NY Attorney General Declares Selling Fake Social Media Followers Is Illegal

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Apps of different social media networks are displayed on a smartphone on Jan. 11, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. 

NY Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday became the first to crack down on a company using bots and sock-puppet accounts designed to trick consumers.

Influencers, beware: The crackdown on fake followers has begun.

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday announced a settlement with a company that had been selling fake followers, likes and views on various social media platforms -- including Twitter and YouTube.

Devumi sold fake followers and likes through both computer-operated bots and from sock-puppet accounts, which is when an actual human impersonates many other people. According to the announcement, Devumi used phony accounts that copied real users' pictures and profiles without their knowledge or consent.

This marks the first time a law enforcement agency has declared it's illegal to sell such engagement and to use stolen identities to do it.

"Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people's identities to carry out fraud," said James in a statement. "As people and companies like Devumi continue to make a quick buck by lying to honest Americans, my office will continue to find and stop anyone who sells online deception. With this settlement, we are sending a clear message that anyone profiting off of deception and impersonation is breaking the law and will be held accountable."

Devumi had also been selling endorsements from social media influencers without disclosing they had been paid, which runs afoul of Federal Trade Commission rules. 

Frankfurt Kurnit managing partner and advertising law expert Jeffrey Greenbaum says this sends a clear warning to companies and individuals who monetize social media.

"Brands and influencers that use agencies to help boost their social media engagement can no longer turn a blind eye to where their new likes and followers are coming from," he says. "They are going to need to ensure that their likes and followers are real. … This settlement stakes out a groundbreaking position — that 'likes' and 'follows' are actual endorsements." 

This story was originally published on The Hollywood Reporter.