Scammers, fraudsters, hackers, and just plain mean people create fake social media accounts by the thousands every day. Anyone can be a target – celebrities, influencers, businesses, and even regular people. In fact, in the first quarter of 2022, Facebook took action on 1.6 billion fake accounts. And that is just one social media network.
You might have seen some of these imposter accounts as you scrolled through your social media feeds or checked your DMs. Fraudsters often take pictures and posts from real high-profile pages, use a similar name, and reach out to the followers of the real page with the intention of scamming them.
These accounts are extremely harmful. In turn, this activity has prompted both brands and high-profile individuals to better trace and report fake accounts that may be reputationally damaging.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- What fake social media accounts are
- How fake accounts affect brands
- Can fake social media accounts be traced?
- How to identify fake accounts
- How to take action against fake accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- How to protect your brand from getting impersonated on social media
Let’s dive in.
What are Fake Social Media Accounts?
Fake social media accounts are profiles that are either not associated with a real person or are created with an actual person’s personal information without their consent. These accounts are usually called imposter accounts or sock puppet accounts. The latter is mainly used to describe accounts run by people to praise themselves and criticize others.
Scammers create fake social media accounts for various reasons, including:
- To impersonate you or others
- To extort money from your followers through scams (usually by pretending that the original owner of the account is in trouble and needs donations)
- To harass people online
- To spread false information – usually political – and hate speech
- To leave false reviews or complaints about brands and their products/services
- To destroy a person’s reputation
Most, if not all, of the major social media platforms (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, and Snapchat) are plagued with fake accounts. Even some minor platforms (Quora, Tumblr, etc.) and dating apps have fraudsters pretending to be other people.
How Do Fake Accounts Affect Your Brand?
Brands of all sizes and industries need to be wary of fake social media accounts. It’s important to watch out for them on two fronts: fake accounts that impersonate your brand and fake accounts that follow your real brand account.
People who create fake accounts to impersonate your brand can trick your followers into thinking that they’re your brand. This makes it easy for them to promote your products or services to people, and collect their money with zero intention of delivering the offerings.
This can destroy your reputation, reduce your followers, and ruin your brand.
On the flip side, you have fake social media accounts that follow your real brand account. At first glance, these bots merely inflate your follower count but don’t actively cause trouble. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
While these bot accounts may not harass you repeatedly or leave divisive comments under your posts, they do harmful things like:
- Lower your overall engagement rate.
- Damage your credibility if a prospect looks at your follower list and finds out that a good chunk of your followers are, in fact, not people at all.
- Make it harder to segment your audience and create effective social media ad campaigns.
If you only have a few hundred followers, you can easily find, unfollow, and report these fake accounts. But if your brand has thousands of followers, this process becomes a lot trickier.
If you have a large following, we advise you to constantly scan your account(s) with the right tools like Botometer to get rid of fake followers.
Can You Trace Fake Social Media Accounts?
Our social media investigators often hear this question: Is it possible to trace online accounts? Unfortunately, the only real answer is: it depends. While we have successfully been able to trace many fake accounts, it is almost always an uphill battle. But, if it can be done, we can do it.
The people behind these types of accounts create them with the intention of evading identification. There are many easily available tools and techniques that can make tracking these accounts impossible. These accounts are usually set to anonymous and contain little visible information.
Even so, in this digital age, every online action leaves a digital footprint. When this digital footprint hasn’t been expertly masked and/or the perpetrator gets sloppy covering their tracks, our social media investigators can trace this digital footprint.
How to Identify a Fake Social Media Account
Impersonators are getting smarter and they’re making fake social media accounts harder to trace these days. However, if an account is fake, there’s always a sign (or a few signs). If you want to be sure if a social media account is fake or not, check the following elements:
Fake accounts often use avatars and symbols as their profile images, instead of photos. And when they do use actual human photos, they are usually low resolution. Low-res pictures can be a red flag when the account purportedly belongs to a public figure or celebrity.
To be sure whether the account is fake or not, run the profile picture through search engines like Google Image Search to see if the image is linked to another account or has appeared somewhere else on the internet.
Account Name & Profile URL
Scammers often change their Facebook or Twitter usernames after signing up on the platform. This can give you a clue as to whether an account is real or fake.
Take this Facebook account as an example. It’s supposedly owned by Elon Musk.
The first red flag in this profile is the use of Elon’s middle initial ‘R’. The account is registered at this URL (web.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100083227784922), which shows no vanity name was set for this account, making it unlikely to be Elon Musk’s actual Facebook page.
To further verify the authenticity of an account like this, check if the said person is registered on other social media networks with the same name. Also check if the profile image, bios, location, and contact details match up.
If there is significant overlap, then the account is likely genuine. If not, you’re probably dealing with a fake account.
Connections (Followers, Friends, & Subscribers)
How likely is it that Taylor Swift has 3,857 Twitter followers? Or that tennis superstar, Serena Williams, has a mere 126 Facebook friends? Not likely, right?
Using the fake Elon Musk example from above, that account has 236 followers—which is weird for somebody as popular and controversial as Elon Musk.
To check if this is Musk’s real account or not, search for Musk’s verified Twitter account and compare it to this Facebook account. On Twitter, Elon Musk has 104 million followers, which is a far cry from 236 Facebook followers.
When you spot a huge discrepancy in a person’s follower count across different social media platforms, there’s a good chance the account with the lower number is fake.
Another way to confirm if a public figure’s account is real or not is to check if other verified accounts follow or interact with it. If yes, it’s most likely real. If not, you’re dealing with a fake account.
Pay attention to the kinds of posts published on the social media account. Check if it matches the person or seems out of character.
Fake accounts often spread false information and extreme views, and their feeds are usually filled with memes, stock photos, and recycled images. No published posts is also a sign of a fake account.
Also, check the kinds of comments the account leaves on other people’s posts. If they leave the same (or similar) comments asking people to invest money or subscribe to a sketchy channel, it’s likely a fake account. This can also indicate that the account is actually a bot.
The use of slurs, curse words, or weird slang can also give away the illegitimacy of a fake account.
If you find a social media account that seems as though it’s owned by a celebrity, influencer, or reputable brand, check to see if it has a blue or green checkmark next to the account name. The checkmark indicates that the account is verified.
Social media platforms give public figures this mark to protect them from being impersonated. However, not all legitimate public figures have the checkmark yet.
In this case, search other social networks for accounts with the same name. If the profile pictures, account name, location, and other details match up, the account is likely real. If they don’t, it’s probably fake.
What Should You Do When You Find a Fake Social Media Account?
If you suspect an account is fake, the first thing to do is check if you’re following the account. If you are, unfollow it or remove it from your friends list immediately.
You can even block the fake account to restrict its access to your information.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram recommend reporting any fake profiles or filling out their forms. Here’s how you can report a fake account (for the major social platforms):
Note: If you plan on hiring a professional cyber investigator to track down who’s behind the account, talk to them first, before reporting the account, because once it has been removed from the internet, it can be much harder to trace.
- Go to the fake account or page and click the button with three dots at the bottom of the cover photo.
- If the fake account is for an individual, click Find support or report. If the fake account is for a Facebook page, click Report Page.
- Follow the instructions on the screen to file a report.
You can also report a fake account through Facebook Messenger by scrolling down and clicking Something’s Wrong.
If you don’t have a Facebook account or don’t have access to your account, you can still report a fake account via this contact form.
- Visit the profile and click the three dots beside the account name.
- Click Report and follow the on-screen instructions to file a report.
Or you can report fake Instagram accounts created in your name, the name of your business, organization, or your child via this form. You have to provide all the requested information, including a picture of your government-issued ID.
- Go to the fake profile and click the three dots beside the account name.
- Click Report [@fakehandle].
- Select your reason(s) for reporting the account and submit.
You can also report fake Twitter profiles via this form. You don’t need a Twitter account to report a fake account.
- Visit the fake profile or company page and click More under their account name and tagline.
- If it is an account for an individual, click Report/Block. If it’s a company page, tap Report Abuse.
- In the What do you want to do? pop-up window, select Report content on profile.
- Then tap Profile information in the What content on this profile are you reporting? pop-up window.
- Click Suspicious, spam or fake in the Why are you reporting the profile information on this profile? pop-up window.
- Select Fake account in the How is this suspicious, spam, or fake? pop-up window.
- Tap Submit to file the report.
On the Pinterest app, you can only report a profile for spam. If you notice a fake Pinterest account impersonating your brand, contact Pinterest by selecting Report harassment or exposed private information.
When you report a fake account, the support team of the social network will investigate the issue. If they determine that the reported account is, in fact, fake, they will deactivate or ban the account from the platform.
Bots & Trolls: Are They the Same?
Where there are fake social media accounts, bots and trolls are not far behind. However, bots and trolls are different from each other.
Bots, short for robots, are artificial accounts that relentlessly share content on social media, comment on posts, and initiate online debates on trending or overlooked topics.
As the name suggests, their behavior is similar to that of automated robots. Bots are often part of a botnet—a network of bots. They are almost never singular.
There are good and bad bots on social platforms.
Good bots automatically share the news, earthquake alerts, satellite images, or weather forecasts on social media.
Bad bots, on the other hand, are designed to mimic real human activity to push an agenda or scam. Depending on its algorithm, bad bots may post content or comments on social media, follow legitimate accounts, and even send out friend requests.
How Do You Spot Bots?
Like fake social media accounts, you can detect bots by paying close attention to:
- Account Names: Bot usernames consist of a weird mix of words, letters, numbers, and even characters.
- Profile Pictures: Bot accounts usually have no profile picture. And when they do, it’s usually an avatar or an image of a cartoon character/animal/object. Whenever they use a photo of a person, the image is usually low-resolution.
- Profile Details: Bot accounts usually have little to no profile information and a sketchy location that doesn’t seem to match the person who supposedly owns the account.
- Weird Online Behavior: If you notice a single social media account publishing similar and/or crude content across several platforms or underneath several posts, it’s probably a bot.
- Few to No Followers. Bots usually follow a large number of accounts, but have a very low number of followers on their own accounts. To analyze follower counts, use tools like Botometer or Followerwonk.
Trolls are real human beings who create social media accounts to display destructive behavior, such as making insulting comments on posts, sending multiple disrespectful DMs, etc. Trolls are often paid to harass celebrities, public figures, or media organizations. They also often engage in this behavior to satisfy a personal grudge.
How Do You Spot Trolls?
Troll accounts are a bit more difficult to spot than fake accounts or bots because they are controlled by real people. Identifying troll accounts becomes even harder if they were registered and in use for years as part of bigger troll networks.
Spotting troll accounts goes beyond checking profile pictures, account names, bio information, or suspicious follower counts. However, you should check those just to be sure. The best way to find troll accounts is to examine the content shared by the account.
- Does it link to websites that spread disinformation? One of the main signs of troll accounts is spreading disinformation.
- Does the user publish any personal posts at all? If they only post (or repost) third-party content, they may be a troll.
- Does the user post the exact same comment under different social posts? If they do, then you’re probably dealing with a troll.
- Does the user spend a lot of time making comments on online discussions? If yes, they probably are a troll—especially if the comments are vitriolic and negative.
What are the Consequences of Creating a Fake Social Media Account?
When you report a fake social media account to the platform and the support team confirms that the account is, indeed, fake, they usually ban or deactivate the account immediately. Typically that’s where it ends, unless the victim wants to push it further. If the victim wants to pursue the matter, they have to look to their local laws to see what their options are.
While creating a fake account on social media in itself usually isn’t a crime, what the person does with the account might be. Most fake accounts are created for parody and satire. That is not illegal in U.S. law. Creating a fake account becomes illegal when the owner uses the account to commit one or more of the following crimes:
- Revenge Porn. This consists of distributing sexually explicit images without the consent of all involved parties.
- Online Harassment. This consists of actions like hacking, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, cyberattacks, and more.
- Defamation/Libel. This is the act of spreading false and harmful information to hurt a person or damage a business’s reputation.
- Impersonation of a Law Enforcement Official. One may get away with impersonating a private citizen or celebrity. But impersonating a law enforcement official or a public servant, in general, is a crime.
If you own a fake social media account and can prove to the courts that you use the account for parodies and satire, you may be able to walk away with no criminal or civil charges. However, if you use the account to hurt people or brands, you could be charged with any number of crimes, such as a hate crime, or face any number of civil penalties.
How to Prevent Being Impersonated on Social Media
If you are an individual, below are some ways to prevent being impersonated on social media.
- Set your social media profiles to private – This ensures that your profile can only be viewed by people you personally approved.
- Don’t put any sensitive information on your profile – This includes your bank details, social security number, home address, and phone numbers, amongst other things. Many times people don’t intentionally put this information on their profiles, but it can be found in the background (such as statements left on the counter while taking a selfie).
- Be careful of the things you post – Fraudsters often use people’s posts to create a convincing fake account.
- Only accept friend (or follow) requests from people you know.
- If you receive a friend (or follow) request from someone you have already connected with – reach out to them directly to confirm that it’s really them that sent the request.
If you are a brand, here are some things you can do to protect your followers from fake accounts that may seek to scam them in your name.
- Always share your official profiles across all of your social platforms/channels, email, newsletters, SMS messaging, etc.
- Openly – and frequently – communicate with your customers via your official social media accounts. This way, if you’re being impersonated, they’ll figure it out in no time and report the fake account before it scams your followers.
- Consider verifying your social accounts. Not only does this increase your credibility, it also makes it easier for copycat accounts to be removed if they are impersonating you.
- Monitor social platforms for potential accounts that are impersonating your brand.
- Look for accounts with alternate variations, misspellings, alphanumeric combinations, separations, etc. of your brand name.
- Monitor branded hashtags used by your official account(s).
Find & Get Rid of Fake Social Media Accounts
Given the billions of fake accounts that exist across several social media platforms, it can be difficult to find and get rid of all the accounts that are impersonating you. If you suspect that someone is impersonating and spreading false information about you or your brand, your best bet is to hire a company that can investigate the situation for you.
That’s where Bosco Legal Services comes in.
Bosco Legal Services provide social media investigations to people who are being targeted by fake accounts on social media. We go beyond glancing at a person’s Facebook profile or recent tweets. Instead, we use advanced investigation techniques to scour hundreds of social media platforms, blogs, and comment sections to gather data on the fake account(s) and its owner(s).
If you need our social media investigation services, call us today at (877) 353-8281 to book an appointment. You can also send us a message online.
To learn more about social media investigations and how they work, check out our other related articles:
- What You Need To Know About Social Media Investigations
- Social Media Investigators Vs. Databases And The Investigators That Use Them
- Automated Social Media Tools Vs. Social Media Investigators: A Thorough Comparison
Fake Social Media Account FAQs
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects search engines and other internet service providers from liability for negative content posted on their platforms. Though many providers will voluntarily remove negative content, you may have to jump through hoops to get there. Below, we answer common questions about fake accounts and what victims can do about them.
How Can You Find Someone Who Has Made a Fake Account?
Our private investigators use advanced investigation tools, techniques, and software to locate and identify anonymous accounts online. Every case is different and not every technique can or should be used in each case. Even so, a few of the techniques we regularly utilize include:
- Advanced search tools
- Advanced link analysis
- Metadata tracing
- Engaging the offending party using subterfuge
- Setting up a “honey pot” or “tripwire” to catch the account off guard
- Subpoenas ordering a website or search engine to provide IP address information
How Can One Deal with Online Harassment?
Until you learn the identity of the person behind the harassment, nothing can be done. Once they are identified, your legal options will depend on the unique circumstances of your situation. We recommend you speak to a lawyer specializing in internet/cyber issues about your situation to get a full view of your options.
Your options could include:
- Removing the damaging content from search-engine indexing
- Removing the damaging content from the website or internet
- Restraining orders against the bad actor
- Pursuing compensatory damages against the individual behind the fake account
- Criminal charges when warranted.
Before taking any action, you need to gather and preserve online and social media evidence. This evidence must prove that harassment and damages exist. Our online and social media investigators explore our clients’ situations and gather the necessary evidence needed for their claims as well as identify the individual behind the harassment.
How Can I Prove Authenticity & Authorship?
As social media case law continues to evolve, we are seeing more and more that you cannot only count on printouts for evidence. You have to show proof of account authorship and authenticity.
In order to prove authorship and authenticity, there are a couple of steps we take. First, we need to preserve the content as it was found. This includes capturing the images you see on the screen, but also the preservation of associated metadata. After that, we hash the data.
Metadata is the code behind the content. It can show important information such as location, time published, and user ID. The hash value acts as a digital fingerprint, which can be replicated by the opposing side’s expert to verify it wasn’t altered, which is essential for the admissibility of social media evidence if your case goes to court.
Check out our article “Authenticating Social Media Evidence: Verifying The Source” to learn more about verifying evidence pulled from a social account.
How Much Does it Cost to Track a Fake Account?
Conducting an investigation to track down the person behind a fake account is neither easy nor inexpensive. Our work is usually billed hourly. Doing the investigation and gathering the evidence will usually cost between $2,500-$5,000, but it can sometimes be more.
As the case progresses, we will be transparent about whether or not the continued investigation will likely lead to a successful outcome. As a general rule, using our most common methods, we have about a 75% shot (depending on the specifics of the case) of tracking down who is behind a fake account.
Keep in mind that our objective is to track down the culprit and gather the necessary evidence. In order to take legal action, you will need to retain an attorney, which would incur attorney fees and court fees. Typically, attorney costs start between $5,000-$10,000 depending on which attorney you hire. In about 65% of cases we handle, hiring an attorney is a necessary step to unmask the identity of the bad actor.
Can I Sue for Online Defamation to Recover My Costs?
This is a complicated question. You could have a viable claim to recover compensation for damages, but it depends on exactly what was posted and the facts surrounding the situation. Again, you should speak with a lawyer about the best options for your case.
Keep in mind that states have statutes of limitation, or time limits on how long you have to make a claim. For example, in California, you only have one year from the date of the defamatory statement to bring a defamation claim against someone. There are exceptions to this statute, but generally, you want to save yourself plenty of time.
This article was originally published on 5/16/2019 and was last updated on 10/6/2022.