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Evan Schuman: Do you know the people you're following on Twitter? Neither does Twitter, apparently

Fake accounts that troll for followers' contact info just might be a problem. Meet 'Alex Van Pelter.' Oh, and LinkedIn is great, except when it's annoying.

By Evan Schuman
June 10, 2014 07:30 AM ET

Computerworld - A couple of months ago, I noticed a Twitter account that was linking to some interesting articles. The account was in the name of Alex Van Pelter, an Oracle VP. Specifically, the vice president of cloud operations marketing. Seeing that he had some 14,500 followers -- not surprising for someone with that title -- I chose to follow, too.

But there was something odd about his tweets. He provided lots of legitimate links to major media stories, but that was all. No commentary tweets. Unexpectedly, many of the tweets didn't seem to have much to do with Oracle or even cloud. The tweets were impressively non-promotional, which is not typical for Oracle marketing VPs.

It didn't add up, and I wanted to figure out what was really going on here. That's when things got bizarre. The photo on "Alex Van Pelter"'s Twitter and Facebook pages turned out to be a stock image. (By the way, Google's image search is quite impressive. With just a right-click, I found everyplace that image existed.) The name "Alex Van Pelter" never turned up in online searches, other than on social pages, which you wouldn't expect for an Oracle VP. The Oracle switchboard said there was no such employee. Oracle confirmed that not only does that VP title not exist, but there is no group for "cloud operations marketing." The Van Pelter account even gave the wrong location, pegging Oracle's headquarters in Palo Alto, rather than Redwood Shores. (Oracle apparently doesn't even have an office in Palo Alto.)

Yes, what we had was a spammer account. It didn't reveal itself by using links that went to suspicious sites. It only linked to legitimate, well-known sites. The game seems to consist entirely of collecting the contact info of followers.

The subtlety of this scam is impressive. How do people decide to follow someone they don't know? Often, they will decide that someone could be a useful contact based on where the person works and what his or her title is. A secondary but important consideration is the number of followers. Someone who claims to be the CEO of General Motors but who has only four followers is going to be viewed skeptically.

Oracle spokesperson Lauren McKay said that Oracle's legal team is looking into getting the Van Pelter account taken down, but 15 days after we flagged the account to Oracle, the account was still live. If Oracle's considerable legal muscle isn't enough to get the site taken down, what chance do smaller companies confronted with a similar situation have?

But Oracle isn't the victim here. It's not as though this spammer was using this bogus account to say nasty things about the company. The victims are the followers.

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