Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has opened an investigation into "very serious allegations" that a company with South Florida ties has sold fake followers, some based on information swiped from the social media accounts of real Floridians, to a wide range of high-profile Twitter users.
Prompted by investigative reporting by the New York Times, Bondi's inquiry concerns two companies originally incorporated in West Palm Beach — Devumi and its parent company, Bytion.
The attorney general's office says it wants to talk to anyone who "has had their identity stolen and used to create a fake social media profile on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or any other social media platform."
"My office has opened an investigation into these very serious allegations," Bondi said in a statement released through an aide. "I encourage any citizen who believes they have been a victim of this scam to please contact my office."
The New York Times last weekend detailed the trade in fake social media followers with a focus on Devumi and its owner, 27-year-old German Calas, who did not respond to inquiries from the newspaper.
Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, according to business and court records reviewed by the newspaper.
Twitter celebrities with Devumi followers include actor John Leguizamo, computer billionaire Michael Dell, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, and model Kathy Ireland, who has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers.
In Florida, advertising agency founder Jordan Zimmerman, who serves as vice chairman of the board of trustees at the University of South Florida in Tampa, was among the high-profile Twitter users that the New York Times identified as having followers that they either bought themselves or that others purchased on their behalf.
In 2015, Zimmerman gave USF $10 million, which led the university to name the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications after him. USF also put his own personal brand — a giant 10- by 10-foot green "Z" — on the side of the building.
On Friday, a spokesman for Zimmerman, whose Twitter account indicates that he has 385,000 followers, said Zimmerman did not himself buy any followers and no employee at his ad agency was ever authorized to buy followers for Zimmerman or the firm.
Bob Zito, who handles public relations for Zimmerman, said the New York Times' disclosures were stunning and that the firm is now looking into the matter internally.
"It was not only disturbing, it was eye-opening to us," Zito said. "We had no clue that any employee had done that."
USF spokesman Adam Freeman said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that the university would not be commenting on the reports because "this issue is outside the scope of Mr. Zimmerman's role with the Board of Trustees."
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Since its initial news reports, the New York Times said more than a million followers have disappeared from the accounts of dozens of prominent Twitter users. Those followers are vanishing as Twitter faces growing criticism over the proliferation of fake accounts and scrutiny from federal and state officials into companies that sell fake followers.
Celebrities such as Leguizamo, including some who paid Devumi for Twitter followers or artificial engagement like retweets, are among those who have lost followers. Twitter has said it planned to take action against Devumi's practices but the company has declined to say if it is eliminating fake accounts.
Meanwhile, federal and state officials are scrutinizing Devumi and its competitors online, where numerous websites sell fake followers or engagement on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram and other social media platforms.
Senators Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the chairman and the ranking member, respectively, of the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection and data security, have asked the Federal Trade Commission to begin an investigation into the "deceptive and unfair marketing practices" of Devumi and similar companies.
While Devumi promises customers "100 Percent Active, English Followers," virtually all of the followers and retweets the company provides are fake, the New York Times reported. Twitter prohibits buying followers of any kind.
In a joint letter to the FTC, Moran and Blumenthal said consumers need to be protected from a "unique kind of social identity theft" that can create "a false sense of celebrity, credibility, or importance in people, companies, or institutions that may not deserve it."
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has also said he would review whether the company had violated state laws against impersonation and commercial deception.
On Monday, Devumi's parent company, Bytion, filed paperwork in Florida indicating it had moved its principal place of business to Colorado. Jared Stark, a lawyer for Calas' business, said in an email that both companies had relocated to Denver earlier in January, a move he described as "in the works for some time." He declined to comment on the investigations into Devumi.
The Chicago Sun-Times announced this week that it would suspend publishing reviews by the newspaper's film critic, Richard Roeper, while conducting a review of his social media following. Roeper bought at least 25,000 followers from Devumi, according to records reviewed by the New York Times, and an analysis of his account indicates that many of his nearly quarter-million Twitter followers are fake accounts.
This report was updated on Friday, Feb. 2, to include comments from spokesmen for Jordan Zimmerman and the University of South Florida. It includes information from Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Lawrence Mower and senior news researcher John Martin.