Twitter underground economy still going strong
by Jason Ding - Barracuda Labs - Tuesday, 2 July 2013.
Additional highlights of this study include:
  • The market of selling Twitter followers is very competitive now: top Google search results show that 89% (49 out of 55) are new vendor websites; the average price for thousands of followers has dropped more than 39%, from $18 to $11 now; several dealers have provided various new features to promote their services.
  • More than 60% of Abusers have 4,000-26,000 followers, meaning they are still the active group to have fake Twitter followers. The percentage of Abusers who have URLs in their profiles has dropped from 75% in August 2012 to 55% today, but this percentage is still much bigger than that of general Twitter users: 31%.
  • Fake Accounts have greatly evolved to mimic real Twitter users in order to avoid abuse detection by Twitter, as well as to evade the spotlight of general users. They steal the profiles from regular users, set both profile and background images, maintain a small number of followings, occasionally tweet something original with hash tags from web, and even interactively follow each other to have dozen of followers. All of these behaviors are very similar to many real Twitter users, and can hardly be classified as abuse actions.
  • There are several new services aimed at detecting fake Twitter accounts and updates, including Faker Check from StatusPeople, Fake Followers from SocialBakers, and TwitterAudit.com. However, all of these services failed in detecting this new wave of fake accounts.
This is not surprising as these services had publicly announced the basic features they used to detect each account’s identity, such as empty images, large following vs. follower ratio, or percent of retweets, etc. Dealers have taken advantage of this information and manipulated the new fake accounts to eliminate such features. This trend will force Twitter and other defenders to update their detection strategies to identify the real “fake” accounts and better protect real users.

Finally, we would like to estimate the size of this Twitter underground market. Without a doubt, it continues to be a multimillion-dollars market. First, a few vendors can sell up to millions of Twitter followers; secondly, we have found a few Abusers who have their followers up and down at the million level. We know on average each fake account is worth $0.011 or 1.1 cent per following, and it was on average following 60 users, meaning each account has already made 66 cents in our study. Remember that each of them can be sold at least 2000 times without any hurdles, worthy of $20 each. Therefore, millions of fake Twitter followers can definitely generate million dollars or more revenue.

Another reasonable estimation is based on statistics from fastfollowerz.com: declaring “28,000+” happy clients in hand and assuming each client only spend $50 (amount to have at least 4000 followers for the active group), and they have already made $1.4 million dollars at least for their Twitter follower business. Keep in mind that there are more than 55 websites, and 50 eBay sellers, and thousands of Fivvrr.com services.

Furthermore, consider that most of the Twitter followers vendors also sell Facebook fans, Google+ votes, YouTube views, Instagram followers, Pinterest followers, LinkedIn connections, etc. which in turn multiplies the financials easily into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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