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Most of the time when someone logs on to LinkedIn and sees a message with another generic pitch, they assume it to be harmless and ignore it. However, new research says the person who sent the message may not be real at all and that has raised concern among those who track AI advancements.

As NPR reports, a single message to Renée DiResta, a researcher of Russian disinformation campaigns and anti-vaccine conspiracies, lead to the uncovering of more than 1,000 LinkedIn profiles.

The sender of the message to DiResta appeared to be a real person named Keenan Ramsey. Ramsey’s profile stated she was a growth specialist at RingCentral, a company that provides “cloud-based business communications solutions.”

When DiResta looked further, Ramsey was missing an earring and had hair strands that started and stopped among other things. To take it one step further reporters called RingCentral to verify Ramsey’s employment. The company had no record of her.

For anyone who has spent time online fake profiles are no huge revelation and have been used to spread disinformation, with help from advances in AI. However, the profiles uncovered seem to lack malicious intent.

Their purpose: getting sales.

The fake accounts are used to capture potential customers, those who interact get connected to a real person to try and make a sale.

DiResta told NPR she received two more messages from people at RingCentral as the first messenger. One was fake, the other was real.

To the untrained eye, these profiles appear to be real. NPR reports show much like the account DiResta found they have realistic-looking photos, a list of former employers and educational credentials. Some even claim to have an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, which does not offer bachelor’s degrees.

According to Ramsey’s faux-employer, a vendor they hired to increase lead generation to in-house salespeople created the fake profiles but declined to name the vendor.

Whether RingCentral knew it or not this business of realistic-looking AI-generated profiles has become lucrative. One company DiResta and her research partner uncovered advertises a $1,300 package that comes with two “fully branded avatar profiles” and unlimited messages. Another company sells AI-generated profile pictures for $300 a month.

For the average person, telling real profiles apart from fake ones is not easy. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal, AI-generated faces are indistinguishable from real ones and are generally viewed as more trustworthy.

According to a LinkedIn transparency report, they removed more than 15 million fake accounts in the first six months of 2021. When asked about the fake accounts the researchers uncovered, officials with the social network told NPR they deleted the profiles that violated its policies.

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