Stop Your Customers From Buying Fake Digital Numbers


(By Spike Santee) Next time you meet a local business owner who has been seduced by the lure of accountability in digital display advertising, don’t go down without a fight. Arm yourself with the latest information and help your customer avoid another costly mistake.

Fake user accounts are infecting social media like Facebook and Twitter causing the social media giants to admit that the problem is far worse than previously acknowledged. In November 2017, Facebook disclosed to shareholders that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, perhaps 60 million or more automated accounts. According to a new study by the University of Southern California and Indiana University, 15 percent of more (50 million) of Twitter accounts are bots rather than real live people. When you buy digital display advertising on social media, you are paying for these fake users.

These fake accounts resemble real people. In fact, many of these fake accounts have hijacked a real person’s picture, name, and social image but then go on to promote shady websites with graphic pornography and hate speech. These fake accounts are committing identity theft on a massive scale. Senator Mark Warner from Virginia says, “The continued viability of fraudulent accounts and interactions on social media platforms — and the professionalization of these fraudulent services — is an indication that there is still much work to do.”

Senator Warner is talking about companies like Devumi that has made millions of dollars in the shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud. Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses, and anyone who wants to appear to be more popular or to exert influence online. A New York Times investigation has found that Devumi uses a group of 3.5 million automated accounts they sell over and over, up to 200 million times.

Fake accounts are like counterfeit money in the online digital marketplace that prices digital advertising costs on the size of an audience — or the illusion of a large audience. You pay more for a larger audience than for a smaller audience so there is a fraudulent profit motive behind fake users.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms prohibit buying fake users to inflate the popularity of user accounts but companies like Devumi continue to sell fake users with impunity.

Fake user companies use their army of bots to drive up views on sites where you, the advertiser, pay to display your ad. You buy that ad, and you pay for that ad based on how many people will see it. If you buy display advertising directly from a site or from a digital display network, you could be paying for a fake audience and a fake audience doesn’t buy your product or service you’re trying to advertise.

High follower counts are important for so-called influencers, the growing market of YouTube stars where advertisers spend billions of dollars a year on sponsorship deals. The more people these YouTube stars reach, the more money they make. According to data collected by Captiv8, a company that connects influencers to brands, an influencer with 100,000 followers might earn an average of $2,000 for a promotional tweet, while an influencer with a million followers might earn $20,000.

The New York Times investigation revealed that many of Devumi’s best customers who buy followers are selling products and services on social media. Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model, has a half-billion-dollar licensing empire and she has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers. Ms. Ireland has over a million followers on Twitter, which she often uses to promote companies with whom she has endorsement deals. American Family Insurance said that the former model was one of its most influential Twitter “brand ambassadors.”

In January 2017, Ms. Ireland had only about 160,000 followers. The next month, an employee at the branding agency she owns, Sterling/Winters, spent about $2,000 for 300,000 more followers, according to Devumi records. The employee later made more purchases, he acknowledged in an interview. Much of Ms. Ireland’s Twitter following appears to consist of bots.

Several Devumi customers acknowledged that they bought bots because their careers had come to depend, in part, on the appearance of social media influence. “No one will take you seriously if you don’t have a noteworthy presence,” said Jason Schenker, an economist who has purchased at least 260,000 followers.

The lure of accountability in digital display advertising comes with a massive buyer beware warning. In addition to the sophisticated non-human technology that simulates human interaction with your display advertising, there is a human fraud component to watch out for. Work-from-home schemes promising people that they can make money on the Internet are simply recruiting real people to sit at home and mindlessly click on website ads and fill in forms just to drive up the cost of digital advertising.

Buyer beware when buying digital ads. There isn’t enough time in this post to cover invisible ads, domain spoofing, site bundling, and ad injection.

If you want to help your customers bring their advertising costs under control and show them real accountability, present yourself as a professional local advertising expert with the customer’s best interests at heart. Promise to bring in a list of times when their commercial will be on the air. Leave them a CD of their commercial with the schedule. Follow up to ensure they heard their commercials on the air.

If you sell radio advertising, your product has never been more effective. You now deliver the largest audience with outstanding frequency for the most effective price of any major medium.

Remember, 10 years ago there was no digital advertising share. Digital came in and took it away from us with the promise of accountability. Today, that promised accountability hasn’t delivered. In fact, most digital experts think the issue of digital advertising fraud will only get worse.

Don’t go down without a fight.

Good Luck.


  1. Great insight and article. This is an area of fraud that is heinous, due to the fact that the person buying admits their numbers are inflated with bots. Thank you!

  2. The implication of this article is that display advertising is fraught with fraud and that your local advertiser is suffering as a result. By comparison, radio has proven measurement, is transperant (show spot times) and all you have to do is “present yourself as a local advertising expert with the customers best interest at heart” and you’ll win. Well, that’s easy.

    Proving radios value as a mechanism for success is absolutely a perfectly legitimate responsibility everyone who works with clients has. But to suggest that it’s a zero sum game in a world where 63% of all local dollars will be digitally driven by 2020 is ignoring the reality of what advertisers are doing. There is no doubt that there is a degree of fraud in digital programmatic placements but suggesting an advertiser should “be aware” of the dangers of buying display advertising is too vague for a brand looking to see documentable results and measure things like site traffic, page visits, form fills and click to calls. A more effective approach is to ask the advertiser to look carefully at the data behind the sites the ads ran on, the clicks and CTR’s achieved and the variety of Google analytics that measure the value of digital marketing. Holding the digital seller accountable is critical. Creating doubt about the mechanisms that serve ads digitally is like criticizing cars because they get into accidents.

    There has been a lot of work done by the IAB and by platforms like Google and others to improve the delivery of real ads to real people. More safe guards are in place as major national and international brands rightfully demand proper accountability for delivering real ads to real people. Meanwhile, local advertisers continue to benefit through a proper media mix that now includes display, video, social, search, and mobile marketing. Radio’s best move continues to support that wave, offer competitive services and help the advertiser with proper expectations and accountable results – ALL while continuing to include radio and its numerous benefits.

    Casting doubt on a key marketing tool like digital display is not as affective as building ones own value and helping the advertiser with a full service marketing plan that includes radio.

    As the RAB recently noted- Radio drives search an average of 27%. Now that’s a stat that gets an advertisers attention.

  3. Thank you for your article. Your article outlines a major problem in the sales ecosystem currently. Radio, digital and direct mail all have the potential to sell off of fake numbers. While it is true that the potential for fake bots do exist, hell even Google has dealt with click fraud, your team should not be selling listeners solely off of Neilson numbers, or the number of clicks or impressions you received,they should be selling off of conversions…..yes this is the numbers you may share however the only number that matters to your end client is the conversion. We partner up with a lot of radio groups and media companies across the United States and this is the 1st thing we have to train to teams is to sell the conversions you can see on Google Analytics. Show them the lift that the radio spot had on their web traffic for there corresponding demographic that they wanted to target. The same holds true for digital, focus your energy on the goals of the campaigns and not the steps it takes to get there. Fraud is everywhere, however, if you prove value to me I will accept 98% of valid convertible actions versus not running a program for the 2% of bad that may or may not exist. If you spend an extra 5 min with a client you can identify the goals that they would like to see and show them the lift that a radio program, digital program or a combined media program brought to them via Google Analytics. This will retain the radio sale and makes you as the salesperson a partner in your clients business.


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