The global influencer market is highly lucrative. Large brands in the UK are willing to pay a celebrity influencer who has over one million followers a staggering £75,000 ($98,000) for a single social media post. Furthermore, brands are willing to pay “micro-influencers” who have under 10,000 followers, an average of £1,500 ($1,967.62).

But the industry isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Recently, we detailed the extent of influencer fraud, with 1 in 4 influencers engaging in fraudulent activity such as boosting follower counts and engagement rates artificially. With brands willing to splash the cash on influencers to expand their reach, many rogue influencers have tried to scam their way to a big payday.

In this article, we speak to leading industry experts and practitioners to identify seven red flags that can help you identify a fraudulent influencer before you partner with them.

Related Article: Marketers Beware: Influencer Marketing Fraud is Real

1. Purchased Followers

To establish oneself as an influencer, one must have garnered a large following on their social media profiles. However, we have seen a growing number of services that provide rogue influencers the ability to purchase followers.

Lauren Braun Diamont, director of content at Triller, explained how brands can determine how many of an influencer’s followers were purchased and how many were gained organically. “One way you can determine this is [by] taking a look at the total number of followers they have vs. total number of posts, as influencers with a large organic following they should have tons of posts that date back several years, not just a few months. Consistent and engaging content is the key to organic growth.”

2. Artificial Engagement

It’s vital to inspect an influencer’s engagement rate, which includes likes and comments. In recent years, we have seen a plethora of applications that automatically increase a user’s engagement rate inorganically.   “When an influencer's engagement appears too good to be true in comparison to their following, raise up that red flag. If a user with 3 million followers is averaging 20,000-50,000 likes per post, the majority of his or her followers are likely purchased. The same rule applies if a user with 3 million followers is averaging 5-8 million likes per post, another red flag — unless the post went viral, this is the only exception here,” Diamont said.

“The best practice here would be to check out posts from the beginning of an influencer's feed and see if you can spot a sudden change, [which could be] a notable increase or decrease in the engagement at a certain point,” advised Diamont.

Related Article: 8 Tips to Better Influencer Marketing Programs

Learning Opportunities

3. Irrelevant or Generic Comments

Some applications automatically generate comments from inauthentic user profiles to beef up the engagement of a post. Most of these comments, as Jessie Butner, content marketing manager at Go Fish Digital, explained are generic and don’t really address the content. “If the comments are all unrelated to the content, this is a major red flag. For instance, if the comments are all emoji-only responses or short "love it" and "fabulous!" comments, they're likely [to be] not real,” Butner explained.

However, it’s important to remember that, quite often, Instagram bots publish generic comments at random, hoping for reciprocated engagement. That means that a few generic comments here and there doesn’t necessarily mean the content creator is paying for those comments.

4. No Previous Collaboration with Brands

Genuine influencers will have evidence of past collaborations with brands in their niche. But, if an influencer has a “large following and a fantastic engagement rate” as Butner has stated, it's a red flag. “This requires some manual digging through the influencer's content to determine if they've posted sponsored blog posts, photos or videos. Authentic influencers, who have built a strong community, will have previously engaged with brands and promoted products that they are a fan of,” Butner said.

5. Followers From Distant Lands

Shelby Rogers, content marketing manager at Solodev shared that if “an influencer seems to have a high percentage of people engaging with their content NOT from their area of influence, that’s a sign they’re part of an engagement pod. These engagement pods are “like-for-like” factories and aren’t targeted by area. A sign of this would be if an aspiring beauty influencer in Nashville has more [followers] from [the Middle East or Far East Asia] than users in the Nashville area. This is exactly what I discovered [after] doing a bit of digging on an aspiring influencer’s account for a client a few months ago,” said Rogers.

6. False Location Posting

Diamont advised brands to look out for influencers that repeatedly use false locations in an attempt to engage with followers in different countries.  “A new thing we've seen people do to get around Instagram's new algorithm is change their country servers when posting content. One way to identify this is to gauge where their engagement is coming from per post. If one post has the majority of likes coming from Los Angeles, while another has the majority of likes coming from France, this is a red flag, as the creator is switching up his or her server to showcase followers worldwide, [which is ultimately] inaccurate,” Diamont said.

7. Missing Verification

And finally, Butner recommended brands check the verification status of an influencer. “A macro influencer with hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers will typically be verified, meaning that they should have a small blue badge with a white checkmark beside their name. The length of time that an account has been active should correlate to the number of followers. [But if an influencer has] only 10 posts [and] 20,000 followers, they've likely purchased followers. Looking at the number of people the influencer follows can also be beneficial. Instagram limits accounts to following 7,500 people and most "real" humans won't get close to this number.”  

Do you know of any other tips for spotting fraudulent social media influencers? Share them below to help others avoid the influencer marketing fraud trap.