Anytime you have a big, user-generated website, you have spam. Facebook is no exception, but unlike other networks, Facebook spam can be hard to spot. Unless someone is blatantly obvious, it’s fairly easy to:

  • Create a fake profile assuming the identity of an attractive person
  • Randomly befriend people – If, for example, you pretend to be a recent graduate from CU-Boulder, Facebook will start suggesting “friends” who graduated at the same time that you say you did.
  • Casually suggest links, comment on walls, send messages, etc. to try and generate revenue, leads, etc.

If this is done carefully and infrequently, it would be almost impossible to detect. While the pay-off for this practice is minimal – Facebook limits users to 1,000 friends – it’s not as if there’s no money to be made here. What’s more, this practice could influence Facebook search results (more on that below)

So, what I’m saying is that Facebook has a spam problem, and that will continue until they force users to verify their true identity. The funny news story below (taken from Time online) illustrates just how easy it is for people to pretend to be someone they’re not on Facebook.

A woman named Angela Voelkert pretended to be a 17-year-old girl to draw out incriminating evidence from her ex-husband via Facebook by creating a fake account for 17-year-old “Jessica Studebaker,” complete with a trashily attractive photo, and friended her ex-husband. Then, in an attempt to gain information she could use against him in a custody battle, she chatted him up.

The trap has been set – Angela is pretending to be a young, attractive female to trick her ex-husband. How is this legal? What is Facebook’s responsibility here?

Fortunately, Angela’s attempt backfired:

…[Voelkert’s Ex-Husband] told “Jessica” that “you should find someone at your school…that would “take care of” Angela. Based on the exchanges, the FBI arrested 38-year-old David Voelkert (but he had a surprise for them). Suspecting it was Angela all along, David Voelkert had gotten a notarized affidavit shortly after “Jessica” came online. In it, he said that he believed this was not a real person but rather his ex-wife or someone she knows. He said he was engaging with this person and lying in order to gain proof that his ex-wife was tampering with his personal life, proof he would then use himself in court…his case was dismissed.

This situation is a graphic illustration of a major problem with Facebook. Because Facebook does not authenticate  user profiles, we’re all susceptible to interacting with fake accounts.

How many of your Facebook friends, for example, would grant “friend status” to an attractive impostor? If three or four of them made that mistake, you might be duped as well. Facebook encourages us to make friends with friends of friends – it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where you make friends with someone you don’t actually know in real life.

Facebook Spam and Facebook Search

Facebook search is in it’s infancy, so it’s hard to say if creating spam profiles will work in the long term. However, in the short term, spam profiles can influence results. Here’s how:

  1. Facebook search results are organized first by personal connections. If, for example, you search for the Victoria’s Secret fan page – but you’re also have a friend named Victoria – your friend will show up in the results. If you have a fake friend named Victoria, well…you get the idea.
  2. Facebook search results are organized by ‘likes.’ If you’ve liked a product or service, and then you search Facebook for a keyword related to that product or service, your “like” will appear at the top of the results. If a fake friend suggests you like a specific page…
  3. Facebook search results are also organized by your friend’s connections and likes. If you have a friend who liked a product or service – or if more than one of your friends likes a product – that product is more likely to appear first overall.

NOTE: There’s a lot of info out there on Facebook search, but this article about Facebook SEO is a good starting point. This post lists off all the Facebook search ranking factors in more detail.

Based on these search criteria, it’s easy to see how a few dozen fake Facebook profiles concentrated in a specific geographic area could generate revenue. If, for example, I controlled 20 Facebook profiles of people who all claimed to live in Denver, and if I managed to build up a network of 1,000 Denver friends, I could influence the Facebook search results of as many as 20k+ people here in Denver. I could use these fake profiles to help local business pages rank highly on Facebook search pretty easily, in fact.

You may be saying “OK fine, but how cost effective is it to create 20 fake Facebook profiles and then manage them?” The answer? I can hire an overseas virtual assistant to manage the profiles for me. If they work 8 hours a day, and they manage each profile for 5 minutes a day, that’s 96 profiles per day. The cost for something like this is $500-$1,000 a month, depending on how sophisticated you need your assistant to be. 96 profiles with 1,000 friends each = access to 96,000 people – and their search results – for 5-10 cents per person per month.

Think I could find a way to make money at those numbers? You bet. I’d guess there are people doing it right now, in fact, and I’d also guess that there is some software you can use to automate this process and cut costs even further.

Bottom Line: Facebook needs to start verifying users as real people. It’s the right thing to do.