The New York state attorney general's office on Wednesday announced a $50,000 settlement with a company that made millions of dollars selling fake followers and engagement to social media users seeking to boost their online profiles.
The settlement between New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) and now-defunct social media company Devumi is one of the first legal actions in the U.S. cracking down on the practice of selling bot followers and fake "likes."
It is the first finding by a law enforcement agency that it is illegal to sell fake social media engagement, the New York attorney general's office said in a statement.
"Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people’s identities to carry out fraud,” James said in a statement. “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," she added.
Devumi, which operated from 2015 to 2017, sold fake followers, "likes," views and influencer endorsements to customers on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud and more. The company's customers, numbering roughly in the hundreds of thousands, included actors, academics, professional athletes, adult-film stars, models and media figures, according to the settlement.
Devumi earned revenues of around $15 million during its short-lived existence, the settlement says.
The fake followers and likes that Devumi sold came from bot accounts, or "sock-puppet accounts," where one person pretends to be many people, according to the New York attorney general's office.
"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," the office said. "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."
The New York attorney general's office launched an investigation into Devumi last year after a New York Times investigation found that the company had provided its customers with an estimated 200 million fake Twitter followers.
The company's owner, German Calas Jr., did not confirm or deny the attorney general's claims. He agreed to the settlement of $50,000 to the state of New York to cover the costs of the probe.
Some of Devumi's customers knew they were buying fake engagement, while others believed they were buying endorsements from real people, according to the settlement.
The attorney general's office did not address whether it was legal for customers to buy the fake followers and engagement.
James said Devumi’s sale of false online engagement and followers violated New York state laws against fraud and false advertising.