Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online. Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers.

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The real Jessica Rychly is a Minnesota teenager with a broad smile and wavy hair. She likes reading and the rapper Post Malone. When she goes on Facebook or Twitter, she sometimes muses about being bored or trades jokes with friends.

But on Twitter, there is a version of Jessica that none of her friends or family would recognize. While the two Jessicas share a name, photograph and whimsical bio, the other Jessica promoted accounts hawking Canadian real-estate investments, cryptocurrency and a radio station in Ghana. The fake Jessica followed or retweeted accounts using Arabic and Indonesian, languages the real Jessica does not speak. While she was a 17-year-old high-school senior, her fake counterpart frequently promoted pornography.

All these accounts belong to customers of an obscure U.S. company named Devumi that has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social-media fraud. Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online. Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers, a New York Times investigation found.

N.Y. attorney general investigates Devumi

The New York state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, on Saturday opened an investigation into the company that sold millions of fake followers on social-media platforms, some of them copying real users’ personal information. The company, Devumi, and its sale of automated followers to a swath of celebrities, sports stars, journalists and politicians, was detailed in a New York Times article published Saturday. While based in Florida, Devumi claims on its website to be based in New York City. At least 55,000 of its “bot” accounts used names, pictures, hometowns and other details taken from people on Twitter. The real users hailed from every U.S. state, including New York, and dozens of countries, a Times analysis found.

“Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law,” Schneiderman wrote on Twitter. “We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities.”

The New York Times

“I don’t want my picture connected to the account, nor my name,” Rychly, now 19, said. “I can’t believe that someone would even pay for it. It is just horrible.”

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These accounts are counterfeit coins in the booming economy of online influence, reaching into virtually any industry where a mass audience — or the illusion of it — can be monetized. Fake accounts infest social-media networks. By some calculations, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.

In November, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social-media platform. These fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations. Yet their creation and sale fall into a legal gray zone.

“The continued viability of fraudulent accounts and interactions on social-media platforms — and the professionalization of these fraudulent services — is an indication that there’s still much work to do,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating the spread of fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

Followers at pennies apiece

Despite rising criticism of social-media companies and growing scrutiny by elected officials, the trade in fake followers has remained largely opaque. While Twitter and other platforms prohibit buying followers, Devumi and dozens of other sites openly sell them. And social-media companies, whose market value is closely tied to the number of people using their services, make their own rules about detecting and eliminating fake accounts.

Devumi’s founder, German Calas, denied that his company sold fake followers and said he knew nothing about social identities stolen from real users. “The allegations are false, and we do not have knowledge of any such activity,” Calas said in an email exchange in November.

The New York Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality-television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public-relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. For just pennies each, Devumi offers Twitter followers views on YouTube; plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site; and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.

Actor John Leguizamo has Devumi followers. So do Michael Dell, the computer billionaire, and Ray Lewis, the football commentator and former Ravens linebacker. Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model who today presides over a half-billion-dollar licensing empire, has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers. Even Twitter board member Martha Lane Fox has some.

At a time Facebook, Twitter and Google are dealing with an epidemic of political manipulation and fake news, Devumi’s fake followers also serve as phantom foot soldiers in political battles online. Devumi’s customers include both avid supporters and fervent critics of President Donald Trump, and both liberal cable pundits and a reporter at the “alt-right” bastion Breitbart. Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., bought Devumi followers when he was a blogger and labor activist, as did Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, when she was trying to gain traction as an actress.

Some of Devumi’s customers

Hilary Rosen, a political commentator and CNN contributor, paid for more than 500,000 Twitter followers. Many of those accounts have since vanished.

James Cracknell is a rowing world champion and Olympic gold medalist for Britain who made a series of Devumi purchases over 2016. He expressed regret, saying, “I don’t want anybody following me who is not interested in me.”

Aaron Klein, a radio talk-show host and the Jerusalem bureau chief for Breitbart News, bought at least 35,000 followers from Devumi, according to records.

Martha Lane Fox, a businesswoman and member of Britain’s House of Lords, blamed a rogue employee for at least seven Devumi purchases made using Lane Fox’s email address. The biggest buy — 25,000 followers — was made days after Lane Fox became a Twitter board member in April 2016.

The New York Times

Kristin Binns, a Twitter spokeswoman, said the company did not typically suspend users suspected of buying bots, in part because it is difficult for the business to know who is responsible for any given purchase. Twitter would not say whether a sample of fake accounts provided by The Times — each based on a real user — violated the company’s policies against impersonation.

“We continue to fight hard to tackle any malicious automation on our platform as well as false or spam accounts,” Binns said.

“It’s fraud”

To better understand Devumi’s business, The New York Times became a customer. In April, The Times set up a test account on Twitter and paid Devumi $225 for 25,000 followers. The first 10,000 or so looked like real people. They had pictures and full names, hometowns and often authentic-seeming biographies. One account looked like that of Rychly, the young Minnesota woman.

But on closer inspection, some of the details seemed off. The account names had extra letters or underscores, or easy-to-miss substitutions.

The next 15,000 followers were more obviously suspect: no profile pictures, and jumbles of letters, numbers and word fragments instead of names.

Company records revealed much of what Devumi and its customers prefer to conceal.

Most of Devumi’s best-known buyers are selling products, services or themselves on social media. In interviews, their explanations varied. They bought followers because they were curious about how it worked, or felt pressure to generate high follower counts for themselves or their customers.

While some said they believed Devumi was supplying real potential fans or customers, others acknowledged that they knew or suspected they were getting fake accounts. Several said they regretted their purchases.

“It’s fraud,” said James Cracknell, a British rower and Olympic gold medalist who bought 50,000 followers from Devumi. “People who judge by how many likes or how many followers, it’s not a healthy thing.”

Ireland has more than 1 million followers on Twitter, which she often uses to promote companies with whom she has endorsement deals. Wisconsin-based American Family Insurance, for example, said the former model was one of its most influential Twitter “brand ambassadors,” celebrities who are paid to help promote products.

But last January, Ireland had only about 160,000 followers. The next month, an employee at the branding agency she owns, Sterling/Winters, spent about $2,000 for 300,000 more followers, according to Devumi records. The employee later made more purchases, he acknowledged in an interview. Much of Ireland’s Twitter following appears to consist of bots, an analysis found.

A spokeswoman said the employee had acted without Ireland’s authorization and had been suspended after The Times asked about the purchases. “I’m sure he thought he was fulfilling his duties, but it’s not something he should have done,” said the spokeswoman, Rona Menashe.

Similarly, Lane Fox, a British e-commerce pioneer, member of Parliament and Twitter board member, blamed a “rogue employee” for a series of follower purchases spanning more than a year. She declined to name the person.

Several Devumi customers or their representatives contacted declined to comment, among them Leguizamo, whose followers were bought by an associate. Many more did not respond to repeated efforts to contact them.

A few denied making Devumi purchases. They include Ashley Knight, Ray Lewis’ personal assistant, whose email address was listed on an order for 250,000 followers, and Eric Kaplan, a Trump friend and motivational speaker whose personal email address was associated with eight orders. A Twitter account belonging to Paul Hollywood, the celebrity baker, was deleted after The Times emailed him with questions. Hollywood then sent a reply: “Account does not exist.”

Several Devumi customers acknowledged that they bought bots because their careers had come to depend, in part, on the appearance of social-media influence. “No one will take you seriously if you don’t have a noteworthy presence,” said Jason Schenker, an economist who specializes in economic forecasting and has purchased at least 260,000 followers.

More than 100 self-described influencers — whose market value is even more directly linked to their follower counts on social media — have purchased Twitter followers from Devumi.

At least five Devumi influencer customers are also contractors for HelloSociety, an influencer agency owned by The New York Times Co. (A Times spokeswoman said the company sought to verify that the audience of each contractor was legitimate and would not do business with anyone who violated that standard.) Lucas Peterson, a freelance journalist who writes a travel column for The New York Times, also bought followers from Devumi.

Influencers need not be well known to rake in endorsement money. According to a recent profile in the British tabloid The Sun, two young siblings, Arabella and Jaadin Daho, earn a combined $100,000 a year as influencers, working with brands such as Amazon, Disney, Louis Vuitton and Nintendo. Arabella, 14, tweets under the name Amazing Arabella.

But her Twitter account — and her brother’s — are boosted by thousands of retweets purchased by their mother and manager, Shadia Daho, according to Devumi records. Daho did not respond to repeated attempts to reach her by email and through a public-relations firm.

$20,000 for a tweet

Last year, 3 billion people logged on to social media networks like Facebook, WhatsApp and China’s Sina Weibo. The world’s collective yearning for connection has not only reshaped the Fortune 500 and upended the advertising industry but also created a new status marker: the number of people who follow, like or “friend” you. For some entertainers and entrepreneurs, this virtual status is a real-world currency. Follower counts on social networks help determine who will hire them, how much they are paid for bookings or endorsements, even how potential customers evaluate their businesses or products.

High follower counts are also critical for influencers, a budding market of amateur tastemakers and YouTube stars where advertisers now lavish billions of dollars a year on sponsorship deals. The more people influencers reach, the more money they make. According to data collected by Captiv8, a company that connects influencers to brands, an influencer with 100,000 followers might earn an average $2,000 for a promotional tweet, while an influencer with 1 million followers might earn $20,000.

Genuine fame often translates into genuine social-media influence, as fans follow and like their favorite movie stars, celebrity chefs and models. But shortcuts are also available: On sites like Social Envy and DIYLikes.com, it takes little more than a credit-card number to buy a huge following on almost any social-media platform. Most of these sites offer what they describe as “active” or “organic” followers, never quite stating whether real people are behind them. Once purchased, the followers can be a powerful tool.

“You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, a company that makes search engine optimization software. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”

In some cases, Devumi transformed a single real Twitter user into hundreds of different bots, each a minute variation on the original.

These fake accounts borrowed social identities from Twitter users in every state and dozens of countries, from adults and minors alike, from highly active users and those who hadn’t logged in to their accounts for months or years.

Sam Dodd, a college student and aspiring filmmaker, set up his Twitter account as a high-school sophomore in Maryland. Before he even graduated, his Twitter details were copied onto a bot account.

The fake account remained dormant until last year, when it suddenly began retweeting Devumi customers continuously. This summer, the fake Dodd promoted various pornographic accounts and a link to a gambling website.

Salle Ingle, 40, an engineer who lives in Colorado, said she worried that a potential employer would come across the fake version of her while vetting her social-media accounts. “I’ve been applying for new jobs, and I’m really grateful that no one saw this account and thought it was me,” Ingle said. Once contacted by The Times, Ingle reported the account to Twitter, which deactivated it.

New York? Nope. MIT? Nope.

After emailing Calas last year, a New York Times reporter visited Devumi’s Manhattan address, listed on its website. The building has dozens of tenants, but Devumi and its parent company, Bytion, do not appear to be among them. A spokesman for the building’s owner said neither Devumi nor Bytion had ever rented space there.

Like the followers Devumi sold, the office was an illusion.

In real life, Devumi is based in a small office suite above a Mexican restaurant in West Palm Beach, Florida, overlooking an alley crowded with garbage bins and parked cars. Calas lives a short commute away, in a penthouse apartment.

On his LinkedIn profile, Calas, 27, who grew up in South Florida, is described as a “serial entrepreneur,” with a long record in the tech business and an advanced degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Calas’ persona, too, is a mixture of fact and fantasy. The school has no record of his attendance, but he did earn an associate degree at Palm Beach State College.

According to former employees interviewed, turnover was high at Devumi, and Calas kept his operation tightly compartmentalized. Employees sometimes had little idea what their colleagues were doing, even if they were working on the same project.

The former employees asked for anonymity because of fear of lawsuits or because they were subject to nondisclosure agreements with Calas’ companies. But their comments are echoed in reviews on Glassdoor, where some former employees said Calas was uncommunicative and demanded that they install monitoring software on their personal devices.

Last month, Calas asked for examples of bots The New York Times found that copied real users. After receiving the names of 10 accounts, Calas, who had agreed to an interview, asked for more time to analyze them. Then he stopped responding to emails.

Binns, the Twitter spokeswoman, said the company did not proactively review accounts to see if they were impersonating other users. Instead, the company’s efforts are focused on identifying and suspending accounts that violate Twitter’s spam policies.

All of the sample accounts provided by The New York Times violated Twitter’s anti-spam policies and were shut down, Binns said. “We take the action of suspending an account from the platform very seriously,” she said. “At the same time, we want to aggressively fight spam on the platform.”

The company also suspended Devumi’s account Saturday after the Times article was published online.

In January, after almost two years of promoting hundreds of Devumi customers, the fake Jessica Rychly account was finally flagged by Twitter’s security algorithms. It was recently suspended.

But the real Rychly may soon leave Twitter for good.

“I am probably just going to delete my Twitter account,” she said.