You can buy anything on the black market – including Twitter handles

The perfect @ identity is a must-have accessory for big companies and brand-conscious celebrities at any cost

Everything has a price, even the top Twitter handles, and if somebody does not want to sell then they may be forced to relinquish their account.

“We have a marketplace which allows the sale of Twitter handles,” says Philly, a subversive marketer who founded ForumKorner, an online gaming forum. “Unlike some websites, however, we do not allow the sales of stolen accounts that some people phish, or hack, to obtain before reselling them.”

It’s the same across the whole of social media. Last month a teenage boy was given a £5,000 cruise in exchange for his Snapchat username while accounts on Instagram are sold openly on online marketplaces.

Shady brokers stalk the web searching for the most potentially lucrative handles, convincing their owners to part with them before reselling at a significantly higher price.

“It’s funny some people don’t know the true value of a handle,” says another trader on condition of anonymity. “For example, I used to look for three-letter acronyms. The handle would generally go for around $30 but little do they know people look for specific @’s correlating with their business. I’ve flipped $20-$40 to $700 on multiple occasions.”

Elsewhere, people allege their accounts have been phished, and their handles stolen and sold, yet Twitter has apparently not implemented robust systems to prevent the practice.

“Twitter has yet to go after the hackers or phishers, let alone the legitimate account sellers, like myself,” says Philly. “Phishing an account is as easy as downloading an infected program, ticking a couple options and hitting run.”

“They used social engineering strategies with multiple other services and sites (like Amazon),” says Josh Bryant, a designer at a digital product firm, who documented how he almost lost his handle in a blog post.

“The why is just money. I own both @jb on Twitter and Instagram and there’s a huge economy for desirable usernames right now. If a hacker can get them, list and sell them before the site responds they stand to make a pretty healthy profit.”

‘Twitter sent me automated emails claiming I was impersonating Chase Bank, which I wasn’t, before they took the username from me,’ says Chase Giunta, a software developer who previously owned the handle @Chase. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Another user claims their username was taken by Twitter itself. “A broker kept approaching me, and when I declined his final offer, a formal complaint was made to Twitter, by whom I don’t know, and the handle was handed over to JPMorgan,” says Chase Giunta, a software developer who previously owned the handle @Chase.

“I always assumed JP Morgan would want it since they’re the largest bank in the US, but I also assumed they, or maybe even Twitter, would contact me directly to set up some kind of exchange – not some shady broker.”

Twitter, however, does not permit the trading of usernames. It explicitly states: “Attempts to sell, buy, or solicit other forms of payment in exchange for usernames are also violations and may result in permanent account suspension.” This does not seem to have stopped them changing hands, though.

“After his last offer, I received action from Twitter,” says Giunta. “The steps they took to take my account down were incredibly unsettling. They sent me automated emails claiming I was impersonating Chase Bank, which I wasn’t, before they took the username from me.”

“Of course, in hindsight, I would’ve accepted his last $20,000 offer. But I thought I was doing the ‘right thing’ by turning it down at that time.”

This sentiment was echoed by Patrick de Laive, the founder of The Next Web, who was offered $20,000 for @patrick by an athlete.

Accounts may be permanently removed due to prolonged inactivity to prevent handle squatting. In the early days of the social media giant, this meant people could contact the administrator and request inactive handles.

A former Twitter employee told the Guardian how they could request unused usernames for themselves and family. Others have since demonstrated the relative ease in which enterprising people can secure their desired handle.

“I got my first name as my Twitter handle after a six-month campaign that included some light Internet stalking, badgering staff at Twitter, $250 and a visit to the patent office,” says Haje Jan, a director at Bold, a venture capitalist company, whose first name was taken by an inactive user.

“I registered a web domain for my first name to strengthen my case (in case the trademark people decided to look any deeper), then forked over my £170 to the Intellectual Property Office, registering Haje™ as a trademark.”

“Armed with the trademark I contacted Twitter’s support team and about a week later, I received an email saying that I could either create a new account or move the username to an existing account. Mission accomplished – and it turned out to be easier than I anticipated.”

It’s not just individuals who have bought up desirable usernames. The state of Israel bought the @israel handle for reported six-figure sum in 2010, while CNN employed the owner of @cnnbrk as a consultant in exchange for transferring them the account.

“Twitter has always been very clear that it’s against their terms and conditions to sell usernames but that hasn’t stopped people trying,” says Sue Llewellyn, who trains journalists to use social media. “They also frown upon people squatting on usernames – ie creating an account and not using it.”

“Frankly I think if a big name celebrity wanted a specific name that wasn’t being used then they could probably get it.”

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