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Offshore 'click farms' dupe to inflate social media counts

| Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, 6:48 p.m.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Celebrities, businesses and even the State Department have bought bogus Facebook likes, Twitter followers or YouTube viewers from offshore “click farms,” where workers tap, tap, tap the thumbs-up button, view videos or retweet comments to inflate social media numbers.

Since Facebook rolled out almost 10 years ago, users have sought to expand their social networks for financial gain, winning friends, bragging rights and professional clout. And social media companies cite the levels of engagement to tout their value.

But an Associated Press examination has found a growing global marketplace for fake clicks, which tech companies struggle to police. Online records, industry studies and interviews show companies are capitalizing on the opportunity to make millions of dollars by duping social media.

For as little as a half cent each click, websites hawk everything from LinkedIn connections to make members appear more employable to Soundcloud plays to influence record label interest.

“Anytime there's a monetary value added to clicks, there's going to be people going to the dark side,” said Mitul Gandhi, CEO of seoClarity, a Des Plaines, Ill., social media marketing firm that weeds out phony online engagements.

Many businesses, whose values are based on credibility, have teams doggedly pursuing the buyers and brokers of fake clicks. But each time they crack down on one, a more creative scheme emerges.

When software engineers wrote computer programs, for example, to generate lucrative fake clicks, tech giants fought back with software that screens out “bot-generated” clicks and began regularly sweeping user accounts.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, a capital city of 15 million in South Asia, is an international hub for click farms.

The CEO of Dhaka-based social media promotion firm Unique IT World said he has paid workers to click on clients' social media pages manually, making it harder for Facebook, Google and others to catch them.

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