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Are fake 'likes' and followers a new cybercrime or just spam?

Living near Silicon Valley as we do, we may get caught up in the latest electronic gadgets and lose track of the criminal side of the Internet. Cybercrime, however, is big business. Did you know that Internet scams, viruses and malware, such as the notorious “Zeus” virus, are effective enough that 1,000 stolen credit card numbers can be purchased for only $6 on a hacker forum?

That is the case, according to a recent story in Reuters. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that the Zeus virus is being used to take over computers for a curious new purpose: forcing infected computers to “like” and “follow” products and services on social media sites. But is this a new type of cybercrime, or just an irritating new form of spam?

Zeus first surfaced about five years ago, and it has been used to infect hundreds of millions of PCs worldwide, according to a senior cybersecurity researcher at Dell SecureWorks. When is downloaded, the infected computer can be controlled remotely from a central server and forced to undertake any of a number of actions, including downloading additional malware -- and logging into people’s Facebook or Instagram accounts and clicking those “like” and “follow” buttons, according to RSA, EMC Corp.’s Internet security division.

How profitable is selling phony social media endorsements? According to RSA, 1,000 Instagram followers cost $15 on hacker forums, as opposed to the above-mentioned $6 for the same number of stolen credit card numbers. A thousand Instagram “likes” costs $30.

Why would a legitimate business purchase bogus “likes” and “followers”? "People perceive importance on what is trending," explained an online marketing analyst to Reuters. "It is the bandwagon effect."

The article doesn’t spell out how much money an early bump in an Instagram trend might be worth to a company, but another online marketing specialist isn’t even certain that buying them is illegal. Despite the concerns raised by the use of the Zeus virus to implement the technique, that may not be unreasonable. The law is often far behind innovation, and it could be difficult to determine whether counterfeiting social media endorsements is actually a species of fraud or more like promoting ordinary-but-annoying marketing spam.

Selling the proceeds of criminal activity is illegal. But is buying sham Instagram or Facebook endorsements cybercrime?

Source: Reuters, "Virus targets the social network in new fraud twist," Jim Finkle, Aug. 16, 2013

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