What do you do if you want to do a study of spammers on Twitter and you have about $5,000 to burn? If you're like the researchers at the University of California Berkley and the George Mason University in Washington DC, you buy 120,000 Twitter accounts from spammers.
Researchers from both universities did a ten month study, which they received permission from Twitter to do, in which they spent a little over $5,000 and were able to buy up 121,027 Twitter accounts that were used by spammers and analyze the data on how they had been created.
"There's a vibrant market for the sale of fraudulent Twitter accounts," says Chris Grier, a researcher at Berkeley and the International Computer Science Institute. Some came from online storefronts that make buying accounts in bulk as simple as purchasing something on Amazon. Others were bought in person-to-person transactions brokered on forums where spammers do business.
Grier also stated that while the price was not always the same, they could typically purchase accounts at a cost of approximately $40 per thousand accounts, indicating there is a well established market for purchasing bulk Twitter accounts.
Analyzing the data showed that spammers were creating accounts by using connections routed through various countries (160 in all) so there were no obvious jumps in registrations coming from a single location, and that most of the accounts were created using Hotmail or Yahoo e-mail addresses.
They then wrote some software that would flag "suspicious" accounts created on Twitter, and scanned all of the Twitter accounts registered in the last year and turned up several million accounts that followed that type of pattern.
This type of research reveals some of the strategy used by spammers and helps to reduce the amount of spam, but it is a sure bet that spammers will figure out ways to get around any implement detection systems which prevents them from lining their pockets with peoples hard earned cash.