New York Attorney General Letitia James, seen here during the 2018 campaign season.
Photo: Kevin Hagen (AP)

The New York Attorney General’s office has announced a settlement with Devumi LLC, a social media-marketing firm whose tactics were exposed by the New York Times last year, in what the office wrote is “the first finding by a law enforcement agency that selling fake social media engagement and using stolen identities to engage in online activity is illegal.”

The Times expose detailed how numerous celebrities—including actor John Leguizamo, football commentator Ray Lewis, and model-turned-entrepreneur Kathy Ireland, as well as hordes of dubious “influencers”—had bought followers and engagement on social media and content platforms from Devumi, a firm that ran a massive network of bots and sock-puppet accounts. Devumi ran those accounts to exaggerate clients’ reach and rack up fake likes and views on sites like Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Pinterest.

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The fact that some individuals whose prestige and fortunes rely on a perception of widespread popularity might choose to puff up their online profiles is blindingly obvious—but the Times article detailed the unsavory gristle of Devumi’s tactics, including sometimes stealing names and photos from real people for use in its bot and sock-puppet network. The fake accounts also served as fuel for sketchy for-profit promotional campaigns and endorsement deals, and even to astroturf politicians and government officials, the Times wrote.

According to CNN, the settlement says that “Devumi LLC and other companies owned by German Calas, Jr.—including DisruptX Inc., Social Bull Inc. and Bytion Inc.” made approximately $15 million using these deceptive tactics:

For instance, the company sold Twitter followers in packages of up to 500,000 for $3,997 and likes and shares in packages costing up to $228 per year. YouTube subscribers were sold in packages of 100 for $29 and likes on the video-sharing service were sold in packages starting at $30 for 250 likes.

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The NY Attorney General’s statement says that Devumi LLC and other companies’ use of “bot and sock-puppet accounts [that] falsely pretended to express the genuine positive opinions of real people,” and specifically those that “copied real people’s social media profiles without consent,” constituted a deceptive business practice. It also slammed the companies for selling “endorsements from social media influencers without disclosing that the influencers had been paid for their recommendations,” as well as deceiving some customers who had believed they were purchasing real engagement and the platforms themselves.

These determinations were made via existing New York law. According to the Times, investigators concluded that deceiving the public via bot and sock-puppet networks, as well as selling fake engagement as real to clients, violates state laws against fraud and false advertising. It also found that selling fake accounts with “identifying details stolen from real people” violates a separate state statute prohibiting identity theft “with an intent to obtain a benefit or defraud another person.”

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CNN wrote that settlement does not require Calas to admit wrongdoing, but he will have to pay New York state $50,000 to cover the costs of the investigation:

Calas submitted to the attorney general’s office last week a financial statement “documenting and certifying” his “reduced financial circumstances under penalty of perjury.”

Calas could not be reached for comment. His lawyer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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The settlement makes no determinations about whether Devumi’s clients violated any laws by doing business with the firm, CNN added.

“Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people’s identities to carry out fraud,” New York Attorney General Letitia James wrote in the statement. “As people and companies like Devumi continue to make a quick buck by lying to honest Americans, my office will continue to find and stop anyone who sells online deception. With this settlement, we are sending a clear message that anyone profiting off of deception and impersonation is breaking the law and will be held accountable.”

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Gizmodo has reached out to the New York Attorney General’s office for comment on this story, and we’ll update if we hear back.

[CNN/New York Times]

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