Counterfeit Twitter empire in West Palm, no ifs, ands — just bots

4:06 p.m Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 Local
Illustration by Mark Buzek / The Palm Beach Post

It’s a well-known axiom that if you dig deep enough, every weird or shady story has a Florida angle.

And that has been the case when The New York Times investigated what appeared to be a Manhattan-based company that made millions of dollars by selling fake Twitter “followers” and “retweets” to celebrities desperate to appear more popular than they really are.

The offices for the company, Devumi, are listed on 7th Avenue, in Manhattan’s upscale Chelsea neighborhood.

But the newspaper found neither the company, nor its parent company, Bytion, in New York. And as for the company’s founder, German Calas, well, he listed his education as a physics degree from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, and a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But that didn’t check out either, the newspaper reported.

It turns out — here comes your Florida angle — that this lucrative business based on social media manipulation has been run out of an office suite above Rocco’s Tacos on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, not New York.

And the company’s founder is a 27-year-old guy who didn’t get degrees from Princeton or MIT, but instead got a two-year degree at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth.

Go Panthers! Although, I’m not sure that Palm Beach State College will want to boast about Calas once the New York Attorney General’s Office gets through with him and his company.

“Impersonation and deception are illegal under New York law,” New York Attorney Gen. Eric Schneiderman wrote on Twitter. “We’re opening an investigation into Devumi and its apparent sale of bots using stolen identities.”

By contrast, in Florida we expect impersonation and deception.

Calas just figured out a way to capitalize on the shallow validation of social media. For some business titans, sports stars, media pundits, and actors, appearing to have legions of people eager to read your next tweet on Twitter was something worth buying.

And Calas’ company was selling. With a stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over for as little as a penny-per-follower, his company provided its customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers, The New York Times reported.

So, for example, an employee at the branding agency owned by model Kathy Ireland spent $2,000 with Devumi to buy 300,000 more followers for Ireland last year. Democratic public relations consultant and CNN pundit Hillary Rosen bought more than 500,000 followers for herself from Devumi. And Ryan Hurst, the star of the TV show “Sons of Anarchy” bought 750,000 Twitter followers from the company, the newspaper reported.

Twitter and its tally sheet of loyalty, which is counted by the number of times other site users “retweet” your postings or become your “followers,” is a social media site engineered to quantify a user’s popularity— which to many is the lifeblood of their professional futures.

And even though Twitter prohibits the buying of followers, they have been openly bought and sold online through Devumi and other companies. Devumi, alone, has had more than 200,000 customers, the newspaper reported.

Some of the followers being sold are “bots,” fake accounts that don’t correspond to an actual person. Twitter doesn’t require accounts to be tied to an actual person.

But other accounts being sold take the names, photos and personal information from real and sometimes dormant Twitter accounts, and repackage them over and over again as counterfeit accounts, the newspaper found.

I visited 222 Clematis Street on Monday to see if Calas had stuck around after the Times’ Sunday story.

But nobody answered the door at the second-floor office for his company. And the placard on the door, which had once held the name of his parent company, Bytion, had been removed.

It’s just a blank white door now with an empty nameplate.

The perfect ending to a story’s Florida angle.