It started innocuously enough. I noticed that Kyle Torpey, a prominent writer on cryptocurrency topics, had followed me on Twitter. That was odd, because I thought we already followed one another. I clicked on his profile and saw that his follower count had dropped to zero, quite a fall compared to the 38,000 or so he normally had.
I followed him back and direct-messaged him:
I discovered my new follower wasn’t who he claimed he was when the real Kyle Torpey messaged me a short while later to warn of an imposter. “It’s flattering to have a fake account, right?” I joked, as it dawned on me I had been tricked. “Lol yeah, I’ve really made it now!” Torpey replied.
I returned to the fake Torpey to tell him the jig was up. “Reported and blocked!” I declared. That was five days ago; the account is still active.
The deception I fell prey to didn’t cause any damage—aside from a slightly bruised ego. But other fake accounts on Twitter are using the cryptocurrency frenzy to try and part Twitter users with their crypto coins.
Twitter has become a battlefield for scammers and crypto vigilantes, with each side racing to outwit the other with a slew of new tricks and counter-measures. Notably absent from this fight has been Twitter itself, which has been to slow to respond, apart from some tweets from founder Jack Dorsey, and a halt in its verification program, which had been exploited by savvy scammers.
Yesterday (March 6), Twitter seemed to acknowledge the scale of the problem when a spokesperson said it was “aware of this form of manipulation” and that it was “proactively implementing a number of signals” to prevent deception by these types of accounts. The spokesperson was responding to an inquiry I had sent asking why it had permanently suspended an account belonging to the Kraken crypto exchange, when that account had been warning users of such scams.
The most common version of these crypto scams are automated accounts that impersonate the accounts of crypto personages, such as ethereum inventor Vitalik Buterin. When Buterin tweets, the spoofed accounts are the first to reply, gaining maximum visibility among Buterin’s over 690,000 followers. In a variant of an “advance-fee” scam, the impersonators spin a story asking for a small amount of cryptocurrency in exchange for a much larger return.
It’s not clear how successful crypto scammers have been. The wallets they use to solicit funds sometimes hold some coins—which anyone can look up online—but those could have been deposited by the scammers themselves to make the address look legitimate. The vigilantes, meanwhile, are coming up with ever more elaborate counter-measures, like this anti-scam bot that posts a bold warning any time it detects suspicious activity:
The do-gooders blame Twitter for not taking the crypto scam problem seriously. Twitter is already wrestling with the effects of a Russian propaganda campaign, waged by bots, on its platform. Geoff Golberg, a co-founder of a blockchain company called Elementus, actively calls out crypto scams on Twitter, and was among the first to highlight a deception involving the Tron Foundation. I asked him why he devotes so much time to policing crypto-trickery on Twitter. “Truth is I don’t police it,” he replied, by Twitter direct message. “I simply spend lots of time on Twitter, follow many from the crypto community, have eyes, and, unlike Twitter, actually give a shit.”
Twitter’s response to my inquiries raises questions about whether it’s taking the crypto-scams seriously. When I asked about the Kraken account suspension, a communications staffer told me to “check out @KrakenSupport for the latest on the suspension status.” That was the username of the suspended account, and when I checked, it appeared to be live again. To clarify, I asked the staffer if this meant the suspension had been reversed. “You can tell the status of an account by looking at it. Let me know if this doesn’t make sense?” she replied.
As I was writing this story, I decided to browse @KyleTopey’s tweet-stream. The account didn’t appear to be asking for any funds; instead it seemed to mainly retweet the real Kyle Torpey. It wasn’t clear how this account would profit from its deception. I decided to message the imposter in private again. Why are you impersonating Kyle Torpey, I asked. “Hello,” came the bot-like reply, then silence.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Geoff Golberg was the first to identify a deception involving the Tron Foundation; he was among the first.