MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When The New York Times published a big story over the weekend about fake followers on social media, a certain New York prosecutor was paying close attention. Eric Schneiderman is attorney general for New York state. He has brought a number of cases in recent years involving online fraud and fake accounts and impersonation.
And on Saturday, Schneiderman opened an investigation into a company called Devumi, which according to The Times, sold millions of fake followers on social media. Eric Schneiderman joins us now from New York. Welcome.
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Thank you, good to be here.
KELLY: To give people a little bit of background here, the allegation is that Devumi has sold automated followers to celebrities, to businesses, to anyone - to you and me if we wanted - but followers to make it appear that people have more followers online than they actually do. So first question to you, what laws apply here? What's the potential crime?
SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, our primary focus is on impersonations of real people. So we're concerned about New Yorkers whose identities might have been used. We've been looking into issues related to fake identities. And impersonation is a crime in New York. Devumi was claiming that it was selling real, live followers. And clearly, there are a lot of questions about that.
And we know that there are some people who have reported that their identities were used without their consent. We don't want people paying for real, live followers if they're not getting real, live followers. And we are at the very early stages of this investigation. So it's hard to say which other laws might be involved. But deceptive practices, fraud is also against the law.
KELLY: Devumi has denied these charges. What is your understanding of the scope of the operation?
SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, we don't know. I mean, we're just starting. They sold millions of followers. They sold people over and over again. We're at the very early stages of what I think are going to be a series of investigations to try and sort this out.
KELLY: You're talking about the platform where these fake followers are engaging, we're talking Twitter, right?
SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, Twitter. They also apparently had presence on YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn and other platforms. So it's not just Twitter.
KELLY: Twitter has put out a statement saying, and I'll quote, "we are working to stop them" - them being the tactics allegedly being used here - "and any companies like them." From a legal standpoint, what is the responsibility of Twitter?
SCHNEIDERMAN: They're in a cooperative mode. They want to try and solve the problem. We're looking for the platforms to work with us to unravel the whole system because it's a pretty complicated system. And at the moment, you know, Twitter has indicated they're going to be helpful and want to solve the problem. That's a good thing. We're hoping the other platforms do too.
KELLY: I assume you're operating on the assumption that Devumi may not be the only company allegedly trafficking in these fake accounts.
SCHNEIDERMAN: Yeah. It's clear that there's a whole business in fake accounts, there's a whole business in bot accounts. This has become a major area of inquiry and concern for us over the last year or two as we've learned more about how technology has enabled new types of deception and criminal conduct. And unfortunately, the Internet is the crime scene of the 21st century, and we have to become familiar with the territory.
KELLY: Do you ever wonder if it's like sticking your finger in a dam? You go after one company, you block one hole and another one opens up?
SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, that's why we're looking to work with the platforms to solve the broader problem. And they have a long-term interest in people having confidence in the integrity of their systems.
KELLY: That statement I read from Twitter where I quoted them "saying we are working to stop them and any companies like them," end quote. It's not the most forceful statement I've ever seen come out from a corporation. Is there something specific they could do from where you sit that would be helpful?
SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, they have a lot of the information we need to investigate what happened here. And the indications are they're going to be working with us to give us that information. That's very helpful. They also probably are undertaking on their own to try and do some purging. But that - our main concern is with our investigation going forward so we can get all the information out, inform Congress and state legislatures that also may have a role in this and consumers about what happened.
KELLY: Eric Schneiderman, thanks very much.
SCHNEIDERMAN: OK, thank you.
KELLY: That's New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.