Brand Impersonations On-Line: Brandjacking and Social Networks

Published: 2010-11-22
Last Updated: 2010-11-22 14:37:59 UTC
by Lenny Zeltser (Version: 1)
1 comment(s)

Companies invest heavily in their brands to build the desired association between the brand and the consumers. Most recently, organizations have embraced the practice of social media marketing campaigns to reach customers where they spend much of their time: on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Among the risks of social media activities is the opportunity for an impostor to impersonate the brand, using it to gain confidence of trusting consumers or to conduct other activities that tarnish the targeted brand. Let’s look at some examples and what we can do about this.

Phishing: A Form of Brand Impersonation

Let's set the baseline by first looking at phishing, which is perhaps the most common form of on-line brand impersonation. Phishing typically involves setting up a website that resembles that of the company whose customers are targeted as part of the phishing attack. The idea is to convince the individuals that the website belongs to the trusted company, such as the person’s bank, so that the victim reveals sensitive information (such as logon credentials).

Phishing scams are often conducted with the help of cybersquatting, which is the act of "registering, trafficking in, or using a domain name with bad faith intent to profit from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else." If the URL of the phishing site includes the impersonated company’s name or its product name, the victims are more likely to consider the site legitimate. (Unfortunately, some companies conduct marketing campaigns in a way that makes legitimate activities resemble phishing.)

Most companies whose customers are often targeted through phishing attacks know how to deal with these incidents by now. The effort involves identifying the appearance of phishing sites using approaches such as:

  • Examining referrer logs of web servers for anomalies
  • Soliciting phishing reports from customers
  • Detecting fraudulent transactions
  • Performing web searches for brand references

Once the company identifies a phishing site, it contacts the server's owner, hosting provider or the registrar to request that the site be shut down. There are firms offer phishing site take-down services to assist with this process.

Brandjacking: A Broader Perspective on Brand Impersonation

The term brandjacking refers to the act of assuming the on-line identity of a company or a person. From this perspective, phishing is a form of brandjacking. So is the act if impersonating a brand on a social network.

Brands might be impersonated by attackers on social networking sites to target the brand's customers. A fraudulent marketing campaign on a social networking site might look like it’s conducted by the brand, but it might actually be led by someone else. In the style of phishing, impersonation incidents put the brand’s customers’ data at risk, and may tarnish the brand's reputation.

Here are a few examples of Twitter accounts that were set up to impersonate well-known brands:

  • BPGlobalPR: Set up during the gulf oil spill in 2010 to satirize and criticize the situation. It has amassed around 200,000 followers, while the official BP account BP_America has around 20,000 followers.
  • ChuckNorris_: Spreads the humorous meme about Chuck Norris’ super powers and has around 21,000 followers. 
  • GapLogo: Set up in 2010 when Gap attempted to change its logo design. The account was used to satirize and critique the new logo and has around 5,000 followers.

Brand impersonation takes place on other social networks as well, of course. Here are a few examples:

Some brands (e.g., Chuck Norris) may benefit from the increased publicity brought about by the impersonator. In most cases, though, companies are rightly concerned that brandjacking will confuse consumers, dilute trademark defensibility and hurt the brand’s reputation. (For more on this, check out my social networking risks and rewards presentation.)

Dealing With Brand Impersonations on Social Networks

Identifying when the brand is being impersonated on social networks includes the activities outlined above in the context of phishing. Furthermore, a company can use search engines that can mine social networking sites to report upon all references to the company’s name, products, executive names or other elements of the brand.

Free social media search tools in this category include: SocialMention, Google Alerts, Twitter Search, Twazzup, CrowdEye, etc. Commercial tools include the various marketing campaign tracking tools, such as PostRank, and specialized products such as Social Sentry.

Once the company identifies the occurrence of brand impersonation, it can contact the corresponding social networking company, requesting that the account be shut down and, perhaps, transferred to the legitimate brand. The brand needs to clearly state why it believes the user of the social network who is impersonating the brand is violating that site’s terms of services or, perhaps, breaking the law. The request needs to include sufficient evidence to establish that the request comes from the legitimate brand and showing proof (e.g., screen shots) that the specified account impersonated the brand.

Read the terms of use and policies of the popular social networking sites in advance, so you don’t need to figure out whom to contact and how during the impersonation incident. A few pointers:

If the incident is serious, the company may need to involve law enforcement. In all such cases, it’s wise for the company’s information security, legal and marketing professionals to collaborate on defining and executing the incident response process.

Social networking sites are thinking about ways of verifying the authenticity of high-profile accounts. Twitter calls this "Verified Accounts," and places a check mark badge next to the names of Twitter accounts that it has verified. Unfortunately, there is no way for a brand to be requested that Twitter verify it: this is a closed, limited "beta" process at the moment. I am not aware of similar efforts by other social networking platforms to provide a mechanism of verifying authenticity of account holders. All that users can do at the moment is to look at the accounts recent activities and the number of followers to assess the likelihood that the account is legitimate--a process that can easily be gamed.

Have you recently had to deal with a social network account take-down incident? Please leave a comment or drop us a note.

-- Lenny Zeltser

Lenny Zeltser leads a security consulting team and teaches how to analyze and combat malware. He is active on Twitter and recently launched a security blog.

1 comment(s)


Poorly conducted marketing campaigns are not the only example of companies harming themselves and at the same time making it harder for anybody to determine legitimate from impostor messages. Regular communications with existing customers all too frequently include examples of bad practices on this front. Sometimes it is because every communication is treated as an opportunity to sell. Marketing is looking for the short term sale, public relations is looking for the long term of ongoing sales. Other times it is just bad choices such as embedding links in e-mails. I recall a few instances of a company's own security people labeling a legitimate email ad a phish attempt. So this also has an internal element to it for the companies. PR people aware of the potential damage of communications with poor security practices are a good allies.

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