New York Sets Precedent: Fake Social Media Followers Are Officially Illegal

Charges will include illegal deception, illegal impersonation.

Lelita James
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Charges will include illegal deception, illegal impersonation.

Selling fake followers and likes on social media is now officially against the law in New York, according to a precedent-setting settlement announced by the New York attorney general’s office. The settlement is the first of its kind in the United States and marks the first time that a law enforcement agency has formally found that selling fraudulent social media engagement and using stolen identities for online interactions is illegal.

The settlement centers around the activities of a company called Devumi, which sold millions of likes, follows, and retweets on a variety of social media platforms. The company sold this sort of spoofed social media engagement to celebrities and others seeking to inflate their social media presence and appear more widely followed online than they really are. The fraudulent activity took place heavily on platforms including Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, SoundCloud, and Pinterest.

Additionally, Devumi was found to have brokered social media endorsements by high-profile personalities without disclosing that the endorsements were paid.

“Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people’s identities to carry out fraud,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “As people and companies like Devumi continue to make a quick buck by lying to honest Americans, my office will continue to find and stop anyone who sells online deception.”

Devumi’s activities included “bot accounts,” which are accounts operated by computer programs to execute certain activities including liking and commenting on posts, as well as “sock puppet accounts,” where one person will pose as many using multiple accounts online. In some cases, the company created accounts that copies the personal information of real people, including names and photos.

Up to 5,000 Twitter followers could be purchased for less than $4,000 and Devumi also sold “packages” of ongoing likes and retweets for an annual fee of a few hundred dollars.

In prosecuting the activity, the attorney general claimed that Devumi’s practices could deceive customers by influencing what products they purchased and mislead advertisers who would mischaracterize the popularity of programming or individuals based on traffic and engagement from fraudulent accounts.

In terms of potential charges that could be levied against similar practices in the future, the state determined that activities like selling followers or likes qualifies as “Illegal Deception” and that generating fake online activity using stolen personal information is “Illegal Impersonation.”

In response to the press release from New York, Twitter released a statement via Tweet, saying “The tactics used by Devumi on our platform and others as described by today’s NYT article violate our policies and are unacceptable to us. We are working to stop them and any companies like them.”