Instagram fraud: How to spot influencers who buy fake followers

Jessica Satherley
Instagram fraud: How to spot influencers who buy fake followers

Facebook and Instagram recently filed a lawsuit against a Kiwi company and three people based in New Zealand for providing Instagram users with fake likes, views and followers.

The tech giant filed the suit in US federal court, alleging the trio used fake companies and websites to sell fake engagement services.

Fraudulent activity across social media is rife throughout the industry that is preyed upon by profit-driven Instagram influencers.

“We are sending a message that this kind of fraudulent activity is not tolerated on our services,” Facebook’s Director of Platform Enforcement and Litigation, Jessica Romero, wrote on their newsroom page.

But what exactly is social media fraud and how have influencers been profiting from the activity? We spoke to the owner of The Business of Influence, Amanda McConchie, whose company works with small businesses and influencers.

McConchie is a strong advocate against Instagram fraud, which she says is committed when influencers buy followers to artificially inflate their engagement.

“This is done so they can increase their asking rate for paid brand partnerships,” she said and gave us the low down on Instagram fraud:


How do influencers fraudulently inflate their following?

“An influencer would need to sign up to a service, make a payment and watch their audience grow. These wouldn’t be followers who are interested or willing to engage, they are merely bought numbers and the influencer would receive a large spike of fake accounts following them.

They also might be using fake partnerships with brands, where they buy products, create content around them and then disclose #sponsored or #paid in the post. This is a shady tactic to coerce brands into thinking they have experience in paid brand partnerships. It is rife overseas and is starting to happen in New Zealand. They are providing false statistics to brands in order to demand higher payment for sponsorship deals.”


How can we spot influencers using fake followers?

“Influencers who have bought fake followers will later experience a drastic drop of followers. If an account’s followers have dramatically increased or decreased over a few weeks or a couple of months, it is most likely they have been buying followers. Social Blade ( is a good tool to check in on someone’s following rate.

If influencers are receiving comments from fake robot accounts, the comments will look like spam and will likely only be four words long.

If the influencer is genuine, they are often visible on other platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or have a blog, so look into their overall public profile.

Don’t be afraid to ask for their statistics and case studies with brands to check if they have genuine engagement. Their engagement can be calculated by looking at the percentage of likes and comments on posts compared to the total number of followers. Fake followers will not have engaged in real comments.”


How much of the industry is fraudulent?

“A 2017 anti-fraud company Swap Ops found that posts tagged #sponsored or #ad contained more that 50% fake engagement, including likes and comments.

McConchie says it’s a hard number to pinpoint but recent research suggests roughly 24% of influencers have falsely manipulated their engagement numbers.”

What are ‘bots’ and ‘pods’?

“Bots are fake robot accounts that provide automated commenting and liking functions to artificially inflate engagement on an account. Instagram is constantly shutting down bot-enabling sites and services.

Pods are extremely common in New Zealand and many well-known influences have engaged in this. It is when small, private groups of like-minded influencers band together to boost engagement in a more human way. Communication is made to let the other pod members know when they are posting so the group immediately likes and comments on the new posts. They are careful to avoid bot-styled commentary so they look authentic.”


How are marketing agencies combatting fraudulent influencers?

“Last year Unilever’s CEO Keith Weed announced that the consumer packaged goods giant will no longer work with influencers who buy followers.

Other marketing agencies need to follow suit.

In the UK, the ISBA representing advertisers, has updated their influencer contracts with specific clauses about fake followers to help brands tackle fraud.

But marketers here in New Zealand need to adopt more targeted metrics on quality of audiences. Brands don’t want to work with influencers who build fake audiences, therefore some brands are working with ‘nano-influencers’ who have less than 1,000, but genuine, followers. Micro-influencers with under 10,000 followers are also becoming popular, because brands trust their engagement more than an influencer with hundreds of thousands.

At the moment in New Zealand there are no special rules governing social media influencers under the Fair Trading Act, so it is not illegal to buy followers, however it is a breach of the act to mislead or deceive consumers.

Influencers who are caught buying followers, might still face legal repercussions.”

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