Influencer marketing is no longer a new phenomenon, but it’s still booming. With a market worth approximately $16.4bn in 2022, it’s an appealing career choice for everyday people, as well as a fantastic opportunity for brands to connect more directly with their target audience by hand-selecting influencers to work with.
However, like in all successful industries, scams are abundant. Whether it’s a so-called brand trying to take advantage of a content creator’s naivety, or an influencer choosing non-legitimate ways to fool companies into thinking that they are more successful than they are, finding truly great partnerships can be tricky. And scammers can be sophisticated; their profiles may look legitimate on first glance, especially if it's a profile filed with beautiful imagery. Spoiler alert...they are probably stock photos.
At AFK, we think it’s vital to both protect our content creators from scams, and ensure that the brands we work with are collaborating with real people. That’s why we carefully vet all our talent before signing, as well as the deals that are offered to our creators. But for those wishing to go it alone, there are some key points to look out for to make sure you don’t get scammed.
Here are our tips for how to know if a brand deal is fake and how to know if an influencer is fake.
How to spot a fake influencer
No analytics available
If the influencer you want to work with can’t provide a comprehensive breakdown of their engagement across their social media and/or streaming platforms, beware. Social media platforms offer a number of analytics tools built in, so they don’t have to be a digital marketing expert to prove they are the real deal. There are also other tools that can track an influencer’s metrics - such as follower count or number of likes - across a variety of platforms. You’ll need these statistics to decide whether your influencer is likely to provide decent ROI.
Aside from proving that they generate the engagement they say they do, asking for analytics will help you determine that the influencer is the right person for your campaign. For instance, if your campaign is targeting EMEA but the majority of their audience is US-based, they might not be suitable this time. You’ve still potentially made a great contact for the future though, so not all is lost!
There might also be a time where they can actually provide analytics, but they are suspicious. A sudden spike in followers can be another sign that the influencer has purchased their followers, particularly if there’s a high number of followers but low engagement, or if you’re seeing the low-quality comments and fake-looking followers as outlined below. Or they may have used the follow/unfollow technique (there are apps available that mass follow random accounts in the hope they’ll follow back, only to automatically unfollow them later), which will skew their stats.
Low-quality comments and/or followers
This is one of the easiest ways to tell whether a content creator is fake. Bots are prolific on social media, especially on Instagram. If your influencer has high numbers of followers but a lower engagement rate than expected, turn detective and have a look at their followers’ profiles. Do they look like genuine people or are there clear indications that they could be fake profiles? Some signs that they are bots are a username consisting of random letters/numbers/punctuation, a feed consisting of only promotions (or nothing at all!), following a large number of accounts with low followers themselves, and a new account with lots of pictures quickly uploaded.
The biggest giveaway, however, is the quality of their posts. The majority of bots will automatically post something generic or spammy like “Amazing! ❤️❤️❤️”, though some have been programmed to respond accordingly to certain hashtags (e.g. “nice shoes!” on a post with #shoes). Comments from real people tend to come in proper sentences; not always, of course, but 1-2 word comments - often followed by a tonne of emojis - are a classic sign of a bot.
The other issue you could experience is that your influencer’s profile is real, but they are part of an engagement pod, which falsely inflates their engagement rates. This is commonly seen on Instagram, where a group of influencers get together and comment on each others’ posts to make them appear to be more popular than they are. It can be tricky to spot them as unlike bots, they will actually post something that looks like a genuine comment, such as “Wow, you look gorgeous! I need to get one for myself!🔥”. However, you can identify them by delving into their profiles - if there’s a lot of the same comments from the same people, your influencer is likely part of an engagement pod.
Lack of verification
Not every influencer will be at the stage of their career where they will have that coveted “blue tick”, and that’s ok. Nano and micro influencers in particular almost certainly won’t have been verified by the platform, particularly on Instagram where it’s very hard to get verified. However, a legitimate influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers is highly likely to have had their identity checked with the social media platform and received verification that they are the real deal.
Blue ticks aren’t the only way to verify that your influencer is legitimate, however; take a look at their links and bios. They’re likely to have a fleshed-out bio, including a brief description of what they do, links to other social media platforms, mentions of brand ambassadorships they hold, contact information, etc. In short, there should be professional information on there that points to a real person taking their work seriously.
A quick Google search will also help; most influencers will have profiles on multiple platforms and while those might differ depending on the type of content they offer (beauty influencers are less likely to be active on Twitch, for example), it will give you a good indication of whether they truly exist. Most scammers won’t have a presence on other social media than the one profile you’re already researching.
How to spot a fake brand deal
They want you to pay for shipping
Linda Evangelista might not get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day but when you’re trying to get your career as an influencer off the ground, you’re more likely to be happy to just score some free products for review. The choice to do that is entirely up to you and can certainly lead to more lucrative conversations with brands in the future, but the moment a brand asks you to cover postage or shipping, you’re likely to be looking at a scam.
At best they will send you extremely low-value products (if any at all) and pocket the inflated shipping costs you’ve paid (this is already a common scam on eBay, except you will actually buy a product and they will provide a tracking number, so it’s harder to prove you didn’t receive what you paid for). At worst, you’ll be asked to enter your card or bank details into a shady website, and we don’t need to tell you what a bad idea it is to have your personal financial information in the wrong hands.
Ultimately as an influencer, you should be getting paid for your time as well as receiving products. However, at the very least, a partnership shouldn’t cost you a penny.
You’re approached by a “sales rep”
Do you regularly see “DM us to collab!” comments under your photos or “Tell them we sent you!” in your messages? You’ve probably already guessed it, but this is a common scam. They’re hoping to get you on board as an “affiliate”, offering you a discount code when purchasing their extremely overpriced products - usually jewellery, clothing or eyewear.
While that’s not entirely nefarious, you’re unlikely to make any money - “commission” will probably only come after you’ve bought a large amount of product - and they’re just using you as a mechanism to boost their own sales. They will reach out to smaller content creators and even just the general public, hoping that the offer will flatter them and their naivety will lead to sales for them.
That’s not to say anyone who slides into your DMs is a scammer - at AFK we’ll actively reach out to influencers if there is a brand opportunity we think they’re perfect for (or even to potentially sign them!) - but these brands or agencies will have a proper web presence. Not only will they actually reach out from their own brand account (not via a “rep”), but they will have a proper website, social media profiles on places like LinkedIn, legitimate contact details etc. This is not foolproof though, so always do your due diligence. Remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Their profile is poor quality
We could fill a bingo card with all the red flags that you’ll see on a scam brand’s profile. Stock images of fairly generic items? Seriously bad Photoshop? They’ll likely be dropshipping cheap products from China; even if by some miracle you get paid to promote their brand, this won’t be the kind of merchandise you want to put your name to. High follower numbers but low engagement? They’re probably a) fake and b) purchased.
The same rules apply here as above; do your research and check out their different social media platforms, website etc. You can even check Companies House in the UK or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the USA to see if they are registered. The Better Business Bureau in the USA also has a Scam Tracker which allows you to search for known scams; people do and will post about these types of fraudulent activity to avoid others being caught out.
At AFK, we do see our creators approach us with offers they’re received, both on social media and via email. The benefit of being part of a professional agency is that we tend to know quite quickly if a brand deal is legitimate and if not, it’s part of our job to investigate it. We want to make sure that we protect all of our creators from being taken advantage of, so they can instead work with high-quality brands that their communities will love.
The key takeaway for brands wanting to know how to spot a fake influencer and for influencers wanting to know how to spot a fake brand deal is to do your due diligence. Our tips coupled with careful research should help identify scams so you know what to avoid. Or even better - work with a legitimate agency like AFK. We do the work behind the scenes to ensure that brands have access to engaging, high-quality influencers as well as make sure that our content creators don’t run the risk of getting ripped off. And one last point for content creators looking to work with brands…whether they are legitimate or not, 👏 always👏 read 👏 your 👏 contract! 👏
Whether you’re a brand or content creator, find out more about collaborating with the right people for you by getting in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.