In the world of cyber fraud, a fake fan on Instagram can be worth five times more than a stolen credit card number.
As social media has become increasingly influential in shaping reputations, hackers have used their computer skills to create and sell false endorsements - such as "likes" and "followers" - that purport to come from users of Facebook , its photo-sharing app Instagram, Twitter, Google's YouTube, LinkedIn and other popular websites.
In the latest twist, a computer virus widely used to steal credit card data, known as Zeus, has been modified to create bogus Instagram "likes" that can be used to generate buzz for a company or individual, according to cyber experts at RSA, the security division of EMC Corp.
These fake "likes" are sold in batches of 1,000 on Internet hacker forums, where cyber criminals also flog credit card numbers and other information stolen from PCs. According to RSA, 1,000 Instagram "followers" can be bought for $15 and 1,000 Instagram "likes" go for $30, whereas 1,000 credit card numbers cost as little as $6.
It may seem odd that fake social media accounts would be worth more than real credit card numbers, but online marketing experts say some people are willing to spend heavily to make a splash on the Internet, seeking buzz for its own sake or for a business purpose, such as making a new product seem popular.
"People perceive importance on what is trending," said Victor Pan, a senior data analyst with WordStream, which advises companies on online marketing. "It is the bandwagon effect."
Facebook, which has nearly 1.2 billion users, said it is in the process of beefing up security on Instagram, which it bought last year for $1 billion. Instagram, which has about 130 million active users, will have the same security measures that Facebook uses, said spokesman Michael Kirkland.
He encouraged users to report suspicious activity through links on Facebook sites and apps.
"We work hard to limit spam on our service and prohibit the creation of accounts through unauthorized or automated means," Kirkland said.
KNOWING WHEN TO STOP
The modified Zeus virus is the first piece of malicious software uncovered