A star is born almost every day on TikTok. The short video platform has turned some ordinary teenagers into online celebrities, and other celebrities have also flocked to the app to promote their online personas.

So it’s not surprising that a shadow industry selling fake TikTok followers has risen in parallel with the app’s popularity, catering to those in search of virality and clout. A quick search through Google these days gives people ample choices of vendors selling followers, likes and shares for a reasonable price.

As someone who doesn’t consider herself TikTok material, I decided to see if I could boost my own TikTok status.

The process was easy. I just had to type in my TikTok account, make a payment of US$2 for 100 followers and wait. I tried buying from two different vendors, but only one delivered. By the next day, I had gone from 18 followers to 118. I’m a star!

TikTok is the source of many viral videos, and some TikTok creators might be paying for fake engagement to stand out from the crowd. (Picture: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket)

Who are all these new followers and where did they come from? That’s not clear.

In a recent report, the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and its researcher Kanishk Karan unearthed TikTok accounts that could be inauthentic profiles. But the evidence is still inconclusive on whether the accounts have bots or people behind them. The clues were alphanumerical handles, no profile pictures or stolen pictures, and a lack of uploaded content while commenting on other users’ videos.

“There's a growing paying-for-engagement industry,” Karan said. “This isn't a TikTok-specific problem; fake engagement is across platforms, including Instagram and Facebook.”

Social platforms have long struggled in their fight against fake engagement. The same company that sold me TikTok followers also offers engagement for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Spotify, Soundcloud and Twitch. It even does it for messaging app Telegram.

The response from social media companies has been to deleting these accounts in droves. In a landmark move last year, Facebook and Instagram sued four companies in China for selling fake accounts, likes and followers.

TikTok’s own community guidelines point out that inauthentic activity is against the rules. TikTok owner ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment.

But if you’re eager to ramp up your TikTok following, you should know that turning to these vendors could endanger your privacy, according to DFRLab’s research. It found more than 50 apps on the Google Play Android app store that offer inauthentic engagement services in the form of likes, followers or shares. And these apps demand a lot of access.

Searching Google Play Store for “TikTok fans” turns up dozens of suspicious apps. (Picture: Screenshot from Google Play Store)

Once installed, many of these apps require access to many of a phone’s permissions. These can include access to the phone's contact list and the ability to modify content. The privacy policies for the apps often appeared to be copied from other apps -- and that’s if they had a privacy policy at all. Google’s rules state that apps should disclose how they collect, use and share data. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

But many of these apps might also be scams. I tried several apps promising to deliver fake followers within one to seven days, but not before being bombarded by a number of ads. One app instructed me to share 10 TikTok videos in order to get my content shared. Another promised likes for using certain hashtags. And one app told us to watch ads “to prove you are human.”

After multiple attempts, though, these apps gave no results. My follower count didn’t budge. And what happened with my precious data is anybody’s guess.