Millions Fall Under the Spell of Virtual Influencers + Coronavirus Scams Latest

Survey shows many don’t know virtual influencers are fakes: Internet Scambusters #911

A new breed of online characters is being developed to persuade us to buy stuff we may not need.

Virtual influencers, computer-generated images, are so realistic that a survey showed that many people didn’t realize they were fakes, as we explain in this week’s issue.

We also have the latest on Coronavirus scams, reporting on new tricks aimed at stealing your money.

Let’s get started…


Millions Fall Under The Spell of Virtual Influencers + Coronavirus Scams Latest


You’ve heard about fake news. You know about deep fake videos. We’ve even told you about social media influencers who get paid to promote products. But how about influencers who aren’t even people at all — virtual influencers?

Yes, that’s right; we’ve entered the age of virtual influencers — characters who look like real people but who exist only as computer code and in the minds of whoever created them.

You might think it’s an inevitable next step in the realms of image manipulation. The worry is that it’s another step in the realms of people manipulation, leading us down the path to scams.

The idea is known as computer-generated imagery or CGI. And if you think you wouldn’t be fooled by one of these virtual beings, as they’re called, guess again. A study last year of the most tech savvy generations — millennials and Gen Zers — found that 42% of them had followed a CGI influencer without realizing they were fakes.

And if you think it’s only a few people who follow these characters, statistics show that one of them, known as “Lil Miquela,” has 2.2 million Instagram followers. “She” quietly operated for two years before she was revealed to be a virtual being created by a little-known Silicon Valley start-up.

In 2018, when CGIs were just starting to become visible, Miquela was named one of the 25 most influential people on the Internet. Now we see her modeling clothes (Calvin Klein, Chanel, and Prada for example), grocery shopping and generally having the good life we’d all like!

If you have an Instagram account, you’ll find her at @lilmiquela, where she’s described as a “change-seeking robot.”

Let’s stress that, as of right now, there’s no evidence that CGI characters are scamming. But we already know that human influencers have been caught out promoting products without acknowledging they’re getting them for free and that they’re actually being paid to praise.

And, according to a study published late last year, more than half of all people who followed CGI influencers admitted to buying products recommended by them.

Action Urged

So far, one anti-scam organization we’ve written about before — Truth in Advertising (TIA) — has suggested the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) might consider updating its influencer endorsement guides to encompass the activities of what TIA calls “brand-loving bots.”

In these guides, the FTC argues that the most important principle of being an influencer is authenticity — the authentic experience and opinion of the endorsement.

“But what if the endorser isn’t human?” TIA asks.

We’ve reported already that the FTC has chastised some celebrities for failing to mention that they were being paid for the products they were showing and wearing. One imagines that it will be far easier for eager manufacturers and retailers to use CGIs for the same purpose.

Or, as the global news site Business Insider recently noted: “(F)ake people don’t necessarily have to follow the same rules in terms of sponsored content that real influencers do — a loophole brands could use to their advantage.”

People are open to being manipulated by this new wave of marketing, Insider warns.

After all, CGI producers can, quite literally, put the words into the mouths of their virtual endorsers. And they can make their “bots” look exactly how they want them to, to show off products to best advantage.

More to Come

Our guess is that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these characters in the coming year.

As Robins Kaplan, a legal firm specializing in this area, commented: “Human influencers have been around for a while and certainly provide a good channel for brand promotion and marketing, but virtual influencers are now taking the limelight and are set to completely transform the current influencer industry.”

And despite the fact that many millennials and Gen Zers can’t tell them from real humans, it is usually possible to distinguish them, at least for now.

Often, the lips of virtual characters don’t always sync or move correctly with the words that are being spoken. They also usually have unbelievably smooth complexions, blink slowly, and move their heads in an artificial-looking manner.

That’s for now. CGI techniques are bound to improve, so the best advice to follow is the same as if and when you tune in to real human influencers: Don’t buy on impulse. Do your research.

Human influencers have been around for a while and certainly provide a good channel for brand promotion and marketing, but virtual influencers are now taking the limelight and are set to completely transform the current influencer industry.

Coronavirus Scam Alerts

New scams that exploit the Coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis are emerging every week.

Because some people haven’t yet received their stimulus checks, scammers are phoning them offering to “help” in return for a fee.

No help needed. If you want to check what’s happening with your check, just ask the IRS.

And we warned last week about fake insurance agents selling non-existent health insurance. Now they’ve switched to selling fake travel insurance claiming to cover the illness.

Most travel insurance does not cover pandemics and you’d be unlikely to buy anything that does right now. But if you want to know more, hang up on the scammers and talk to your reputable, local insurance agent.

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!