The Rise of Fake Social Media Accounts: Can You Spot the Fake?

There is no denying that fake accounts run rampant on social media and digital platforms. Between October 2017 and September 2018, Facebook alone removed almost 2.8 billion illegitimate accounts worldwide. By some estimates, this accounts for between 25-35% of all Facebook accounts.

Last year, the ZeroFox Alpha Team wrote a piece on how to identify false information and fake profiles on social media (we recommend you check it out to inform yourself, and your team, on how to identify fakes). Since that post, the number of fake profiles across social networking sites continues to increase. Facebook now maintains a dedicated support page specific to fake accounts, which you can check out here. The actual number of fake accounts on these sites is difficult to measure – so much so that the networks themselves have admitted that their estimates are more educated guess than hard fact.

ZeroFox Impersonation Estimates

Based on ZeroFox’s own analysis, the number of impersonating accounts has increased 56% between 2017 and 2018 and is projected to continue to increase 30% in 2019. Evaluating both brand impersonations (accounts pretending to be your company, product, or logo) and executive impersonations (accounts pretending to be your people) have steadily increased since 2017. Between 2017 and 2018, brand impersonations for ZeroFox customers increased by 5%. Based on current projections, the ZeroFox Alpha Team anticipates an estimated 17% increase in brand impersonations over the next year. The numbers are even more staggering for executive impersonations. Between 2017 and 2018, the ZeroFox Platform saw an over 300% increase in fake accounts impersonating customers’ top executives and VIPs. These numbers are projected to continue to increase, with an estimated 47% increase in 2019 over 2018’s figures.

While we have seen brand impersonations steadily increase, we continue to see an increased emphasis on individual impersonators. Bad actors looking to conduct social engineering attacks often target individual employees or accounts. Since social media is inherently built around connections and networking, users may be more susceptible to an attack from a “person” rather than a brand.

What’s the Problem with Fake Accounts?

Fake accounts on social media, especially those pretending to be celebrities and other high-profile figures, can be annoying but may seem ultimately harmless. But in actuality, fake profiles often serve as the foundation for broader digital attacks. Bad actors use fraudulent accounts to target your legitimate followers, employees and customers.

Here are a few of the risks associated with fake accounts that you should be aware of:

  • Phishing and malware distribution
  • Malicious and offensive content sharing
  • Scams and fake coupon sharing
  • Brand and executive reputation damage
  • Sensitive information leakage through social engineering attacks (you’re more likely to share information with a profile you think you know – like your CEO!)

Addressing the Fake Account Problem

If fake accounts online are inevitable – what do we do about them? And what is their impact to you as an individual user and as an organization with a digital presence on these platforms?

The first line of defense is learning how to recognize when you’re engaging with a fake account. This will help you not only in your own use of social media but in identifying potential impersonators of your organization, brand and top executives. There are a few key warning signs associated with fake accounts: from the number of followers, age of the account, account type, number of posts and posting style. Long gone are the days of accepting any friend or follow requests that comes your way – it’s important to thoroughly review account details before engaging with any account, whether it’s a celebrity, brand or someone you know.

New fraudulent accounts are created every day, impersonating celebrities, CEOs, businesses and users. ZeroFox wants you to be armed with the right information to identify and address fake accounts when you see them, whether at work or at home. The ability to find fake accounts helps marketing teams’ accurately understand share of voice on social media, helps security teams stop phishing and malware spreading, and helps individuals engage securely on social media.

Beyond Celebrities: Risks to Brands and Executives

Corporations and their executives often think they are safe from impersonations that more frequently target high-profile celebrities when in actuality brand and executive impersonations are incredibly common and can be much more detrimental than their celebrity counterparts.

With social media and digital engagement on the rise, marketing teams are investing heavily in growing their digital footprint as a way to drive brand awareness and generate revenue. Impersonating accounts pretending to be your brand steal your hard-earned followers and traffic while retracting customer loyalty and creating distrust. Marketing teams should take stock of owned accounts and monitor for fraudulent accounts in an effort to grow business and raise awareness securely.

From high-profile executives to small business CEOs, impersonations on social media can negatively affect reputation, brand loyalty and customer and employee trust. Bad actors pretending to be your execs often target employees with spear phishing attempts and spread slanderous messages and offensive content. Organizations should make a conscious effort to protect executives from fraudulent profiles in order to protect not only the executive, but the entire business.

Test Yourself

Think you can easily spot a fake account on social media? Let’s put it to the test. Try out our new quiz “Find the Fake” and see if you can distinguish the fake celebrity profile from the real account. The ZeroFox Alpha Team has created this quiz using actual fake profiles found across social networks, so make sure to find them here before you could encounter them online. Take the quiz here, and make sure to share your results!

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