How brands can block bad actors when social media companies won’t

Ben Wellman, brand program manager at OpSec Security, explains how businesses can protect both their brand and customers from the threat of bad actors online.

social media apps on a smartphone.

Social media has many benefits, from connecting dispersed friends and families to facilitating stronger bonds between consumers and their favourite brands.

However, social media can occasionally have its downsides too. Bad actors have been active on social media since its inception. These are accounts that impersonate legitimate businesses or sales channels to deceive consumers and defraud established and trusted brands.

Typically, a bad actor will set up an account posing as a brand, retailer or official sales channel. They will use ads and offers to tempt unsuspecting consumers away from the social media platform and onto a fraudulent website. Consumers can be easily deceived by bad actors because the fake accounts and fraudulent websites they create are usually professional in appearance, using text and imagery that leads consumers to believe they are official brand channels.

Fake it til you make it

Unfortunately, it’s surprisingly easy for bad actors to add legitimacy to fake accounts by acquiring thousands of likes, comments and followers. A recent report from the NATO Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence (StratCom) details how researchers were able to acquire 3,520 comments, 25,750 likes, 20,000 views, and 5,100 followers across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube for just €300 (approximately £270).

While social media companies are adamant that they are tackling the issue, the StratCom report suggests otherwise. During their investigation, researchers uncovered 19,000 inauthentic accounts that were used for manipulation purposes across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. One month after the discovery, 80% of those accounts were still active. The researchers then reported a sample selection of the fake accounts to the platforms, yet three weeks later, 95% of the reported accounts remained active.

The longer the process takes to remove bad actors, the more customers will be misled into believing they’re making legitimate purchases with genuine brands through trusted sales channels.

Exploitation opportunities in surging online sales

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the temporary closure of many bricks-and-mortar stores – as well as a possible reluctance to visit stores once they are open – consumers are buying more online. In July 2020, online sales were 55% higher than July 2019. This surge in online browsing and selling activity is providing bad actors with increased opportunities to exploit consumers and damage brands.

The latest OpSec research reveals just how badly this shift in online behaviour is being exploited by bad actors with over half (51%) of consumers noticing an increase in phishing activity. As a result, many consumers now feel less confident than they did in 2019 about purchasing via apps (53% from 60%), social media adverts (31% to 26%) and online market places (58% to 55%).

There are various reasons why it’s easy for bad actors to exploit social media platforms in this way. It costs nothing to set up any number of accounts or create posts and this can be done with very little technical know-how. What’s more, there is little to no verification of identity or authenticity required across the social platforms. As social media companies expand the range of services they provide, some are building in e-commerce functionality which is helping to enable bad actors and increase fraudulent activity.

As the likes of Facebook and Instagram lead the way in the development of social e-commerce, the platforms have been slow to automate and enforce measures that protect social media users and brands alike. While better measures need to be put in place, the reality is that no single entity can police the issue given the volume of bad actors operating and the ease at which they can establish a presence on these platforms.

Where does the responsibility lie?

Part of responsibility lies with social media users who need to approach offers and promotions on these platforms with caution. Deals that seem too good to be true may be just that. This can be difficult given that new brands often grow through their social media presence, so it may be more difficult for users to authenticate their presence. But when it comes to established brands, social media users should weight up the risk against purchasing through a trusted retailer or directly from the brand.

What’s more, consumers shopping via social media channels shouldn’t expect the usual duty of care that retailers apply through their own official channels. If a product or offer advertised on social media – and the channel through which the transaction takes place – really does seem legitimate, consumers should use resources from the official brand’s website to validate it.

Naturally businesses want to avoid their brands being misused on social media but they also have a responsibility to protect consumers from being duped by bad actors impersonating their brand. To avoid this, brands need to establish strong partner guidelines for acceptable use of their intellectual property (IP) and ensure consistency in the application of those guidelines.

Brands must also do what they can to ensure the market has a strong awareness of their official channels and keep an up-to-date channel partner list made easily accessible online. Sportswear brand Gymshark recently used its official social media and email channels to make its customers aware of rogue accounts posing as the brand. Gymshark used the communication to remind customers of its authorised channels and provided helpful tips for what customers could do should they experience a phishing attempt.

However, the most effective measure companies can take is to enlist the services of a brand protection partner that can deploy smart technology to strengthen their online defence strategy. The right partner will protect the brand’s revenue and reputation by employing the latest in geo-targeting, visible listing searches, and marketplace monitoring, meaning bad actors are taken down faster.

These brand protection partners can also work directly with social media companies to help police platforms, providing additional vetting of sellers and proactive monitoring of commonly counterfeited items. But before this happens, social media companies must first acknowledge that the growing issue presented by bad actors on social media. Only once this happens can social media companies truly give consumers and brands the protection they deserve.

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