There are essentially 3 reasons that bots [or rather their owners, the “Bot Masters”] will choose to follow legitimate human Twits. I'll go over them in more detail but essentially these reasons are reputation, infection/SPAM, and bot C&C. There may actually be other reasons as well, but these are the top 3 reasons that I personally review every follower I get – and while that may be time-consuming you'll soon see the dangers to both you and your legitimate tweeple (Twitter followers … I didn't make it up) of having un-checked followers.
First, the reputation angle. New SPAM bots or SPAM accounts are hitting Twitter at a head-spinning rate. Since Twitter doesn't really require any sort of human-verify mechanism to register (unlike most other free web services) there is nothing to really stop entire armies of Twit-bots from invading the social networking service. Every once in a while, the magic Twitter SPAM-bot gnomes go through and remove droves of accounts that are found to be SPAM'ing the Twitter-verse (are you loving all these new words as much as I am?). To keep from being caught, bots (more correctly, the bot-masters) have started to employ some semi-advanced measures to make sure they aren't detected. First off, the reason why Julie Smith (hint: that smokin' hot blond in the avatar isn't real) is now following you is that the bot-master is hoping that by being associated with legitimate Twitter users of good reputation they will be less likely to be caught. Second, you'll notice that bots often tweet (post, in Twitter-speak) random, and seemingly senseless things to keep from being detected as a “stale account” (those accounts whom have joined, followed a million people, but never posted anything themselves). Moreover, bots will now re-tweet (re-post something someone else has “tweeted”) to make themselves blend in more with the normal Twitter user-base. Think about it … it would be simple to detect accounts which simply Tweet nonsense (or repeated SPAM tweets) that have zero followers and zero “friends” (people they are following). With a combination of following reputable Tweeple, re-tweeting those posts of reputable users, and tweeting random things – Twitter SPAM-bots are much less likely to be detected either by a program of even a human user.
The next major reason that Twitter-bots will follow legitimate humans is to SPAM you or trick you into clicking on something. While this may not be a revelation to you, and it shouldn't be, these bots are here to make you click links. These links will result in one of two things … you getting a page advertising herbal Viagra substitutes, genitalia enlargement pills, or penny stocks OR you getting a page (or series of pages) which will result in some sort of infection on your machine. The not-so-hidden motivation behind getting you to click links is … ta-da … money. Criminals are doing everything they possibly can to get you to click, buy and view their pages so that they get paid. Simple as that boys and girls. Services like TinyURL and other URL-shortening services don't make this any harder – but then again, that's not necessarily their fault or something they should do anything about. This is all simply a culmination of free, convenient services which criminals are taking advantage of to get you to part with your hard-earned money. Whether you get a message via direct-tweet (if you've been lured into following a SPAM-bot) or via an “@reply” which is a public reply (bonus points for possibly luring others too) or by a well-placed obscured link in the bot's profile … make no mistake the aim is to get your click, and your money.
The last notable reason that bots follow you (and often hope you'll follow them back, is for botnet command and control (C&C). Even though proof-of-concept posts have appeared over the past several months on the web many folks still aren't aware that entire botnets operate via Twitter as both an infection vector as well as a command and control means. This makes Twitter twice as dangerous for those people in this position. If you're lured into clicking a link and get infected with something (which there is a very low probability of you realizing) the malware on your computer is fairly likely then controlled by the a similar vector. A simple “the sky is blue today” tweet may seem innocuous to you, and you may even entirely ignore it in your read stream but it could translate to a command to the bot which has infested your machine to then perform some action. Very underhanded stuff – but believe me when I say it's out there. If you haven't yet read up on the Twitter bots and some of the advanced C&C mechanisms using natural language … you should make yourself aware of these dangers. Being careful who follows you (and subsequently whom you follow) goes a long way to protect your safety on the Internet.
Since I'm one of those people who think that caution without advised recourse is fairly useless I will next talk about some of the things you can do to protect yourself, and some basic recommendations for being safe(er) on Twitter. Perhaps this advice could even apply beyond Twitter to other social media … I know it certainly loosely applies to FaceBook and the like.
Here are some recommendations on how to keep yourself safe(er) on Twitter and other social media platforms...
- Never auto-follow (or auto-add a “friend”) blindly – this is a dangerous practice that could lead to getting yourself compromised. You wouldn't just trust someone blindly without at least investigating them a little bit in real life … right? So why take that chance in the digital realm?
- Turn on follow alerts – Keeping up with who's following or adding you as a friend is very important... it will let you know that you have a potential new friend, follower or stalker!
- Be careful not to stupid-click – It's been drilled into end-user's brains for years now and most people are smart enough to know not to just click on anything they see (especially when a total stranger says so) but it's worth repeating. Please … don't be a sheep and simply click-click-click away your personal safety and security on-line. Think before you click.
- Sorry, she's probably a bot – Successful malware distributors and black-hat SEO magicians have figured out how to get guys to lose their brains and do stupid things – hot women. Sadly, the statistic is staggering against better judgment … if it didn't work they wouldn't keep doing it! Why do you think you get those follow + tweets from what appears to be a gorgeous young woman asking you to “check out her pictures”? If you're stupid enough to fall for those, and yes, there are many that still do, there may be no hope for you. Remember, the same principle works on both sexes and there are entire armies of Twitter-bots that will look at your profile and figure out whether you're male female and formulate a pre-determined attack strategy accordingly.
Good luck out there, and be smart!