts as well? Do the big platforms still resist it?
We recently selected and reviewed 6.5 million Instagram accounts with over 1,000 followers at random. Only 3.26 percent have a blue tick, 32 percent of which are in the United States. Most verified accounts have between 20,000 and 100,000 followers.
The blue tick makes it easier to find public figures, celebrities or brands. Verification is definitely useful and makes communication more authentic. However, we think that the verification of smaller accounts does not play a major role in combating fraudsters, as the blue tick does not generally curb manipulation. There is even a suspicion that verified accounts have higher limits and that they can use automation services for a long time (for example for mass story viewing) without being blocked by Instagram.
At the same time, however, we would not say that platforms are reluctant to verify smaller accounts, because in quantitative terms there are almost as many nano-influencers (10,979) with the blue check mark on Instagram as there are mega-influencers (14,491). For example, freelance journalist Peter Yeung only has 1,016 followers and is verified.
According to HypeAuditor, very few authentic influencers are to be found in Germany, and very many in Japan. How do such differences come about? Can they be explained culturally or economically?
We haven’t looked at this in depth, but the reason for this could be cultural. We observed two interesting aspects in Japan: Japan ranks second among the countries with the highest engagement rate (the average engagement rate in Japan in 2019 was 4.93 percent, in Germany 4.29 percent). In total, we observed six countries where Instagram hid the number of likes. And Japan is the only one of them where the number of likes has not decreased, but actually increased.
There are around 50 types of fake accounts, can I, as a layperson, identify more than ten of them?
Usually, fake accounts on Instagram can be detected using these characteristics:
- No followers
- A maximum of ten contributions, mostly none at all
- No profile picture
- Big mismatch between the number of followers and the accounts they follow
- No posts in the last 30 days
- Username contains random letters and numbers
Does the number of fake fluencers tend to be lower on younger platforms like TikTok? And how quickly could that align, if so?
From our point of view, the age of the platform has no influence on the number of fake fluencers. As soon as there is a financial interest, fake fluencers also appear. It is currently possible to buy 1,000 fake followers on TikTok for three US dollars or 1,000 likes for 90 cents.
We would like to thank Alexander Frolov and HypeAuditor for the interview and all the data and insights that were shared with us.