Twitter is enormously successful, but this has meant that a whole community of people create and sell dummy Twitter accounts by the thousands, largely to scammers and spammers .
This is a problem for Twitter as they prohibit use of automation to create accounts and the selling of accounts.
Twitter is always looking for better ways to identify these dummy accounts before they are used for sending scams and spam messages.
A group of researchers approached Twitter asking for permission to purchase credentials from a variety of Twitter account merchants. They got their permission and spent $5,000 over ten months buying accounts from at least 27 different underground sellers.
This totalled some 121,000 Twitter accounts at prices from $10 to $200 per thousand.
When you crate a new Twitter account there are two barriers that should stop scammers but they don’t.
First is the Capcha –which is the picture containing numbers and you have to key in the numbers. Computers are very poor at doing these so it prevents an automatic system from making accounts. However, the scammer pay workshops in China, India or eastern Europe to solve the Capchas.
Second is the need for a valid email address but these can be created automatically on services such as Hotmail, so problem solved for the scammers.
The researchers bought a lot of Accounts from the merchants and identified key qualities that were consistently present. This then enabled the creation of profiles for each merchant.
Twitter then used those profiles to delete large numbers of dummy accounts that had been created.
As the merchants typically built up a bank of thousands of accounts before selling, they then hit problems as most of their accounts had become worthless. The 27 merchants concerned lost a lot of money and their reputations.
The project was a big success. However checks some months later showed that the merchants were changing their methods and the profiles no longer worked so well in identifying the dummy accounts.
It’s a constant battle for Twitter but they are fighting the good fight.