Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is facing scrutiny after a study conducted by Barracuda Labs, a digital security company, highlighted an “abnormal increase” in the number of his followers on Twitter.

Barracuda Labs is the global “research and threat analysis team” of Barracuda Networks, an IT security company based in Campbell, Calif., with a branch office located in Ann Arbor.

Published on Aug. 3, the study, called “The Twitter Underground Economy: A Blooming Business,” analyzed the growing market for fake profiles on the social networking site.

Mary Catherine Petermann, director of corporate communications for Barracuda Networks, said the company’s researchers have been looking into social networking usage and threats for the past few years.

“About six months ago, we conducted a study into the fake accounts on Facebook — and then just last week, Facebook said in its SEC filing that it has approximately 83 million fake accounts registered as users,” Petermann said. “This week, we extended that look into Twitter and found some very interesting results.”

Researchers at Barracuda Labs created three Twitter accounts in May 2012, at the beginning of the study. In approximately three months’ time, the researchers purchased some 20,000 to 70,000 “followers” for each of the three accounts.

Researchers found that followers could be bought from sites as commonly used as eBay.com. The study cites that the fake followers were bought from 20 different eBay sellers and 58 websites of 100 results returned from a Google search of “buy twitter followers.”

From the study’s data, researchers calculated that the average price for 1,000 “followers” is approximately $18.

With only a Twitter username required to purchase phony accounts, and considering that “dealers” — as Barracuda refers to the sellers of bogus followers — can control as many as 150,000 accounts, it is easy to see how this business is a growing one.

The report also examined a recent, oddly large spike in the number of followers of Romney’s Twitter account, @MittRomney.

In a single day, July 21, 2012, the number of Romney’s followers increased from 673,002 to 789,924 — an increase of 116,922 followers or approximately 17 percent in one day.

140elect.com, a website that provides metrics of tweets relevant to the 2012 election, reports that in the month prior to the spike, Romney gained an average of approximately 3,000 to 4,000 followers per day.

Barracuda Labs analyzed 152,966 of Romney’s followers that began following between July 21-26. The analysis highlighted that 25 percent of the examined followers were less than three weeks old and 80 percent were less than three months old.

The study also concluded that almost one quarter of the same followers had no tweets at all and that Twitter had suspended 10 percent of the accounts.

Jason Ding, the report’s author, said the research team has reason to believe that most of Romney’s recent followers are “not from a general Twitter population,” and most likely resulted from a paid Twitter service.

Because authentication is not necessary to purchase Twitter accounts, Ding also cautioned that it isn’t possible for the researchers to identify the exact source of the followers with the information they were provided.

“It is possible for anyone to buy followers for other Twitter users,” Ding remarked. “So far, there is not a feasible way to confirm who is responsible.”

The report noted that it’s also unclear whether Romney’s supporters, his rivals or Romney himself paid for some of his Twitter account’s latest followers.

Zac Moffatt, the digital director for Romney’s campaign, has “rejected accusations” that the campaign was purchasing followers for Romney’s Twitter account, according to BuzzFeed.com.

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