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Instahacks: How to tell if someone has fake Instagram followers

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Last updated July 5, 2017. Scroll to bottom for most recent additions.

I felt obligated to write about this subject after bringing it up in social conversation and hearing time after time:

Whoa. Are you serious? People actually buy Instagram followers?!

Yes. Yes, they do.

This post is meant to help people – mainly to give insight to marketers who have jumped on the influencer marketing train and are actively sourcing individuals to help promote their business in exchange for product or monetary compensation.

So, why is it important to be able to tell if someone has fake followers? Well, simply put, you could be wasting your precious time and limited money on followers that just don’t exist. They won’t provide quality engagement. They won’t build brand loyalty with you. And most importantly, they won’t convert.

Many marketers and everyday people judge an Instagram user’s influence solely based on the number of people that are following them. Unfortunately, the reality is that evaluating someone’s influence, or the Instagram success of a brand, should go much much (MUCH) deeper than their follower count.

About a year ago, I was asked by a particular Instagram user (who shall remain anonymous) to collaborate with us at DIMIK. This user had approximately 9,000 followers. Having some experience with checking for fakes, I automatically made sure to check their likes against their followers. It checked out, and they had approximately 700 – 900 likes per photo, which made for an extremely appealing (and well above average) engagement rate. So we said yes. But then something felt off – I looked at their account again and couldn’t figure out why they had so many followers and likes. The photos were poor quality, the person wasn’t well-known, and they didn’t fill a niche of any sort. I then checked their comments. And I realized… I had been duped. Their photos only had 0-3 comments per photo on average, which made absolutely no sense considering the number of likes and followers they had. So I checked the type of followers they had, as well as the profiles of the accounts of those who had liked their photos. And my suspicions were proved correct – fake followers galore. Whoopsie. (See below for how I knew.)

Without further ado, here is a step-by-step process to check the quality of an individual’s (or a brand’s) account in order to judge if their following is real, or bought.

 

1. Check followers against likes

Engagement rates (total # of likes + comments / total # of followers) vary greatly based on the total number of followers the account has. For example, accounts with under 1,000 followers have an average engagement rate of 8%, while accounts with over 100,000 followers have an average engagement rate of just under 2%. As per Markerly statistics, the average like and comment rates in 2016 were as follows:

< 1k followers:

Average Like Rate: 8.03% Average Comment Rate: 0.56%

1k – 10k followers:

Average Like Rate: 4.04% Average Comment Rate: 0.27%

10k – 100k followers:

Average Like Rate: 2.37% Average Comment Rate: 0.14%

100k – 1M followers:

Average Like Rate: 1.78% Average Comment Rate: 0.09%

1M – 10M followers:

Average Like Rate: 1.66% Average Comment Rate: 0.06%

To calculate a reasonably accurate engagement rate, take the follower in question, and average the amount of total likes + comments for their past 10 photos. Take this number and divide it by their number of followers, then multiply this number by 100. Presto, engagement rate! For example:

  • 7,000 comments and likes total on past 10 photos / 10 photos = 700 total average engagement per photo
  • 700 total average engagement / 20,000 followers = 0.035
  • 0.035 x 100 = 3.5%

Now, take this number and compare it to the average rates as seen above for their # of followers. The engagement rate should fall within a reasonable distance from the typical averages. For our example, the average like rate is 4.04% (for accounts with 1k – 10k followers) and the average comment rate is 0.56%. Therefore, a total engagement rate of 3.5% is considered within reason, and it is likely that this account’s followers are real. Overall, an engagement rate that is at least approximately 50% of the above averages would be considered ‘normal’ in my experience, and would not necessarily set off alarm bells. For example, an account with under 1,000 followers should have an engagement rate of at least 4.3%, an account with 1k – 10k should have at least 2.2%, and so on and so forth.

Engagement Rates / © Caley Dimmock

Engagement Rates / © Caley Dimmock

But wait, you can still be fooled even if this checks out.

2. Compare comments to likes and follower amounts

Even if someone’s total engagement rate checks out, unfortunately, likes can be bought too. The easiest way to tell if post likes are fake is to check the number of comments in comparison to the number of likes.

Let’s say that an account has 5,000 followers, and an average total engagement rate of 5%. However, you notice that each photo only has an average of 0-2 comments. Something’s not adding up here. According to our industry averages, at 5,000 followers, there should be an average of 13.5 comments per photo. This means that if you are coming up with an average comment rate that is less than half of this, there is a real possibility that this account has not only purchased followers, but has also purchased likes. To confirm these suspicions, follow the next step.

3. Check the quality of their followers and likers

You can click on the number of likes to see the ‘likers’ of the photo. Chances are, you may see a list that looks a little like this:

Typical list of fake followers.

Typical list that includes fake followers.

And upon further investigation, you see followers and likers whose profiles look like these:

 

fake-follower

fake follower

 

The above accounts are bots. Notice how they barely have any followers yet they are following thousands of other users? This is the main hallmark of bought followers and likers. Some other characteristics that bots may have include the following:

  • The account is private
  • They have only posted a few photos
  • Their username seems like jibberish

 

4. Use your best judgment

While the above steps should lead you to an accurate conclusion, there are also other tricks of the trade believe it or not. There are also bots that will follow random accounts and haven’t been bought, so if you see a few of these types of followers on someone’s account, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have been purchased. Engagement rates also vary by industry and subject matter (for example, photos that show faces get 38% more likes on average than those that don’t).

There are of course a few reasons why someone’s account could grow very rapidly aside from buying followers. These include receiving PR outside of Instagram, becoming famous (such as becoming a celebrity, TV star, or appearing in the news with one, etc), participating in loop giveaways, or having something go organically viral. All things to consider.

Moral of the story? If something seems way too good to be true, it probably is. And you probably shouldn’t give them part of your marketing budget in hopes of return on your investment. But always ensure to do your due diligence first before just assuming someone has fake followers.

UPDATE JULY 2017: NEW TRENDS + TIPS

Social Blade

Spotting huge increases in someone’s following can be done if you’ve got your eye incredibly closely on their account. But without context, it’s hard to really know what’s real and what’s not.

Social Blade is a great (and free) resource for taking a peek into Instagram users’ growth and account activity. The most useful aspect of the website to spot fake followewrs is to search the user in question and check their “Followers” column. Are they usually gaining 5-10 followers a day, but then on one random day they gained 5,000 followers? Yeah. Not a chance.

fake-followers-social-blade

Screenshot from socialblade.com of user with organic followers

Using social blade makes it super easy to spot purchased followers, and while some Instagrammers will try to play the “I got reposted by a big account that day” card, increases of this level are simply not typical at all. The exception being getting reposted by a mega celebrity. Usually, being reposted or mentioned by an account with 200k followers will result in anywhere from only 20-500 new followers. Not 5,000.

Furthermore, if you see that an account is losing a bunch of followers each day, and then has random spikes of thousands at a time on certain days, this is also a sure sign they are using some shady methods.

fake-followers-social-blade-2

Screenshot from socialblade.com

Drip Followers

While spotting fake follower spikes on Social Blade is relatively easy, Instagrammers have already found a way around this when it comes to purchasing fake followers and keeping it under the radar. Enter drip followers. Dripping followers is when instead of someone purchasing a bulk amount of followers at one time, they purchase an ongoing subscription of incoming fake followers. This can be really tough to spot, because it can be done in very small amounts such as only 10 per day. Furthermore, if when scrolling through the user’s followers you don’t see mass amounts of obvious bots, it is even more difficult to tell when someone is using this method to artificially increase their following.

As found on one website that offers this service: “Spreading out your Instagram promotion helps create a natural rise in popularity. Sites that do one-time bulk promotion can lead to unnatural profile interaction that will either end up being removed or causing your account to be flagged.”

Funny how the word “natural” is used to describe the process.

 

Have you found any other sure signs or easy ways to tell if someone’s followers might not organic? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts, and thanks for reading!

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  1. Mun Bagri says:

    Great post… What are your thoughts on “wannabe influencers” who do little tricks like making each Hashtag in the form of a comment? So upon first view, you just see “view all 9 comments” when in reality it’s 2 legitimate comments & 7 hashtags.

    • Hi Mun,

      I am not a fan of that at all! I think hiding hashtags in the first comment is excellent, but spreading them out over multiple comments is definitely not an honest tactic.

      Cheers!

      • Penelope says:

        Sometimes i do that and I never thought about doing it because of pretending to have more comments.
        I would say is just the way to do it and maybe are hashtags that you forget to include .
        So now i look like a faker ? Omg xD 😒 people judging everywhere … Although I’m sure some do it for the reason you say, but not necessarily. Gosh.

        • Hi Penelope, thanks for reading!

          Are you saying that you feel buying fake followers is not wrong? Curious for you to elaborate…

          Cheers!

          • Josh says:

            No she’s saying that she puts Hashtags throughout her comments, but only because she sometimes forgets to add them and it’s easier than having to delete the original comment.

  2. Scott Jeffery says:

    Thanks for this great article. Constantly baffled when I look at other peoples content vs. Followers.

    I might be only pushing 400 but I’m on the right track with well targeted @ 11% and 0.6%

    Thanks for quantifying it.

  3. Lynn says:

    Great article, thank you!
    I looked up this subject because a so-called friend & competitor’s followers has grown from 244 followers to closed to 3000 & climbing rapidly overnight! She only follows 189 & her average like per picture is about 25 and practically no comments – fishy isn’t it?
    So I flat out asked her if she bought followers & she said no.
    Is this legal? Should I do anything about it or simply ignore?
    Frustrating because I put a lot of effort into my work & photos that are my creations.

    • Hi Lynn!

      Oh no. Yes, that sounds quite fishy. Almost nobody who does it would admit to it either, but it is extremely common these days. She is only hurting herself though – those people will not convert, and her engagement rate will cause alarm to those who know what to look for.

      Unfortunately, I don’t believe there is any law in place for this. Clearly, it is against ethics and Instagram guidelines, but nobody can truly enforce it.

      I know this is incredibly frustrating, and I see it all of the time amongst my “competitors” as well, however, If I were you, I would do my best to ignore it. Just focus on making your efforts and content better, and engage engage engage! It’s not always about how many followers you have, but how many engaged ones you have and the quality of value you are providing to them. That’s what’s most important!

      Hope this helps and I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with this!

      Caley

      • Lynn says:

        Hi Caley,

        Thanks for your reply, I do appreciate it.

        Of course she denied it and instead she did a big “marketing program” which is total hogwash.
        Anyway, your advice to ignore it and just continue what I’m doing is the best thing I can do – in the end the followers that stay with me is because they love my content & vice-versa. Most of my followers are very engaged and we have real comments/conversations – which is all that counts!

        Thanks again!

        Lynn

  4. Porfirio says:

    Good blog! I truly love how it is simple on my eyes and the data are well written. I’m wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I’ve subscribed to your RSS which must do the trick! Have a great day!

  5. Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if
    that would be ok. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new
    updates.

  6. Hello Caley, thanks for the great article. It’s very detailed and well written! I would also like to add a tool I’ve discovered recently but it’s really helpful to see if somebody bought followers and likes. Its name is Social Blade (www.socialblade.com) and it shows a graph of the followers of any Instagram account (it does so also for YouTube and Twitter accounts, but it’s not our point here) in time. Basically what you have to check is if there is any gap in the follower’s line, it’s quite easy to see that because usually people buy the same number of followers all the times (500, 1000, 3000 and so on…). Thought it would have been helpful to you and other readers in the case you didn’t know it – Sharing is caring! If you like portrait photography follow me on IG @michelebrottoph 😉
    Cheers,
    Michele

    • Hey Michele!

      Thanks for reading! Yes socialblade.com is an amazing tool that I use regularly. I’ve been meaning to update this article and add this to it! Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  7. Terry Garcia says:

    Hey really nice article very informative

  8. ida says:

    Loved the article! But I had a question though… A lot of people I know have very obviously fake followers but they all look “real”… However they all come from Brazil (shady right?) and have way more follows than followers! I’ve been in touch with some of them telling me they think their accounts are hacked because they don’t follow all these accounts (…could be a lie though!?).

    Do you have any idea what all of this means ? It’s really weird.

  9. mary lamb says:

    what if someone has like 5,000 followers and they get upwards of 1,500 likes and 200 comments – is that engagement likely real? can people buy comments? it seems odd to have so many on an ‘ok’ food photo.

  10. Nils Kuiper says:

    Quite a useful article, found out that with 390k followers I have an engagement rate of %7,6 which well, is a very useful number to have.. thank you!

  11. Allie Mackin says:

    Yeah sooooo much fake following and scamming. I know someone personally who is doing this. A month ago she had about 6k followers now she has 16.9k wait no 17.8k yup jumped up about 1000k in 20 mins. I was checking her account for fake folllowers and watched​ as she gained a new follower ever 2-3 seconds. 20 mins her account jumped by 1000k. And same with likes 400-800 likes but only 15-26 likes with 7-13 of the comments are her commenting back on the comments so really only half the amount of comments. Hmmmmmmm.

  12. SHERE says:

    I love how detail your post was, thanks for that. But nowadays, it is pretty hard to spot just with the above standards. As instagram now can allow user to disable comments, a lot of people choose to do that to avoid seeing mean comments. I sometimes do that too and i only enable comments when there is some other friends in my photo.
    I have 2.5 k followers and the engagement is usually 400-500 but not many comments even before i disabled comments, but that doesnt mean I have fake followers. The thing is people do not comment that much anymore unless you r a friend or some kind of shops or maybe celebs.

    • Hi Shere,

      You’re very welcome – I’m glad you found it interesting.

      It is definitely very difficult to spot sometimes, and if you’re a marketer looking to run influencer marketing, this is why it’s best to enlist someone very experienced in this area to be able to tell.

      At 2.5k followers, with an average engagement rate of 16-20%, you have a very healthy overall engagement rate. At a following of 2.5k, in my experience, a lack of comments would only set off the need for further investigation if it were below 3 comments/post on average. And even if you had none, you’re right, it certainly wouldn’t mean for sure that you have fake followers, it would just point out that your followers are not highly engaged. I agree that overall, comment rates are down, but marketers and brands do look to work with Instagrammers who have a highly-engaged audience, as it implies that their audience cares more about their content and therefore they have more influence over their audience.

      Cheers!

  13. Sami says:

    Amazing and useful information. Thanks author for that

  14. AVANT HAYTT says:

    Thanks and love this. SocialBlade is much more convenient.

  15. peter says:

    A old friend of mine, earns his money with Instagram, he calls himself a photographer.
    He get free trips all around the world, but he clearly bying followers.
    Should i warn these companies or not, it’s scam.

    • Hey Peter! This is tricky territory and I don’t think I should be advising one way or the other. I suppose it would depend on your relationship with not only him, but also with the companies you would be advising. Sorry!

  16. Zach S says:

    Hey Caley, great article. Wondering if you have links to any of the equipment in the header image- that’s a great workspace setup!

  17. Sandra says:

    Omg please finally someone saying the truth about Instagram fake followers fake likes and even fake comments. To gain followers is hard work. Not like other accounts seems like it’s a piece of cake. I would appreciate if you make you’re own opinion about my account filis_pina and tell you’re honesty opinion. I get everyone has different style but still they are accounts out there they think have a Gucci purse makes them instantly famous on Instagram. it’s frustrating if you don’t get the followers or even someone features you on their page . With page I mean free feature not paid feature so many out there are just set up for that . They have 100k followers and you think they do something good for you but reality is they don’t just making money and like you said above 800 likes and 3 comments LOL .

  18. Anita says:

    I don’t understand why people make a long list of fake followers. Thanks for explaining the ways to find these people easily.

  19. Jose R says:

    Great article! Thank you. This goes in depth to clear up the very obvious fake engagement out there! Socialblade is definitely the tool. From a small brand’s standpoint it is very hard to build a solid following. We invest between 200€ and 300€ daily on Facebook and Instagram ads (not followers) to generate traffic to our website and this organically generates 10-30 new followers daily. These people visit our website, sign up our newsletter, interact with us and buy our products. We receive daily DMs of these fake influencers asking for ‘collaborations’ and it pisses me off how they are overshadowing the real influencers and making us do background checks on their accounts, wasting precious time and money!! We’ve resorted to replying to 90% of these messages with a single sentence explaining that we don’t work with bot fed accounts, they don’t reply back, most likely out of shame. What these idiots don’t understand is that they are killing the healthy engagement brands and authentic pages had because Instagram is now spammed with generic posts filled with hashtags and hashtag interacting bots that due to the engagement they generate, end up taking precious space on the timeline! There is a famous shoutout purchasing website. Go there, filter influencers by follower count and plug their name on socialblade. It is over 90% fake accounts! Also, the byproduct of this, is just more expensive traffic when you advertise on Instagram. Sad

  20. Liza says:

    thanks for sharing

  21. whoah this weblog is great i like reading your articles.
    Stay up the good work! You already know, many individuals are hunting around for this information, you can help them greatly.

  22. Alice says:

    Can’t agree more! I did similar things but not as accurate as you. Apart from the many Asian prostitution/ money-friendship users there, those nonsense comment from fake users really made me mad. Like, they’d comment a very ordinary photo as ‘great/sweet/ brilliant’ , etc. I don’t mind if some are really business-wise users where they sell their products with good information from posts. But I really got fed up with those fake comments and I do block these users…..

    Thanks for your information and sharing again! :))

  23. Really helpful information. I think that you spent a lot of time to prepare for this. I found many useful tips and advice while reading this blog. Thanks for your great work!

  24. Nadira says:

    Loved your post! Thank you!

  25. Jeff says:

    Great article. I’m kind of new to the instagram game and still learning. I use social media to help promote my art. FB always helped and then about a year ago all the “kids” told me that instagram was the way to go. With hard work, I’ve built up 1000 + followers. I first found out about the fake followers when another artist that I knew of and was following had close to 1 million followers. And she’s not that famous or even that good. So I googled fake followers and voila, that had to be it. And then I started looking at her followers and many had zero posts, were from far away countries screamed out “fake”.

  26. Thanks for sharing this helpful information and useful tips. Great work!

  27. Great website thanks for sharing.

  28. Basit says:

    Hi,

    It is really perfect guide to telling someone for the fake ig followers and thanks for sharing with us.

    Regards,
    Basir

  29. Neil Patel says:

    Amazing article. I would suggest checking
    out GramGenius if you really want to grow your instagram account!

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DECAF OAT MILK LATTE DRINKER, CAPRICORN, PROPERTY INVESTOR, ADRENALINE JUNKIE. 

Hi, I'm Caley.
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I knew I wanted to work for myself since the age of four. Yep, I'm serious. However, I didn't take the leap into full-time self-employment until I was 27. It's now four years since then, and I haven't looked back once. I've served clients across the globe, providing winning digital advertising, e-commerce strategy, email marketing, photography, and more. And now it's time for me to pass this knowledge on to you.

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