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How to Avoid Getting Scammed by Influencers With Fake Followings This growing industry has attracted more and more fraudulent actors posing as legitimate taste-makers.

By Eugene Tsaplin Edited by Bill Schulz

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Social media influencers are essential components of information networks since they leverage their reputation within a specific niche to inform their followers while providing trusted information regarding breaking events, emerging trends and new products. According to Insider Intelligence's Influencer Marketing, this market will exceed $15 billion by 2022.

However, the industry has attracted nefarious actors that pose as legitimate experts. In 2020, according to PRWeek, at least half (55%) of Instagram's influencers engaged in fraudulent activities. while a new study by HypeAuditor revealed that 45% of the site's accounts are fake.

The increased uptake of fake influencers stems from the fact that top brands prefer working with influencers to generate a consistent stream of customers to new services. Per data released by Matter Communications, the industry hinges on the undeniable fact that 61% of customers are more likely to trust an influencer's recommendations compared to just 38% who would rather trust branded social media information.

Couple that with a new survey conducted by California Figs which found that a third of those polled posted online food pics that they didn't actually consume, (with 19% confessing they'd never intended to eat what they ordered in the first place) and know that all social media platforms are rife with deception.

Half of all brands can't distinguish between legit and fake influencers

Brands and social media taste-makers have a quid pro quo arrangement: Influencers drive new customers to a brand in exchange for financial gains. Unfortunately, with the industry poised to replace traditional advertising, numerous social media users seek to tap the opportunities by engaging in shady influencer tactics.

One of the most questionable is buying fake followers where, according to HypeAuditor's State of Influencer Marketing 2021 report, 55% and 45% of Instagram followers are real users and inactive users or bots, respectively. Therefore, brands that depend on influencer partnerships market their products face an uphill task in identifying inauthentic engagements and fake social media followers.

There has been a phenomenal surge in fake followers across various platforms which influencer profiles purchase in order to dupe unsuspecting brands into believing they have a large following. Key influencer marketing statistics for 2021 published by Micro Biz Mag reveal that the Google search query "buy Instagram followers" averages 21,500 hits every month, followed by "buy Instagram likes", which averages 8,400 searches.

Consider the following statistics that illustrate why you should worry about fake influencers.

  1. Almost 40% of all social media influencers have inflated followings, according to Invesp.
  2. An average of 55.39% of influencers engaged in fraudulent activities, according to data shared by Statista Research Department.
  3. According to Digiday's cheat sheet on what you need to know about influencer fraud, at least 50% of influencer engagements are fake.

How can you tell when an influencer cheats?

A new study by Procter & Gamble Co. revealed that one company that was a victim of influencer fraud spent $600,000 on fake influencers, only to later realize that solely fake followers engaged with the influencer's posts.

While the loss may not destroy established brands, it is a large amount of money that can disrupt the business operations of smaller enterprises. Therefore, you can tell fake influencers from legitimate ones by understanding how they cheat and how you can avoid them.

Related: 3 Ways Direct-to-Consumer Brands Can Leverage Media Coverage

Sudden spikes in followers

A sudden surge in engagement is typically a sure sign that an influencer is involved in fraudulent activities and usually indicates the acquisition of bot accounts. An influencer may have paid fake social media users to engage with their posts by liking, commenting on, and sharing them. Most verified influencers build a huge following consistently over a given period and may experience infrequent deviations.

An increased follower count due to authentic viral content rises gradually even after the initial spike. A fake influencer will most likely record a significant drop in followers since they buy bot accounts instead of building a loyal following.

Therefore, analyzing the follower count and engagement ratio is a good starting point to determine if the account is authentic before partnering with an influencer.

A poor quality audience

The term social media influencer was coined to describe a user that can manipulate the decisions of a large number of followers towards a particular brand, view, or political inclination. Therefore, the quality of an audience can help determine the authenticity of a particular influencer.

You will find that the audiences of most fake influencers are not varied. The same user profiles deploy similar engagement methods for every post made via the account. This means that the same so-called audience likes, comments on and shares every post without any variation. How common is it that only a certain audience will be the first to comment on and like every post?

Established influencers always attract a varied audience. Posts attract a larger number of users who have different opinions, praises and criticisms. Thus, if a fraudulent influencer generates comments and likes using bot accounts, there may be noticeable patterns that suggest the audience is also fake.

Related: 5 Ways AI Will Change the Digital Marketing Game in 2022

Fake post engagements

You can determine if the engagements are real by carefully analyzing the comments. Irrelevant comments that don't reflect the purpose of the post are a clear indication that they are false and only there to make it look real and engaging.

Fake engagements on a fraudulent influencer account may be generic or emoji-only, such that anyone can use them on any post regardless of the brand. Some generic engagements may include comments like "great image", "awesome product", etc.

Suspicious ratios

A fake influencer may buy hundreds of thousands of fake followers but record an unusually low interaction or engagement rate. As such, only a few of the bought followers may be willing to engage with a post. You may find an identical and consistent engagement rate even for those who engage with the posts.

The fake followers may not be willing to spend time giving an honest opinion, but rather apply the same engagement technique and move on to the next post. As a result, some fake influencers may achieve high rates of engagements but be low-quality.

Nevertheless, understanding an influencer's engagement ratio is insufficient to determine if the influencer is authentic or fake. You need to have an unmatched understanding of your brand's industry benchmarks so that you can effectively compare them with engagement ratios.

It is also essential to appreciate that lower engagement rates than expected should not be a basis for automatically regarding an influencer as fake. In particular, you should focus more greatly on the engagement quality for the telltale signs of fraudulent accounts.

Related: 5 trends we will see in Influencer Marketing by 2022

Eugene Tsaplin

CEO of

Data analysis, machine learning, web scraping and customer development experience. DBA in Entrepreneurship, Senior lecturer at HSE.

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