In the world of social media, a person’s power is often measured in terms of followers. More followers means the ability to influence more people. Companies who work with influencers understand this and often base compensation on this metric. For example, according to data collected by Captiv8, an influencer with a thousand followers might earn an average of $2,000 for a promotional tweet, while an influencer with a million followers might earn ten times that.

A new article in the New York Times suggests that companies may want to think twice about blindly focusing on follower counts. The authors report that a company named Devumi has sold Twitter followers to over 200,000 customers, including celebrities and other influencers. According to the article, Devumi has a stock of about 3.5 million accounts, at least 55,000 of the which use the names, profile pictures, hometowns, and other personal details of real Twitter users.

The use of real people’s information to power these bots caught the attention of the New York Attorney General. In a tweet last week, Eric Schneiderman wrote: “Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law. We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities.” The investigation is the latest in a series of federal and state inquiries into the commercial and political abuse of fake accounts on social media.

How can you protect yourself from social media bots? Beyond the obvious advice that you should not buy fake followers, we recommend that companies and influencers both exercise some due diligence when it comes to followers. For example:

  • If your company pays influencers based on the number of followers they have, investigate whether those followers are real people. It may not always be possible to know for sure, but the New York Times article suggests some signs that could indicate fraud.
  • If you’re an influencer, and you’ve hired a PR company or agent to help boost your image, take steps to ensure that they aren’t doing that fraudulently. (Some of the examples in the article involved purchases that were made by third parties.)