Settlement is First in the Country to Find that Selling Fake Followers and “Likes” Is Illegal Deception and that Fake Activity Using Stolen Identities Is Illegal Impersonation
Attorney General Letitia James announced a precedent-setting settlement over the sale of fake followers, “likes,” and views on social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube, using fake activity from false accounts. The settlement prohibits Devumi LLC and related companies (“Devumi”) from engaging in any of the same misconduct going forward. This settlement marks the first finding by a law enforcement agency that selling fake social media engagement and using stolen identities to engage in online activity is illegal.
“Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people’s identities to carry out fraud,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “As people and companies like Devumi continue to make a quick buck by lying to honest Americans, my office will continue to find and stop anyone who sells online deception. With this settlement, we are sending a clear message that anyone profiting off of deception and impersonation is breaking the law and will be held accountable.”
The fake followers, “likes,” and other activity that Devumi sold came from computer-operated accounts (“bot accounts”) or by one person pretending to be many other people (“sock-puppet accounts”). Such accounts, found on social media platforms including Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, SoundCloud, and Pinterest, pretended to express genuine opinions of real people, when they actually reflected false, paid-for activity aimed at deceiving online audiences and the public. Some activity Devumi sold came from fake accounts that copied real people’s social media pictures and profiles without the knowledge or consent of the person whose identity had been copied.
Devumi ceased operations in mid-2018, shortly after the commencement of the Attorney General’s investigation and related publicity caused a major decline in its sales.
The Attorney General’s findings on Devumi are as follows:
Devumi LLC and related companies owned by German Calas, Jr. – including DisruptX Inc.; Social Bull Inc.; and Bytion Inc. (collectively, “Devumi”) – sold fake followers, “likes,” views and other forms of online endorsement and activity to users of social media platforms. Devumi supplied the fraudulent activity using bot and sock-puppet accounts. These bot and sock-puppet accounts falsely pretended to express the genuine positive opinions of real people. In some instances, Devumi supplied fake accounts that copied real people’s social media profiles without consent, including their name and picture.
In addition, Devumi sold endorsements from social media influencers without disclosing that the influencers had been paid for their recommendations. This is especially troubling when considering that the opinions of influencers can have particularly strong influence over the reputation and sales for any product, company, service or person they endorse.
These business practices deceived and attempted to affect the decision-making of social media audiences, including: other platform users’ decisions about what content merits their own attention; consumers’ decisions about what to buy; advertisers’ decisions about whom to sponsor; and the decisions by policymakers, voters, and journalists about which people and policies have public support.
Devumi’s practices deceived some of the company’s own customers who mistakenly believed they were paying for authentic endorsements, while many other Devumi customers knew they were buying fake activity and endorsements. Devumi also deceived the social media platforms, which have policies prohibiting fake activity.