A CONSUMER watchdog has denied any responsibility for a sudden rise in its Twitter followers, as a surge of people from South America recently began taking an interest in Irish consumer affairs.
The numbers following the Consumers' Association of Ireland (CAI) at its @The_CAI account rose from just over 300 to more than 3,600 last Monday. Bosses at the CAI said they believed the account may have been hacked.
IT experts were called into the group late last week after the problem was discovered, CAI chief executive Dermott Jewell said, adding it did not purchase any fake followers in an effort to boost its profile.
The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, which has approved IT grants of some €92,000 to help the group boost its profile and grow members, was notified of the problem last week.
"Apparently we've been spammed. It's very difficult to ascertain by whom and when, and we only realised it after last weekend. We're still at a loss to understand how," Mr Jewell said.
"We had about 300 or 400 followers, and overnight it escalated to more than 3,500, particularly from South American countries. We're at a loss as to why.
"We have an IT company working for us on a project basis and all we could do was bring it to their attention and they're trying to solve it.
"They (the followers) were not bought by the CAI or the agent carrying out the project on our behalf. We thought it rather important that the department which gave us the funding was made aware of it. We gave a statement and clarification to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on Thursday or Friday."
Some websites sell followers for as little as $20 (€14) per 1,000, and users are often unaware their accounts are being used to boost others' profiles.
Site fakefollowerstwitter.com guarantees to boost profiles by 1,000 followers in just three days, and one million can be purchased for just $2,500 (€1,850) and delivered in three weeks.
In a filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission in October last year, Twitter estimated that 5pc of its accounts were "false" or "spam".
Mr Jewell said that unless it could remove the fake accounts, it might have to shut down its Twitter feed.
"It's attracted such negative attention in such a short space of time which is of concern to us," he said.