From politicians and actors to entrepreneurs and television personalities, a slew of famous figures came under fire almost exactly a year ago when a New York Times expose revealed that they had bought social media followers to boost the credibility of their online – and off-line – profiles. At the center of the digital scandal was Devumi, a West Palm Beach-based "social media marketing company,” in the business of taking information and imagery from real social media users’ accounts without their knowledge, creating fake accounts, and then selling those accounts to some high-profile figures.
The Times revealed in January 2018 that Devumi – which was founded by 27-year old German Calas – sold at least 3.5 million fake Twitter followers to its approximately 200,000 customers. In its extensive report, entitled, “Follower Factory,” publication revealed that everyone from Randy Bryce, the political hopeful, who was challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his seat in Wisconsin and Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to Kathy Ireland, the former model and entrepreneur; Hilary Rosen, a CNN contributor; and Martha Lane Fox, a British Parliament member and Twitter board member, had purchased fake followers from Devumi in order to gain social media leverage.
Sonja Morgan, a cast member on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” and former “American Idol” finalist, Clay Aiken, among others, were also pinpointed as using the service to boost their follower counts.
As noted by the BBC, “On social media, high follower accounts boost influence, which can impact public opinion, or bring advantages, such as job offers or sponsorship deals, to account holders,” and that is precisely why the now-former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced just hours after the release of the Times’ report that his office had opened an investigation into Devumi, one that was settled this week.
Attorney General of New York Letitia James announced on Thursday a “first-of-its-kind” settlement with the now-defunct Devumi, which was found to have brought in approximately $15 million in revenue in connection with its social media scheme.
While Mr. Calas must pay $50,000 to the state of New York to cover the costs of the state’s probe, the settlement, itself, does not impose a monetary penalty on Mr. Calas or Devumi. It does, however, immediately and permanently bar them from engaging in such fraudulent activity.
"Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people's identities to carry out fraud," James said 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."