Buying likes and rigging votes: Facebook's seedy underworld
One of the largest Facebook vote-scamming operations in the world sits in the Indian coastal town of Chennai, an affluent metropolis of 5 million people better known as "the Detroit of India" thanks to its booming auto economy.
There, the 54-person staff of 99 Enterprises coordinates a worldwide effort to help customers win glamorous online contests or increase their social influence with armies of phony followers and likes. They work in two shifts, with two managers watching over the day and night employees.
On Facebook, the 99 Enterprises profile page is just one storefront in a massive international marketplace of vote-buyers and like-hucksters. The world's biggest social network is also a popular hub for online voting fraud and like buying.
Don’t believe us? Just run a quick search through Facebook and you’ll find a parade of businesses all offering the same services. Here are the pages we found last week: Buy Votes Cheap, Vote Exchange, Buy Votes Here, Buy Votes for Online Voting Contest, Selling Honest Like and Votes, Buy Votes for Online Contests. These pages and many more litter the social network's dark crevices, waiting for contest-seekers with questionable ethics to flash some cash.
Siddharth Jain was just 20 years old in 2009 when he noticed the explosive popularity of social media and online contests. Like any good entrepreneur, Jain immediately dug out a niche for himself with a company, 99 Enterprises. For a fee, Jain would deliver votes for any online competition you can imagine, from Facebook contests (where you’re asked to like a page to enter) or generic sweepstakes that only require you to fill out a form, like this one from Time Out New York that promises the winner a six-day bicycle trip through France.
The services go well beyond the rigging of votes, however. You can boost your fans on your own Facebook profile, too—just tell Jain how many you need. Same goes for clicks, Twitter followers, upvotes on Reddit, or any other action on the Internet that requires a social media account and a mouse click; 99 Enterprises can deliver in droves.
In addition to its onsite staffers in India, the company employs a number of international freelancers. Sidney Bass, who said she works from the U.K, told us she works as “an affiliate." It's her job is to approach Facebook users who might benefit from the company's unique services.
Many customers have won big, Bass said: concert tickets, trips to hot vacation destinations, cash, modeling competitions, and even wedding giveaways.
Bass promotes contests on her Facebook wall.
“My job is just to find people in contests and bring them to the company,” she wrote to the Daily Dot. “If they are interested in buying votes—if I get a sale—I make my commission.”
Many of the company's other positions parallel those at any-mid-sized Web startup: graphic design or Web development, for instance. But a large portion of the workers spend their day either making fraudulent Facebook profiles or using those accounts to manually vote for customers. Bass said the company has over 10,000 fake profiles, and employees spend hours making new ones every day.
The vote-buying industry spreads well beyond the borders of India. In the Philippines, a group called Selling Honest Likes and Votes offers almost the exact same services. A person who identified only as a “customer representative” explained how the process works via a Facebook message. The customer simply sends them a link, the rep said. They'll test it out and let you know if the contest can be rigged.
A representative for Selling Honest LIkes and Votes explains the process.
With the help of special software, Selling Honest Likes and Votes is able to rapidly change IP addresses, voting multiple times for a single customer (an IP, or Internet Protocol, address refers to the unique numerical label assigned to a computer).
Other companies, such as 99 Enterprises or Buy Votes Cheap, split votes into two categories—IP and “regular” votes.
Buy Votes Cheap is based somewhere in Asia and employs 15 people, a representative told us, declining to go into more detail. The site claims to only offer “regular” votes—i.e., manually voting in contests for their customers.
“I can’t reveal much on how this works but lets just say we have tons of accounts to vote from,” the rep said.
These companies proudly flaunt their businesses on Facebook. They claim to be helping people win online contests, but how much would someone have to shell out to claim a prize?
Bass said the price of votes from 99 Enterprises depends on many factors: an IP address change vote costs more, for instance, but the base rate is from 25 cents to 40 cents per vote. Buy Votes Cheap said it will cost you anywhere from $60 to $80 for 1,000 votes.
We asked each company how much it would cost to rig a contest by YouTube series Epic Rap Battles of History. The sweepstakes required a Facebook user to like their page, then submit personal information through Facebook to win a trip to Los Angeles and an appearance on the show.
How much would say, 200 fake entries cost? Buy Votes Cheap had the lowest offering, at $10, followed by Selling Honest Likes and Votes at $25. Buy Votes for Online Voting Contests replied with the princely sum of $60.
You might consider buying votes a tad unethical. Doing so, however, is rarely forbidden by contest organizers. And voting companies are upfront about the risk of disqualification. Bass said that disqualifications do occur, especially with manual voting or if the companies running them are good at behind-the-scenes security.
Bass said she encourages customers to be straightforward with her and read the rules of a contest to see if buying votes is specifically mentioned as a violation of the competition. And she doesn’t see anything wrong with selling votes.
"We are just providing a service," Bass said, likening the scheme to a haircut in a salon: Some customers pay for personal grooming, some people pay for votes. “What’s wrong?”
In August 2012, Facebook revealed an embarrassing statistic in its filings to the Security and Exchange Commission: 8.7 percent or roughly 83 million of its profiles were fake.
Two years earlier, an online competition with a $1 million charity cash prize had been wrought with accusations of fraud. Many votes, it was soon discovered, came from Facebook profiles little online activity and bizarre names like “Gdfg Kcjbvkljvb” and “Sdfj Dfsjlfkddjf.”
Many of those accounts doubtlessly belong to these same vote-rigging syndicates. Bass revealed that 99 Enterprises previously had 100,000 fraudulent accounts until Facebook started asking for a mobile phone number to authenticate a profile. They still have many more, however, no doubt operating under names that aren't much different from “Gdfg Kcjbvkljvb.”
Indeed, on Wednesday, shortly after a Facebook representative refused to speak on the record for this story, the company shut down every page we had brought to their attention, including Buy Votes Cheap and Selling Honest Like and Votes.
We didn't tell them about 99 Enterprises, however. It's still open and waiting for your business.
Illustration by Jason Reed