New York Attorney General to Investigate Firm That Sells Fake Followers

The New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, on Saturday opened an investigation into a company that sold millions of fake followers on social media platforms, some of them copying real users’ personal information.

The company, Devumi, and its sale of automated followers to a swath of celebrities, sports stars, journalists and politicians, was detailed in a New York Times article published earlier on Saturday. While based in Florida, Devumi claims on its website to be based in New York City.

At least 55,000 of its “bot” accounts used names, pictures, hometowns and other details taken from people on Twitter. The real users hailed from every U.S. state, including New York, and dozens of countries, a Times analysis found.

“Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law,” Mr. Schneiderman wrote on Twitter. “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. Tens of millions of fake accounts have been deployed to defraud businesses, influence political debates online and attract customers.

Social media companies, including Twitter and Facebook, have drawn intense scrutiny for not taking greater steps to weed them out. Many of the accounts identified by The Times appear to violate Twitter’s own policies, but remained active on the social media platform for years, each retweeting and promoting Devumi customers.

“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,” Twitter said in a message posted on its media relations account on Saturday.

Mr. Schneiderman, who was first elected in 2010, has brought a series of cases focused on the emerging world of online fraud, impersonation and abuse. In December, he began an investigation into how the Federal Communications Commission was flooded with millions of fake comments on a proposal to scrap so-called net neutrality rules. Thousands of the comments used names and addresses borrowed from real people, almost always without their knowledge.

“The internet should be one of the greatest tools for democracy — but it’s increasingly being turned into an opaque, pay-to-play playground,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/27/technology/schneiderman-social-media-bots.html by NICHOLAS CONFESSORE