3 Ways to Recognize Bots and Spammers on Twitter

By Nathan Hangen, follow him @nhangen.

I remember the good old days back before Twitter had gone mainstream where it was a small and exclusive hangout for tech geeks and social networking addicts. There wasn’t a lot going on, and we didn’t have a lot of “celebrities” in the neighborhood, but we also didn’t have to worry about bots, spammers, and internet marketers. Sure, Twitter deserves to be set free for rapid consumption by all internet users, amateur and geek alike, but if we could only do something about these bots then Twitter could feel like home once more.

I don’t like getting my inbox hammered with spammy DM’s, and I certainly don’t like being tricked into following someone so that they can launch a full scale attack with a barrage of bit.ly affiliate links, but like so many others I didn’t really know what to do about it. Well, finally I had enough and I developed my own anti-bot strategy to keep my Twitter feed clean from Twitter spammers and other unruly scoundrels. It goes a little something like this: 1. Wait a few days before following new followers and manually vet those you do – One of the most commonly used tricks of automated Twitter spammers is to follow someone to see if they follow back. Normally, that isn’t a problem, but the difference between real people and software is that these bots will put you on a timer and unfollow you after a certain period of time so they can follow you again in order to send you another email. Still don’t follow back? No problem, the software will hammer you until you either follow back or block the user. If you wait a few days before you check out someone’s profile, it will give you a chance to see if the same name or ID shows up in your inbox more than once. If it does, then you can safely delete the notification without even taking a look at their profile…they are probably a spammer. If that doesn’t happen you can make the decision to check them out to see if they are someone you are interested in following. Thanks to Twitter’s upgraded notification emails, this is easier than it has ever been.

2. Keep an eye out for duplicate profile pictures – Spammers and bots like to use the same profile picture for hundreds of accounts and for some reason they think you won’t notice. Sometimes, they are even foolish enough to follow you with multiple accounts on the same day. I don’t know how this works, but it must considering it is a tactic that has gotten more prevalent over the past few months. The most commonly used pictures are cars, pictures of cash, dollar signs, and scantily clad women. Occasionally they’ll sneak in a normal looking profile picture just to try and fool you, but if you swear you’ve seen it before then you probably have.

3. Quote, Quote, Link – I admit, this is a smart strategy because at first glance it provides the look of an authentic Twitter profile. However, if you look a little bit closer you’ll see that this person tries to sneak in affiliate and sales page links in a manner as consistent as the 5 O’clock news. If you see a profile with an overabundance of quotes, take a deeper look. The chances are high that this person isn’t just sharing happy thoughts out of the kindness of their own heart. They are either a MLM’er or a bot trying to work you over. Nothing wrong with trying to sell, but nothing says scam like a sneaky link baiting strategy.

I don’t ever expect Twitter to stay free of sales links and marketing efforts, in fact that is one of the reasons that Twitter is such a useful tool, but I do expect people to use some sort of tact when exercising their marketing muscles. If your inbox is anything like mine, you’ve probably got more than enough spam, plenty of emails you don’t have time to read, and an overabundance of Twitter notifications that you don’t know what to do with. If you are looking for a quicker way to clean up, consider using these tactics to help you save time and the aggravation of a cluttered Twitter feed.

Comments

  • July 2, 2009

    Great article! I’ve been following more people that I think are geek-minded on twitter to raise awareness about my site, but I’m also trying to tweet something of value as well. Take care!

  • July 2, 2009

    Hits right to the heart of the matter.

    I mentioned today that I would love it if the notification emails we get with new followers also included the number of times they have been blocked, another good indicator that others have spotted this account as being spammy or a bot, though of course they could just be an obnoxious, offensive, loud mouth but it would certinaly make the manual process of deciding a little easier.

  • July 2, 2009
    randulo
    @randulo

    Re: profile photos

    Actually, I wrote to Twitter a few weeks ago having seen the same tweet (not RT) come from about 20 accounts, all nice looking women, mostly blone as it happens, but not identical. They were ostensibly for something VoIP -related, but went to a link farm SEO site having nothing to do with anything.

    Vetting people before following? I believe it to be absolutely essential. This said, people also open “normal” accounts, wait a while and THEN start the spam flowing.

  • July 2, 2009

    This hits exactly to the point with what I have been thinking lately. I love Twitter and will always use it, but these spam DM’s are driving me nuts. I don’t DM people anymore after I saw the annoyance it can cause. I feel it’s a feature in Twitter that they should do without. I also believe some type API or programs should be created to prevent these bots from being created. I don’t remember how it worked when I first created a Twitter account, but shouldn’t there be a captcha to type in to prove you are human and not a bot? Anyways, I feel the same way you do…these spam Twitter accounts have to be solved!

  • July 2, 2009

    Great post. Although I don’t have “an overabundance of Twitter notifications” :(

  • July 2, 2009

    Great tips. Spammers are all over Twitter but we as users can help. You can report spam by sending a message to: @spam followed by the persons username ie @spam @username

    I’ve encouraged people to join Twitter but they all get follow requests from the Spammers and it really devalues what Twitter should be for these new users. Some new users find it hard to grasp what Twitter is and the added follow requests from the likes of “Britney Sex Videos” doesn’t help to backup the idea that “Yes, Twitter is very useful for information and connections.”

  • July 2, 2009

    Just wondering, why are you accepting e-mail notification of new followers?

    I hadn’t figured out the point to spammers following me. I don’t get any e-mails from new followers. It’s an effective strategy. A spammy follower just boosts my follower numbers and seems no harm to me. I check them out manually and only follow back if they tweet intelligently.

    I wonder though, does a spammy follower access my follower list and use that to spam others? Until recently I just left the spammy followers alone, but lately I’ve been blocking more and more of them because they irritate me and because I wondered if they go on and bother my followers.

  • July 2, 2009

    I would add as a fairly reliable clue is the username. Lately, I’ve gotten a lot of follows by people with unpronounceable usernames…not from any language on Earth. Also, if there are a bunch of numbers in their usernames, they’re probable spam.

    I have follow emails turned off, so I manually check and don’t use an auto follow system. I miss the old days, too, when twitter was niche.

  • July 2, 2009
    Katie Metzelaar
    @Zelaar

    Its also a good idea to look at the timestamps of the posts. I’ve seen a few that make a ton of short and pointless twitters before spamming their link, then repeating the process. Things like “Wow I really love strawberry ice cream.” then a few minutes later, if that “Went to the salon earlier and got my hair done.” Followed by “Haha my hair is hard to brush!” In the end, a link is being spammed pretty regularly.

  • July 2, 2009

    The most recent wave of bots has not even taken off the default photo.
    There are a lot that don’t have a single tweet – easy to see if you are scrolling through your followers.
    No bio – no follow.
    User names like aaNPsedRL are another giveaway.

  • July 2, 2009

    Totally agree with everything said so far. The one that really gets my goat is the make thousands a day with my twitter system and get thousands of followers.

    One of the unfortunate side effects of this global recession is the massive number of people who appear to have swarmed to the online marketing world and as naive as they are they follow the advice of anything and everything they read. So it goes without saying that once they read a genuine article about social proof in the number of followers, then they read another sales page about getting thousands of followers in a few days and making money doing it, then the problem just compounds.

    Admittedly I have not long been using twitter simply because I viewed it as just one more place to spam. I was strongly encouraged to get an account, primarily because google loves twitter and it could help with PR. I’ll also admit that I have been using a bot simply to auto follow and send a simple greeting and introduce my blog. Today though I’ve started unfollowing anyone who tweets anything about making money with twitter or using a system to get followers.

    In some sense I do regret getting my twitter account, but I also see the immense value that it serves.

    Now if only we could find a simple solution to swap these spammy flies I’d be a very happy tweeter.

  • July 2, 2009

    The worst part about spammers in my opinion is that they fill your inbox and take away from the time you have to vet regular folks. It devalues other people’s attempts at interaction and makes life on Twitter more difficult than it should be.

  • July 2, 2009

    Good tips. I’d suggest using TweetChuck.com to help identify potential spammers. Also look out for folks just importing from Twitterfeed and not conversing.

  • July 2, 2009

    I’ve just started using Twitter with the hopes of connecting with people that are interested in my work. Immediately followers (only a few so far) appeared who don’t seem likely to be “genuine”. I’ve already decided to not automatically follow back. In fact, why follow someone you’re not really interested in? I suppose it’s a numbers game and the hope of going viral, but I’d rather keep it “clean and real”.

    Problem for me is knowing whether I’ve got some spammers, or whether they could conceivably be listeners to my podcast or visitors to my website who just happen to be marketing something. Thanks for your post for at least giving me a clue about what may be happening. For a newbie, non-techie like me, it can be a bit overwhelming. I can’t even conceive of how a person can have so many people they follow — do you just not read your news feed? I can’t spend hours on Twitter!

    Can you recommend posts on Twitter ettiquette?

  • July 2, 2009

    The reason I accept email notification of new followers is because it helps me find new people I never would have found otherwise. Sure, the task can be a pain, but as of now it is manageable.

    @becca, yes the username is usually an easy sign…MLMForLife for example :)

    @McLaughlin, yep they’ve started getting fancy with their techniques, but 9/10 times I see a dollar sign or pretty lady in a bikini it turns out to be a spammer…

  • July 2, 2009

    You raise some good points here.

    Personally I would diversify a bit more. Dough I also receive a lot of spams through DM’s I don’t believe all of them are intentionally. I can see that some links comes from people that not are familiar with Twitter etiquette. And at the moment I can’t see that Twitter has defined this type of action as spam. I guess there would been added restrictions there a long time ago then. Until that happens I think TwiTip and other great Twitter sources has to work on develop an Twitter etiquette that is widely accepted among Twitter users.

    Not sure if agree on point 3. I have many friends that I follow that have quotes in their Twitter timeline. Used also quotes myself. I personally focus most on providing motivational quotes. And since I don’t have a team working for me, and don’t have the time to sit down and send tweets all day long I automate some of my tweets through services like Twitterfeed. This to me has nothing to do with spamming.

    I prefer to do as much as possible by using manual procedures.

    And as I started out, I think you bring up some valuable points here. Spam is most definitive a problem that we has to help each other solve. Personally I don’t want Twitter to end up with a bunch of rigid restrictions of what you can and can’t do.

    So hope to see a follow up article defining some good Twitter etiquette.

    Cheers

  • July 2, 2009

    @ecomind The quoting I’m talking about is different…typically you’ll see:

    Quote 1
    Quote 2
    Quote 3
    Link

    I don’t think that provides any value and that the quotes merely serve a purpose to create the image of a normal account.

  • July 2, 2009

    ah, I hate spammers, unfollow them as soon as I see they aren’t up for the good cause! good tips though!

  • July 2, 2009

    I turned off twitter follow notices, so this isn’t an issue for me. I do get the occasional spam DM, but just delete. It is a pain looking over my new followers and sorting thru the crap, but the new twitter follower page helps alot.

  • July 2, 2009

    I got to tell you, I am a bit annoyed at one part of your blog post. In regards to sending out quotations and occassionally sending out an affiliate link. yes, I do make and send out quotations, actually I send out about 600 separate quotes that I have researched and taken the time to type in and send out. Is it mindless and thoughtless? No not at all, it has been mimicked by many, however I get over 200 RT’s and thanks for sending that message that I do not feel as though I am a spammer. Yes, I do send out affiliate links, yet I have one question… Do you think that one is not allowed to make any money at all? As much time as I spend on twitter, I have to pay rent and feed my kids as well. I do not consider myself a spammer and have not been accused of it. Bottom line, if you don’t like what I send to you, be sure to unfollow or block my acct. It will not hurt my feelings and I hope it doesn’t hurt yours as well.

    Thanks for letting me tell my side of the story.

  • July 2, 2009

    Lately I have seen a lot of Twitter ID’s that are obviously computer generated, abc567,abc568, etc.

    Look out for these.

    I guess it will be a game of cat and mouse with spammers on Twitter for a while.

  • July 3, 2009

    Very cool post with some excellent suggestions. Like anything else in life, however, the good comes with the bad. The best thing about Twitter is that you can control your own universe and make it your own, and these strategies definitely help. As for me, I always send a thank you DM personally to each of my followers. 98% of the time, people appreciate it, the other 2% don’t. Quite frankly, it doesn’t bother me, since I have made Twitter my own. Nice post.

  • July 3, 2009

    Thanks Nathan for the clarification.

    I am working on getting my Twitter profile to appear as close as possible to where I define my niche and approach.

    I did not see your comments as an attack on profiles that provides quotes. Agree that there need to be a balance on your tweets so that you don’t risk being seen as a spammer.

    Cheers..

  • July 3, 2009

    Scott,

    If you read through the comments you’ll see that I’m not dismissing quoting as a practice, just as a method to sneak in links. Quoting is great, but as the sole source of content…I’m not so sure.

  • July 3, 2009

    Nathan,
    My apologies, you are most correct, I had not read the comments and just fired off an answer without researching it. I did check out Tweetchuck.com and think it is a wonderful resource to use to vet spammers.
    So please accept my apologies, some of us do care and send out numerous tweets (automated) yet they have been met with open arms.

  • July 5, 2009

    Great post addressing a serious issue. As always a small amount shows the bad behavior, which influences the rest. Anyhow, I agree that commercial activities on Twitter are allowed, as long as they are targeted. In that case I wouldn’t call it spam.

    I fully agree that accepting new followers increases your group of friends and in fact it is the only way to start interaction. Twitter shouldn’t be only about sending, although it feels like this is getting the mainstream. To find this interaction you need to choose the people you follow carefully.

    To prevent “spam”, fortunately I do not have too much, I stopped using all kind of auto followers. That is one of the best tips mentioned above. It generated too many accounts that I did not want to follow. I am still cleaning up. While cleaning don’t forget to “block” the suspected spammers, just to prevent that you coincidently refollow again.On my blog I tried to describe how I try to manage my followers list and especially how to find some great people to follow. Feel free to read: http://bit.ly/BGxaJ.

  • July 7, 2009

    Great tips. It’s hard to spot the spam sometimes, but your advice makes it easier.

  • July 19, 2009

    well true, I really need to workout n check how many bots are following me :)

  • November 17, 2009

    Good article, I have in fact come across duplicate profile pictures, I think you are on to something. Thanks for the tips

  • January 11, 2010

    Great article! I have always wondered about some of those twitter sites and really do hate those spammy dm’s. would rather they don’t send me any unless I won something!!

  • May 14, 2010
    Jim

    Check the date/time that tweets go out for a given account. Many bots still post at regular intervals. People, generally don’t.

  • November 2, 2010

    I’ve just written a blog post with more tips to identify Twitter bots. I thought it could complementary to this one. Here you have it: http://bit.ly/bAdc2x
    Cheers,

  • January 2, 2011

    great insights,but you can use the block option to prevent this kind of bots

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