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You’ve always suspected that “social media expert” with 57,000 followers and 34,000 tweets — all quotes from historical figures — was just faking it until, possibly, making it.

Now Barracuda, the security company, has done some research on the Twitter black market: buying and selling followers. The results don’t look pretty for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who looks to have acquired a significant number of fake followers, and security expert Gregory D. Evans, who Barracuda says probably purchased followers at least four times.

Social proof, baby. At prices of just $18 for 1000 followers, it’s cheap to look like a big deal.

But there’s big money in it for dealers, the people who create and sell fake Twitter accounts. Barracuda says they can make up to $800/day if they control as few as 20,000 fake accounts. Dealers do have to work for their pay, however: Twitter keeps finding and taking down fake accounts, so there is constant churn.

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How can you tell if an account is fake? There’s no complete hard-and-fast rule, but here are some guidelines. Fake accounts usually:

  • follow quite a few people, but generally fewer than 2001
  • are young, having been created an average of 19 weeks ago
  • have few tweets, or, if there are many, they look automated
  • may not have a picture in the profile

Here’s the infographic Barracuda produced from their data:

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