By Mark Fairlie.

A handful of popular and “verified” Twitter accounts were hijacked on the 4th November 2018 by online fraudsters to promote “the biggest crypto-giveaway in the world” by Tesla and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.

Daily Beast reporter Lachlan Markay reported that the scammers had been successful in their efforts with over $158,000 paid by people taken in by the deception and more contributions “are still coming”.

How the scam worked – technically

The scammers hijacked well-known, popular, and verified Twitter user accounts to promote the deception. A verified user on Twitter is a person or organisation whose identity has been authenticated by the platform. Notification of their verification appears as a blue tick symbol next to an account user’s name.

The presence of a verified badge is not an endorsement of the person, the organisation, or content of the feed, according to Twitter.

Elon Musk Bitcoin Twitter Scam

Despite this, the presence of the verification icon is an important marker of trust that many platform users count on for the veracity and authenticity of the contents of an individual tweet or group of tweets.

Upon successfully gaining access to these verified accounts, to confer extra legitimacy and believability, the scammers then changed the account names to a close approximation of “Elon Musk” and used a photograph of Mr Musk as the account image.

How the scam worked – Elon Musk’s history

As of November 2018, Mr Musk has a net worth of $22.3bn and he is, to many, one of the business heroes of the internet age. Mr Musk was instrumental in the growth of online payment platform, Paypal, and its later sale to eBay (it has since demerged from eBay).

He has since headed up electric car giant Tesla, space exploration company SpaceX, and released his concept for a high-speed transportation system called Hyperloop to the public for commercial exploitation.

The style, manner, and tone of Mr Musk’s interactions with the Twitter platform and other Twitter users are unusual for a high-profile CEO. Writing for Salon magazine, commentator Keith A Spencer, observed that “The arrogant billionaire can certainly afford a social media manager. Instead, he keeps digging deeper holes…

“Just as Donald Trump built a brand around being successful, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has built a brand around being smart…Robert Downey Jr.’s depiction of polymathic CEO playboy Iron Man in the Marvel movies was loosely based on Musk, forever equating the two in many fans’ minds”.

Mr Musk argues with other CEOs of space flight companies, labelled one of the Thai cave rescue heroes as a “peado” (twice), sold flamethrowers to fans, launched a sweet company, and broke stock exchange rules by implying that he had the funding to take Tesla back into private ownership.

Tesla has, according to many observers, been dogged by production problems. Many have also raised questions about the financial viability of Tesla now that US government subsidies for electric vehicles are being pared back. Mr Musk has addressed these issues many times on and off the Twitter platform.

Elon Musk’s reputation

Mr Musk communicates with customers and the financial press in a markedly different way to other CEOs in the USA. This may have been one of the reasons behind many believing that the Bitcoin tweet made in his name without authorisation was real.

In this Tweet, Mr Musk’s impersonator states that he is giving away 10,000 Bitcoin (at time of writing worth £49,410,777.37), that he has left the post of director at Tesla, and that for every 0.1 to 1.0 Bitcoin sent to a Bitcoin wallet whose link is provided in the tweet, between 1.0 and 10.0 Bitcoin would be returned.

Once a post was made from one of the hijacked accounts, other hijacked accounts reply to the tweets “in an attempt to lend them further credibility”, according to Smart Company.

Mr Musk’s identity has been exploited in previous cryptocurrency scams leading to Twitter “cracking down on fake accounts”.

Featured photo credit: Steve Jurvetson