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Faked Brand Social Media Profiles Send Massively Antisocial Holiday Message


One of many things that reaches a frenetic pace during the holiday season is social media activity, with brands ramping up promotions, suggestions and other communication to their followers. Aside from the fact that 23% of the world’s population — yes, 1.7 billion people — visit their Facebook profiles every month, the brands with the best social media presence are reaching upward of 40 million consumers.

According to social media analytics firm, Socialbakers, Coca-Cola, with the largest number of Facebook fans, has an audience of nearly 100 million; McDonalds, in the No. 2 position, reaches 67.2 million customers; and even Oreo cookies have 42.4 million online fans. While this is great news for these brands and many others that have discovered this virtually free, round-the-clock, instantaneous-to-market mode of understanding and connecting with their customer, there’s trouble in River City.

As the holidays approach, and brands increase the volume of their social media activity, it becomes increasingly difficult for most consumers to discern between real social media profiles and fakes. Amid this, fraudsters gain a perfect cover and a happier hunting ground to snag unsuspecting victims. As if brands and consumers alike don't already have to be aware of the rampant threat of counterfeits and fakes posing as the real thing, this season look out for an online threat to brands that’s growing faster than they can keep up with it — fake social media profiles and accounts.

FAKING A PAGE: It’s ridiculously easy to fake a brand’s social media page. Starting with the tag—not only can a tiny spelling “error” make for an entirely new URL, but think how many folks wouldn’t see or suspect the difference between @McDonalds and @McDonaldsPromo. And here, in a nutshell, lies the nature of the problem.

Most social media networks operate on a first come, first served basis for usernames. And just because the brand owns a trademark doesn’t, unfortunately, give them priority use of a username — the internet is still, in many ways, a Wild West-type land grab.

Once they have these bogus usernames, fraudsters can create fake social media profiles to divert genuine web traffic away from the brand — in the process damaging reputation, revenues and customers. But the underlying issue for the brand’s customers is the risk of exposure to malware and phishing of personal data or financial information, through an explicit act of fraud or even through the installation of online spyware.

The process of putting together a fake social media profile is very much the same as putting together a fake website purporting to be that of the brand – using the brand’s logo, creating a site that looks exactly like the brand’s website, same typeface, etc.

Social media fakers use exactly the same tactics, creating a social media presence and trying to divert traffic to these profiles. While account hijacking and stealing consumer data are the fraudster’s main goals, much collateral damage can be done to the brand, so social media has provided another way for fraudsters to reach a potentially vast audience, on the back of the brand that has built its presence the hard way.

Most online shoppers’ choices are influenced by social media; indeed, it’s been shown that 90% of consumers trust online peer recommendations over traditional advertising. At peak times likes the holidays, or even in the wake of a disaster, cyber criminals take advantage of this seeming peer-to-peer outreach and flood the internet with fake reviews. The key to the success of their operations is believability.

Amazingly, a simple search on any search engine will offer up plenty of results for websites that can provide Facebook likes, Twitter and Instagram followers, LinkedIn connections and positive TripAdvisor reviews — positive or negative. For less than $100, you can create an impressive social media footprint, one that most consumers would find impossible to see through.

To give a sense of how pervasive fake social media is, a recent study by cybersecurity consultancy ProofPoint showed that 40% of branded Facebook accounts are unauthorized, while nearly one in five of all social media profiles isn’t legitimately associated with the brand in question.

At best, these “close, but no cigar” sites are parodies or protest accounts intended to shame the brand; but at worst, they are full-on fake sites designed to divert legitimate social media traffic away from the genuine brands for nefarious purposes such as fraud or identity theft. In Proofpoint’s study, 30% of the fake accounts they looked at fell into the second category.

PROTECTION STRATEGIES: So what should a brand holder be doing this holiday season to protect its reputation, revenues and customers in the social media space? A number of brands have begun to adopt brand protection strategies specific to social media ploys. However, evidence suggests that they could and should be doing more to protect their customers. In the Proofpoint study referenced above, across 10 brands that were tracked, 600 new fraudulent accounts per month had been set up just during the research period. Phishing scams — that is, diverting consumers from the fake branded site to pages where personal data can be collected — posed the fastest growing threat, increasing by almost 150% over the same period last year.

With so many potential channels to monitor, it's important that brand holders act now to develop a clear strategy in time for the holidays.

BEST PRACTICES: Best practice starts with educating their customers about the correct channels — sites, pages, hashtags, etc. — to use. Monitoring social media networks to identify and locate fake profiles is relatively simple to do, but taking action against fake accounts can be something of a minefield to negotiate. Facebook and Twitter have dedicated IP infringement teams, but there are very complex rules and protocols that call for an insider’s knowledge.

There are proactive steps that can be taken, both by the brand and by law enforcement, to protect consumers and also make social media a safer place to do business. Using a formalized social media brand protection strategy — a relatively new arrow in the risk management quiver, ensures that a brand owner is doing all it can, at the holidays and year-round, to protect both its consumers and itself.

Stuart Fuller is director of commercial operations at CSC subsidiary NetNames, a global online brand protection firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

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