Data for GOOD Design

Friend or Foe? Dissecting Facebook’s Fakers

by Jennifer Billock

June 5, 2015

Out of more than 1.3 billion Facebook profiles, 170 million are fake—and you’re probably friends with several of them. An extremely unscientific sampling of my own Facebook friends reveals that at least 22 maintain bogus profiles. (Though in my admittedly biased opinion, their hoax accounts were set up with only the best of intentions.)

Several of the fakers on my friends list use their extra accounts to post status updates in the voice of a new baby or beloved pet. A few use Facebook profiles to market their small businesses in a “creative” way. Another established a profile to honor a miscarried baby. Only a few friends crossed the line into slightly nefarious territory—there’s the female acquaintance who established a fake profile to keep tabs on her children’s father, and the one who signs on as a non-existent guy to comment on her real page (and make her real-life crush jealous).

Anyone with more than one account is technically breaking Facebook law: Only one account is allowed per user. That means another of my friends—a teacher who maintains a public, work-friendly profile as well as her private personal one—is a Facebook criminal. Nevertheless, according to Facebook’s 2014 annual report, 4.3 to 7.9 percent of accounts are duplicates. Misclassified profiles—created on behalf of businesses, pets, or organizations—account for .8 to 2.1 percent of Facebook usage. And .4 to 1.2 percent of accounts are “undesirable”: they belong to hackers, spammers, and software-generated fake profiles from companies like BoostLikes.com or SocialFormulae.com.

The damage caused by these impostors should be taken seriously. Earlier this year, global-security expert Mark Goodman noted in his book Future Crimes: Everything is Connected, Everyone is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It that 160,000 Facebook pages are hacked into every day. Hackers can get into your profile, falsify your personal information, then move on to do any number of creepy things, including:

  • Mining for cell phone numbers of the affected profile and friends
  • Monitoring status updates to track when someone is away from home
  • Stalking someone
  • Spamming the entire friends list with virus-laden links
  • Creating other Facebook profiles modeled after friends to hack into more accounts
  • Collecting information for identity theft

Luckily, with a bit of light research, it can be pretty easy to tell the difference between a real and fake Facebook profile. Here are the things you need to know whenever you get a random friend request or one from someone you’ve already friended:

Check for status updates (or the lack thereof).

Forty-three percent of fake accounts will never update their status, as opposed to 15 percent of real Facebookers. Nevertheless, fake profiles tend to have an enormous amount of friends—about six times more than the average user.

Pay attention to excessive photo tagging.

Fake profiles tag many more people in photos than real people—about 136 tags for every four photos instead of just one (which is the average for real users). Fake profile photos also tend to be more glamorous—they’re often drawn from stock photography, as opposed to authentic shots with friends or family.

Watch out for strangers who are unusually excited about being female, bisexual, or a college graduate.

Sixty percent of fake profiles identify as bisexual, and 97 percent are women—or so they say. Sixty-eight percent claim to have graduated from college. Location is a factor as well—fake accounts tend to indicate that they’re from countries where Facebook hasn’t yet caught on, such as Indonesia or Turkey. BBC News tested this idea when reporter Rory Cellan-Jones created a fake business page for a bogus company he created, Virtual Bagels. Within 24 hours, he had gained 1,600 likes—mostly from users just as fake as his company. Nearly all of the profiles listed locations in areas where Facebook is censored, like Egypt.

Take a second look at likes and interests.

Despite BBC News’ findings, users rarely “like” business or entertainment-related pages. And if you think you have an awful lot in common with a total stranger, it might not be a coincidence. If someone’s really trying to hack into your profile, they’ll often mirror your likes and interests in the hopes of starting a conversation. 

But what if you find out you’ve already befriended an unfriendly faker? It may be difficult to undo damage already done, but you can take a few steps to make sure nothing else goes wrong. First and foremost, defriend the bogus profile, block it, and report it as spam to the site, so Facebook can disable the page. Tell your friends and family about the faker, so they’ll have their guards up. In your settings, you can block requests from people with whom you have no mutual friends. It’s a good idea to keep your friends from appearing on your profile, so potential hackers won’t have access to anyone on your list.

According to Facebook’s Community Standards guidelines, the company disables any fake profile it finds and wipes all of its information from public view, yet doesn’t completely delete the account. The profile sits in a server, technically active but not really, effectively preventing the username from being taken by anyone ever again. (This can be a real problem for the victims of a hacked account, since they’ll lose access to all of their photos, status updates, and information. Facebook doesn’t send a copy of the data in this situation, and victims must formally request permission from the company to open a new account.)

Despite all this, my faker friends have no plans to give up their hoaxes anytime soon. They say they know they’re breaking the rules, and that they could lose their fake profiles at any moment. Still, they don’t seem to have any qualms about what they’re up to. Though it’s in Facebook’s best interest to minimize the presence of spammers and hackers, the company isn’t acting entirely out of goodwill here. Mark Zuckerberg has long been public on his stance that there shouldn’t be a distinction between our personal and private lives—but the more you share with more people, the more Facebook can monetize the information you put out there.

One profile, one you: To some, that might sound zen; to others, it’s even creepier than a cat who likes your status update. 

Illustration by Brian Hurst

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Friend or Foe? Dissecting Facebook’s Fakers