Exposing Influencer Fraud and the Fight for Authenticity

Updated Fri, 05 Apr 2024 10:27 AM IST


The global influencer marketing market size reached a staggering $21.1 billion in 2023, with a projected growth rate of 13.1% annually until 2028. 
Instagram remains the dominant platform for influencer marketing, with around 87% of influencers collaborating with brands through this platform.

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As influencer marketing grows, so do concerns over fake creators. What brands need to know about influencer fraud and how to prevent it are covered in this piece.

Should brands really be worried about influencer fraud? Because countless brands run influencer campaigns without any problems,. Heck, 84% of shoppers have purchased something based on a manufacturer's recommendation. Influencers have become an integral part of how brands do business.But like any B2B interaction, there are potential scams that companies can fall victim to.Listen: Influencer fraud is a legitimate concern for your business and reputation. That said, this shouldn't stop anyone from hiring creators or running campaigns.

This article describes influencer fraud in detail, including what it looks like and how to avoid it..

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Table of Content

  1.   What is influencer fraud anyway?

  2.   What does influencer fraud look like?

  3.    The Four Most Typical Forms of Influencer Theft


What is influencer fraud anyway

Let's give a little explanation to get things started. 

Influencer fraud refers to fraudulent activities carried out by social media influencers. These practices include tricking brands or fabricating social media interactions. 

Real influencers grow their audiences organically. They gain valuable interaction by publishing information that appeals to their audience. Influencers are partnered with brands because of their high degree of engagement, creativity, and authenticity. 

Fake influencers buy followers or manipulate their account metrics to attract brands. These influencers often seem authentic at a glance. However, they do not provide any value to brands because their audience is not legitimate.

It's no surprise that now that Influencer Marketing has become a $13.8 billion industry, scammers have emerged. After all, brands are eager to work with influencers.

This can unfortunately lead to impactful fraud cases for brands that don't know better. Realizing that you are paying for an audience of robots and zombie accounts is a bitter truth.

And, of course, working with fake influencers is a huge waste of time and money.


What does influencer fraud look like

Let's look at some examples of fraud by influencers in the foodie community.

Brooklyn Chop House owner Stratis Morphogen (@brooklynchophouse) receives 200+ messages per year from fake influencers. These are the people who are claiming to be TikTok influencers out of desire for a free meal. He reported that roughly one in three so-called “influencers” actually have accounts boosted by bots.

Think about Chris Buetti, a data scientist, as well. In 2019, he created a bot-powered Instagram account to receive free meals from New York restaurants. His fake Instagram account eventually gained 94,000+ followers.

Oh, and Bueti was also successful in his quest for a free meal.

How did he do this? They coded a script to automatically repost top performing content from other Instagram accounts. Their script automatically generates new posts without the need to log into an account.

Wild, right?

These examples of impressive fraud highlight the spectrum of fraudulent activities out there. Some people are literally out for a free lunch. Others are creating full-fledged bots to defraud businesses.

The Four Most Typical Forms of Influencer Theft

Influencer fraud is not a one-size-fits-all affair. There are a few typical methods by which so-called "influencers" deceive brands. We have dissected them.


Accounts that buy fake followers

Buying fake followers is probably the most popular example of influencer fraud.

In short, someone will pay for a service or bot network to make it look like their account is bigger than it actually is. This practice is especially popular on Instagram.

According to data from SEMrush, the phrase “buy Instagram followers” receives over 40,000 Google searches per month. There are dozens of platforms that use AI and tactics like engagement pods to artificially “like” and “follow” accounts from thousands of people.

Buying fake followers and “likes” is also common because it is cheap. For example, one platform we researched offers 300 followers for $7 a pop. This is why we always tell brands to be wary of influencers who have a sudden increase in their follower count.

Below are some clear signs that someone is buying fake followers:

Their account receives very little engagement relative to its number of followers. If an account has 20K followers but only gets 10 likes on a post, you're probably looking at influencer fraud.

His follower count increases in a short time. Again, real influencers earn followers gradually, not overnight. This also applies to influencers who go viral. One may see an initial surge after a viral post, but after that, the growth should plateau.

Their follower list is full of inactive or fake accounts. The follower lists of bots will often include inactive accounts. These accounts often have @usernames that are simply strings of random characters. They do not have any content, profile photos, or biographical information (see below). Sometimes fake accounts post stock photos or repost content from popular Instagram accounts.

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Accounts that falsify interaction by using bots or pods

Similar to increasing follower count, bots can also be used to engage with posts. This tactic can trick social algorithms to increase the reach of a fake influencer.However, fake engagement is not limited to bots. Accounts looking to increase engagement sometimes use engagement pods.

An engagement pod is a group of Instagram users who agree to "like" and comment on each other's posts. Pods are often hosted in special DM groups on Instagram.

Engagement pods are somewhat of a gray area when it comes to involving real people who actually buy and advocate for the product.

In some ways, they guarantee tracking of your product, but it is not ideal. Creators who join these pods claim that the increased engagement helps their posts gain more reach. Still, Instagram discourages artificially increasing your engagement rate.However, click farms are highly fraudulent. These “farms” would collectively set up dozens or hundreds of smartphones to connect to the accounts. An example of how they work is given below.

High engagement is a big selling point for influencers who want to partner with brands. Similarly, brands should pursue influencers with legitimate engagement.

However, the key word here is legal. Bots and scammers have become sophisticated. That said, there are some quick ways to spot fake social media engagement on a post:

  • Comments are completely unrelated to the content of the post (think: emoji spam)

  • Each post earns approximately the same number of likes and comments

  • Their follower list is dominated by dummy accounts with suspicious handles and no activity

  • Common phrases like "Wow!" or "Cool!" dominate the comment section.


Influencers accepting payment but never posting

Some cases of influencer fraud occur even when an account appears "legitimate."

For example, an influencer may fail to follow their posts despite receiving compensation for it.

This highlights how brands need to be careful not only when it comes to vetting influencers but also when it comes to paying for content. Having a contract or agreement can help you avoid falling into the trap of influential people. Partial payment ("half now, half later") may also help.


Accounts posing as real influencers

Chances are you're familiar with phishing via spam emails.

Unfortunately, this is also a growing form of influencer fraud through social media.

Phishing occurs when scammers pose as reputable influencers. They reach out to brands with the intention of deceiving them. These messages are often sent from the email address of an established influencer.

These scammers often ask brands to pay them or send free products to a PO box. The fraudster receives the gift and is never heard of again.

Note: Sometimes impersonators will still proceed with a post but from a different account than promised. For example, The New York Times covered a story where someone claimed to be an influencer with over 500,000 followers. Then they put their sponsored posts on an account 1/10 the size.


You risk wasting your marketing budget

Waste of cash is undoubtedly the biggest concern for marketers and brands.

Imagine going all out on an influencer campaign and discovering that your biggest creators are frauds.

CHEQ's research notes the potential revenue loss per post from fraud depending on the size of the influencer. Their data showed that fake posts from influencers with more than 100,000 followers resulted in a loss of $300 per post. Compare this to the $10 to $35 loss per post that micro-influencers with a few thousand followers make.

Translation? The fraudulent activities of small creators are only a fraction of the hits brands receive from a celebrity level influencer.

As an influencer's follower count increases, the risk of revenue loss from influencer fraud increases. This is an unexpected benefit of micro-influencers. Diversifying your creators based on audience size makes it less likely that a single impostor will ruin your campaign.

Also Read : How AI is used to Scale Up the B2B Sales in Marketing.

Lost time and productivity

Running an influencer marketing campaign yourself is a time-consuming process.

We estimate that a product giveaway campaign involving 30 creators could take over 70 hours. Losing even a fraction of that time and money due to fraud is a huge waste. It will also be a huge blow to your morale and motivation when it comes to marketing.


Damage to your brand reputation

Associating with fake influencers can come back to haunt you.

This is true, even if it happened completely by accident. If your brand is known to be working with a scammer, it reflects poorly on your planning and decision making.

Is it fair? no way. If you don't know what to look for, influencer fraud can be difficult to spot. Still, there is a feeling of "guilt by association" if word gets out.Also, consider that any case of publicized fraud hurts the perception of influencer marketing at large. Note that the positive effects and success stories of consumer-to-Consumer Marketing are well documented. Still, fraud can leave marketers out in the cold.

Not all fraud is under the control of influential people

Keep in mind that just because there's something suspicious on a creator's account doesn't mean they're aware of it.

For example, creators can't prevent bot comments and fake accounts from interacting with their content. The larger their account, the more likely they are to deal with spam. The important thing is that spam comments don't dominate each of their posts.

Likewise, ups and downs in engagement are completely normal. The Instagram algorithm is super fickle. Influencers will often see external posts that perform really well and then others that perform poorly. it happens! Don't accuse an influencer of cheating based on an engagement unless you have solid proof.


How to Avoid Influencer Scams (and Run a Campaign with Confidence)

Wow! Lots of gloom and doom, right? Well, here's some good news:

It's easy to avoid scams if you can recognize the red flags. In fact, you can spot most scams a mile away if you can spot a few warning signs.

To wrap things up, here are some tips to help you avoid influencer fraud in the future:

Do your homework on the influencers you plan to work with! This applies to the creators you contact and anyone who reaches out to you. If something seems off in a conversation about collaboration, be prepared to pounce.

Review the comments and interactions on your potential influencers' posts. Be wary of anything that looks like bot activity. Excessive spam and emoji-only comments are bad news.

Keep an eye out for sudden increases in new followers. This is important for the influencers you currently work with.

Assess the quality of your influencers' followers. Do their followers resemble your own audience? What do their posts look like? Real followers post like real people!

Create an airtight compaction. Having a contract can save a lot of headaches as well as uncover potential red flags during the negotiation process.

Fraud detection is an important first step for eCommerce merchants to understand how to protect themselves from financial loss and maintain the trust of their customers. Automated merchant fraud detection tools and human factors can work together to provide effective fraud protection. Merchants need to invest in the right merchant fraud detection tools and ensure their fraud solutions and strategies remain consistent with the evolving nature of fraud.
Merchants must balance fraud protection and customer experience. False positives can lead to lost revenue and dissatisfied customers.
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Influencer marketing continues to grow in popularity. Influencer fraud is one problem that worries marketing experts more and more, though. The greatest Instagram fake engagement community in the world is examined in this thesis. 23 pods totaling 22,000 distinct users who asked for engagements on 365,000 distinct Instagram posts make up the sample. Section 3 will give the various analysis results following a brief introduction to knowledge dispersion in offline and online social networks and modern influencer marketing . Distributions of profile data (followers, follows, and posts) and post data (likes and comments), channel-specific and aggregated, are presented and debated. Channels with different requirements and purposes will be compared in terms of their performance and overlap.

What are the 2 basic types of fraud?

There are two major types of fraud

Courts classify fraud into two major types: criminal and civil. Civil fraud occurs when the fraud is an intentional misrepresentation of facts. Criminal fraud occurs when the fraud involves theft. For example, lying on your income taxes is a type of civil fraud.

What crime is fraud?

If a person, for selfish reasons, takes someone else's property in his name by forging it, by making a fake signature, or by creating financial or mental pressure, then Section 420 is imposed against him. There is a provision for a maximum punishment of 7 years for this crime under Section 420 of the IPC. A fine can also be imposed on the guilty person.

How many types of fraud are there?

Mainly, 5 types of fraud are prevalent in India. 
Identity Card Fraud: Cheating by stealing an identity card. Online or digital fraud: consumers are cheated by accessing their bank accounts, credit cards, e-mails, etc. through the internet for unauthorized transactions.

What to do in case of fraud?

Cybercrime portal cybercrime.gov. complains on
File a complaint at the nearest police station
Written complaint: cybercrime.gov Do it on in

Who is the biggest fraud in India?

The Harshad Mehta scam is possibly the biggest Indian scam in the history of the Indian stock market. Well-known broker Harshad Mehta had colluded with bank employees to manipulate the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE).

How many people do scams in India?

According to the Finance Ministry, in the financial year 2022-2023, reported UPI fraud cases exceeded 95,000, a significant increase from 84,000 cases reported in 2021-2022. A staggering 55% of all digital payment fraud in India involves UPI transactions.

What percent of influencers are fake?

On average, 49% of Instagram influencers were involved in artificially inflating their follower count, according to Statista. Understanding influencer fraud, recognizing bots and phony interactions, and selecting and hiring the proper partners are critical skills for organizations looking to establish genuine connections with new audiences.

What is the main danger of influencers?

Young people are mostly in danger of being duped into believing anything their favorite influencers are telling them when, in reality, they are being paid or have a different agenda when disseminating information. This can cause kids to spend money on something they don't really need—a product, game, or internet service.

Why is authenticity so attractive?

Being genuine makes it simpler to love and live with oneself. Being authentic allows you to live life with no regrets and to be able to look at yourself with pride rather than shame. Sincere individuals are drawn to you, and you can be confident that they like the real you.

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