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For sale: Fake social media followers

A big online reputation can mean fame, influence and money. But that presumes the reputations are honestly come by. That's a poor assumption on the Internet.

Artificial followers have become a major industry. Offers to deliver bulk followers to someone's social network account have become a regular feature on "task boards," where freelance workers and companies find each other and arrange temporary working relationships.

However, some research suggests ways to identify the so-called crowdturfing offers and filter them. Filtering would make it possible for marketplaces to prevent such listings from appearing.

Crowdturfing can be lucrative. Some estimates say the fake followers business is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. According to the researchers from Utah State University, Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, on a single task service, Fiverr, one person who focused heavily on crowdturfing work had made more than $3 million. The second highest earner in the category pulled in $1.4 million. A number of people made between $496,600 and $865,150.

Those sums represent a lot of phony followers of social media profiles. Some typical rates were $5 for at least 100 Facebook likes, 5,000 website visits from the U.S. or 1,000 links to a site. The providers clearly make their profit on volume, but the price of virtual popularity has also plummeted. In 2012, Fast Company found that 5,000 automated Twitter followers cost $77. Today, you can get them for $39.

People or companies might pay for these services for various reasons. Consumers are more likely to trust people with many followers because, after all, if that many people approve of the person or company, how bad could they be? Potential business partners want to work with popular companies or spokespeople. And the more the links to a site, in theory at least, the higher in search rankings it scores. Some people do it for the bragging rights.

Those who would fool the cosmic Internet deities aren't only people desperate for some commercial relevance. Celebrities and businesses have bought traffic or likes for their YouTube (GOOG), Twitter (TWTR), or Facebook (FB) accounts. Even the State Department has.

Buying followers can have an impact on social network rankings. The researchers created some fake accounts and found that they could significantly increase their scores on Klout, a company that rates the influence of social media users.

Although many people clearly want to bump up their online status, plenty of individuals and companies would like to know that online indications of popularity are more or less what they appear to be. So, now you can find services that provide estimates of how many fake followers a given profile has. But how many people know about these tools, or want to pay for more than a few checks?

That's why the academic researchers focused on potential sources and found they could detect ads from people trying to sell fake social media connections with an accuracy rate of more than 97 percent. Of course, that presumes the task-board sites want to cooperate, considering they're getting a cut of all that money as well.

Erik Sherman

Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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