In the world of social media, a person’s power is often measured in terms of followers. Because more followers generally means more reach, companies who engage influencers often base their compensation on this metric. But follower counts may not always be what they seem. According to a New York Times report last year, influencers can buy fake followers (who are often bots) from companies like Devumi.

Robot HandsThis week, the New York Attorney General announced a settlement with Devumi over its practices. Among other things, the company is prohibited from selling fake followers, likes, and other types of social media interactions. And to the extent Devumi works with real influencers, it must take steps to ensure they clearly disclose any connections they have to the companies they endorse. The AG said that this settlement sends “a clear message that anyone profiting off of deception and impersonation is breaking the law and will be held accountable.”

Although this may be the first case that addresses the sale of fake followers, it’s not the first case that addresses companies using shady techniques to boost their reputations online. For example, in 2013, the New York AG announced settlements with 19 companies after a year-long undercover investigation into the reputation management industry. During the investigation, the AG learned that some agencies that promised to boost companies’ presence online did to so posting fake reviews.

What you should take away from these cases depends on your place in the industry. If you help companies boost their social media presence, take a close look at these settlements and make sure you’re not engaging in the practices that were challenged. If you’re hiring a company to boost your presence, ask that company some questions about how they plan to achieve results. And if you pay influencers based on the number of followers they have, investigate whether those followers are real people. Bots can lead to all sorts of trouble.

In the world of social media, a person’s power is often measured in terms of followers. More followers means the ability to influence more people. Companies who work with influencers understand this and often base compensation on this metric. For example, according to data collected by Captiv8, an influencer with a thousand followers might earn an average of $2,000 for a promotional tweet, while an influencer with a million followers might earn ten times that.

A new article in the New York Times suggests that companies may want to think twice about blindly focusing on follower counts. The authors report that a company named Devumi has sold Twitter followers to over 200,000 customers, including celebrities and other influencers. According to the article, Devumi has a stock of about 3.5 million accounts, at least 55,000 of the which use the names, profile pictures, hometowns, and other personal details of real Twitter users.

Robot Hands

The use of real people’s information to power these bots caught the attention of the New York Attorney General. In a tweet last week, Eric Schneiderman wrote: “Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law. 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.

How can you protect yourself from social media bots? Beyond the obvious advice that you should not buy fake followers, we recommend that companies and influencers both exercise some due diligence when it comes to followers. For example:

  • If your company pays influencers based on the number of followers they have, investigate whether those followers are real people. It may not always be possible to know for sure, but the New York Times article suggests some signs that could indicate fraud.
  • If you’re an influencer, and you’ve hired a PR company or agent to help boost your image, take steps to ensure that they aren’t doing that fraudulently. (Some of the examples in the article involved purchases that were made by third parties.)

We’ll keep an eye on this issue, as it develops. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the dangers of risks posed by bots, read our previous post on the subject.

Fembots have plagued humanity for many years. In the 1970s, fembots attempted to seize control of a weather device before they were defeated by the Bionic Woman. And in the 1990s, Fembotfembots worked with Dr. Evil until Austin Powers was able to outwit them. Now, they’re back, luring unsuspecting men into cheating on their spouses. At least that’s what the plaintiff in a new class action against the owners of Ashley Madison alleges. (Yes, the complaint does use the word “fembots.”)

The plaintiff claims that he was lured to spend money on the site based on representations of how many women were active on it, especially after he received messages from women that required him to pay for credits to continue the conversations. Now, he believes those messages didn’t come from women at all – instead, they came from “fembots with fake profiles created by Ashley Madison.” These allegations are fueled by a recent report from a journalist who allegedly discovered that the company created fake female profiles and bots to interact with male customers. The plaintiff argues that the use of the fembots violates Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act, which outlaws unfair or deceptive trade practices.

This isn’t the first case to deal with these types of issues. Last year, the FTC reached a settlement that prohibited a UK-based company from using fake, computer-generated profiles to trick users into upgrading to paid memberships. (That case involved “virtual cupids,” which sound less sinister than – but are equally as dangerous as – fembots.) Among other things, the company agreed to pay over $600,000 to settle the case.

Whether you make misleading statements yourself or use an army of female robots to do it for you, the consequences can be pretty serious. If the Bionic Woman or Austin Powers don’t come after you, it’s likely that the FTC or a class action attorney will.