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Yesterday, I was messing around with some online tools to identify social media profiles and came across Followerwonk, a tool created by the folks over at Moz to analyze Twitter followers. They have a tool where you can search Twitter bios by their “real name” or by keywords in the bio.

It’s quite a handy tool, and it turned out to be fruitful for a case that I was working on because I found a few Twitter profiles for a person I was looking into.

As I often like to do, I like to test out these tools on myself. So I tested it out on my own name and found my profile (@b_willingham), but to my surprise, I found a second profile for Brian Willingham with my old profile photos and my personal bio. This profile had 64 tweets and 12 followers. But as I looked into the profile more carefully, I saw that the spelling of the handle was off by a letter (@b_willingahm instead of @b_willingham), and the location is listed as Pico Rivera, California. The other Brian Willingham retweeted on topics ranging from Brexit to Tommy Hilfiger, Donald Trump and English soccer.

I probably should have been a bit more freaked out, but I was more amused by all of this.

What was this person trying to accomplish? Why would anyone want to impersonate me on Twitter? Whom did I piss off to deserve this?

I’m not really sure, to be honest. This could have been as mundane as someone just playing a joke or had the much more nefarious motive of trying to steal my identify.

But I was determined to try to figure it out.

What to do first

Report it immediately.  TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and Instagram all have ways of reporting fake profiles.

In my case, I reported the account to Twitter late Monday, January 29, 2018; as of the date of the posting of this article, the account had not been taken down. [Update: As of Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at 9:51 AM, the account has been suspended.]

Analyze the damage

At this stage, I would conduct a thorough analysis to see what the person has done.

Who have they communicated with? Have they tried impersonating you in communicating with others?

In conducting a deep dive on the posts, I see that it’s probably just a spam account, a rampant problem in social media, especially on Twitter, where an estimated 48 million accounts are reportedly designed to simulate real people.

Out of 11 followers, only four were not spam accounts. Of the four non-spam followers, three were confirmed to be fake (created one letter off from the real user, just as mine was). All three fakes had the same modus operandi – mostly retweets, and many came from the same people (Mark Beech, Young Hollywood, Expert April Masini). Their original tweets all came in clusters from the same time period, none of which had any likes, comments or retweets.

From what I saw, there really was nothing that could potentially hurt my reputation.

What next?

This might surprise you, but absolutely nothing.

Here’s the thing. As a person who mines information on social media for a living, I know that I could spend dozens of hours trying to track this person down, but at the end of the day, without any real harm committed here, what’s the point?

“Aren’t you curious?” you might be thinking. Sure, but I have bigger fish to fry.

Besides, I know that given the information provided, the likelihood of tracking down this person is pretty small.

With a little know-how, anyone can set up a fake profile in a just a few minutes that will be almost impossible to trace. And although Twitter may have some information that will help track this person down, like an IP address, cell phone number, email address or physical address, they are not going to give that out without some type of court order. And without any real harm done, no court is going to do anything here.

The best I could have hoped for is some sort of slip-up on Twitter, but no such luck here.

Prevent this in the future

In about four minutes, you can set up a fake Twitter account, anonymous Instagram account or a private Facebook account. There has been some talk about social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter confirming that there is a real person behind every account. In reality, however, that will probably never happen.

At this point, there really is no way of preventing someone from impersonating you online (that sentence is kind of scary). About the best you can do is to monitor the web for anything that might have your name.

You can either manually do this by Googling your name every so often, or you can can set up an automated service like Google Alerts to notify you anytime your name comes up on the web. If you want a bit more advanced capabilities, Talkwalker is another service that offers notifications, but with more features, such as boolean operators.

Another thing to consider is doing a reverse image search on your profile photo every so often (there is no automated service for this feature that I know of). You can use either Google Image Search or Tineye to see whether your image is coming up on any other websites or social media sites. (Personally, I have had much more luck with Google Image Search.)

Final thoughts

Although my situation turned out to be pretty benign, I can imagine plenty of situations where this might be more serious. In such cases, you should contact an attorney, reputation manager or a professional for help.

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12 replies
  1. Ruben Roel
    Ruben Roel says:

    There are a few social media tools used for “customer service” for major brands that give you access to some scary data. Some are not currently being used for investigation purposes, but they help.

    Social Studio by Sales force is pretty awesome. Lithium and Soci are their competitors – they’re used by Marketers to identify a Social Media User and see where / how often / what they comment. If you do some research around Influential Marketing and the tools used to research the influencer, you’ll be surprised as what they find. They use it to identify Trolls… we can use it to identify social media patterns.

    There is also a new company that sprung up recently that uses a bunch of these tools – Skopenow.com – it just collects a bunch of public data and spits it out.

    Wolfram Alpha had a Facebook Analytics tool a while back. Now it requires you to give it permission, but at the time it gave you clusters of friends, what they did for a living, their hobbies, etc. It also showed you how often they posted, when they posted, what times they used the app, and so on. Try it out here: http://www.wolframalpha.com/facebook/

    There are a few tools developed for Marketing that can easily be turned into Investigative Tools – the same way you use Followerwonk. But they’re a bit expensive to gain access to them.

  2. Sue Hord
    Sue Hord says:

    Great article Brian as always. So have you updated your listing of public search databases with at least this new one that you have found? I use it quite often and have found a few for my state as well. Have looked for ones in Texas but Texas seems a bit like the wild west in there data no real central location for things.

  3. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Another great post. I worked a case where the subjects had purchased Twitter followers to increase their “heat.” Funny thing was the attorney working the case originally did not even know what Twitter was (2014) and when I showed the amount of fake followers it ended up in the complaint. Good stuff.

  4. Joe Alercia
    Joe Alercia says:

    Thanks for the Info, very informative. The information this group provides is extremely valuable to all investigators no matter how seasoned they are thank you diligentiagroup

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