The Internet makes it easy for people to voice their opinions. Unfortunately, the anonymity the Internet offers also makes it possible for people to post defamatory statements and false attacks that can harm reputations, cause emotional distress, and even destroy a business.
In some cases, the victim of online defamation has an idea who is behind the nasty commentary. But what can you do if the person targeting you has limited profile information listed, or does so from an anonymous username?
Fortunately, there are numerous ways to uncover the identity of an anonymous online defamer, including free tools that can help you discover the person behind the keyboard.
At Minc Law, we have proven experience identifying anonymous online defamers and perpetrators and holding them accountable for their actions. If you follow the below tips and are still unable to ascertain the identity of the anonymous person targeting you, it may be time to consult an experienced Internet defamation lawyer.
We have compiled a list of 22 effective free tools and tips to identify anonymous online defamers. They are broken down into six categories:
- Specialized Google searches;
- Reverse image searches;
- Free directory sites;
- Public records;
- Social media search apps; and
- IP address locators and lookup tools.
In this guide, we discuss the legal definition of defamation, why it is important to identify who is defaming you, and the best free tools and tips to identify online anonymous defamers.
Damage an Anonymous Online Defamer Can Do to an Individual or Company
The Internet has a far reach, and social media makes it easy for negative commentary to travel at lightning speed. While people do have a First Amendment right to free speech, they do not have a right to defame you or your business.
Defamation, also commonly referred to as defamation of character, refers to a false statement published to a third party that causes damage to another person’s reputation. For a statement to be classified as defamatory speech, it must meet four elements:
- The speech or statement was false,
- The statement was about (“of and concerning”) the plaintiff,
- The defendant published the statement to a third party with at least a negligent level of intent, and
- The plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the false statement.
You might also hear defamation referred to as “libel” or “slander.” These are both forms of defamation. Libel is a false statement that appears in print (or video) and slander is a false statement that is spoken. Online defamation is sometimes referred to as “cyber libel.”
The Damaging Effects of Anonymous Online Defamation
The consequences of online defamation are often serious and life-changing. For business owners, false statements (which include fake reviews) can lead to bad press, severed partnerships and business opportunities, loss of revenue and declining bottom-line, and even closing one’s doors for good.
For individuals, false commentary or allegations can lead to strained and severed relationships with friends and loved ones, financial ruin and denial of employment opportunities, and even physical symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and emotional distress.
Below are four examples of real cases that illustrate how destructive online defamation can be for victims.
Having to Uproot Your Life
A Georgia man was forced to quit his job after an anonymous online poster falsely claimed he was a pedophile and drug addict. The poster was identified as a woman the victim barely knew in real life.
In court, she said she posted the false accusations because she had “a feeling” the man was a criminal. The court ordered her to pay $404,000 in damages.
Mental Anguish, Loss of Business, & Loss of Reputation
In Texas, a court awarded a husband and wife $13.8 million after an anonymous online poster falsely accused them of pedophilia, drug abuse, and other crimes online.
An investigation traced the anonymous posts to a woman who previously falsely accused the couple and one of their employees of assault.
Ruined Yelp Business Rating
In Florida, a 5-star hotel saw its Yelp rating drop to one-and-a-half stars after a former guest encouraged his YouTube followers to swarm review sites with bad reviews.
Crippling Drop in Website Traffic
An Australian cosmetic surgeon’s website traffic dropped by more than 23% in a single week after an online reviewer falsely claimed he was incompetent and cruel toward patients.
A court awarded him $530,000 in damages.
Why You Should Identify the Source of Anonymous Defamation, Not Just Cover It Up
When people are harassed online by an anonymous poster, they may opt to ignore it and bolster their online reputations through the creation of new content. But this is not the most effective strategy for reputation management or repair.
First, if you do nothing to stop the creation of false content, the anonymous poster is free to strike again and again. This can lead to the generation of an unmanageable (and potentially viral) amount of negative content about you or your business.
Second, if you ignore an anonymous attacker, you are giving up the option to recoup defamation damages or losses as a result of the false statements.
If you do decide to pursue civil redress through the legal process, identifying and naming a defendant will not only help you recoup damages, it will also strengthen your chances of getting the targeted defamatory content removed from the underlying website.
The best way to protect yourself or your business from an online defamer is to identify the person attacking you.
Top Free Tools to Identify an Anonymous Online Defamer
There are numerous free tools that can help you uncover the identity of a person defaming you or your business online.
Your first step in identifying an anonymous defamer should always be conducting a Google search. This step may sound too easy, but a simple Google search often provides enough information to identify an anonymous poster.
When you conduct your search, try Googling a few different pieces of information. Search the poster’s name, username, alias, location, or any other information you can find. People often use the same screen name or alias across several different platforms, which can help you uncover additional details about them.
If you have a poster’s email address or account username, this alone might be enough to dig up more information. For example, a username like JohnA1234567 or the email address JohnA1234567@gmail.com might lead you to social media profiles or blogs that bear the same identifying information.
Start by putting the whole username or email address in quotes: “JohnA1234567”. If that does not produce any results, search again with different sections of the username or email address isolated. For example: JohnA “1234567” and “JohnA” 1234567.
Search as many different variations as you can. Keep in mind that a string of numbers in a username or email address might be a physical address or phone number. People are not always careful about protecting their personal data, and some Internet users make the mistake of using easy to remember information like their home address or birthdate in their screen name.
This lack of care on their part can work to your advantage. If your searches turn up additional details like someone’s location, add that information to your search and keep digging. For example: “JohnA1234567 Los Angeles”. If you suspect the numbers in a person’s screen name are a phone number, try adding the area code: “JohnA2131234567”.
In some cases, Googling a username or other information will lead you to sites that produce more details, such as a poster’s hobbies or occupation. You should add this information to your search. For example: “JohnA Los Angeles dirt biking” or “JohnA Los Angeles mechanic”.
Conduct your searches in as many variations as you can. It can be helpful to write down all the details you uncover, so you can be certain you are not missing anything. This includes profile pictures. If you discover multiple profile pictures across different platforms, this information can be extremely helpful in making an identity. This brings us to the next step.
Reverse Image Search
Conducting a reverse image search can help you trace a photo posted online back to its source, which can yield helpful information about the person who posted it. For example, people often post the same photos across different social media platforms. A reverse image search of a photo posted on a review site might lead you to a Facebook or Flickr account, which can offer more details about the poster’s identity.
Below are five free reverse image search tools to try. To use these, simply right-click and save the image you want to search, then upload it to the tool. If you use your smartphone to search, save the image to your photos and then upload it to the app.
Free Directory Sites
There are many directory sites that gather and store information about people. This information might include names, addresses, phone numbers, and Internet personas.
In some cases, directory sites are free to use. However, others post snippets of information and charge a fee if you want to see more.
While these sites are not always 100% accurate, they may offer a good starting point. Generally, they offer the most benefit when you already have some information that you can use to help direct your search. For example, you might have a name, username, alias, location, or email address.
This directory site lets you search by email address, phone number, username, and other info. You can also do reverse phone lookups. There are both free and paid versions.
MyLife is a directory site that searches online public records and generates a “MyLife Public Page” for each person listed on the site. You can sometimes find a poster’s aliases and family members on the site.
TLOxp is a paid directory site operated by TransUnion, one of the three major credit bureaus. It boasts access to over 100 billion “public and proprietary data points.” The site offers a free trial.
Zabasearch is a database of public information, including names, addresses, and phone numbers.
Intelius is a public records database offering people and property searches, background checks, and reverse phone lookup. Some searches are free, but more in-depth search features require a monthly membership.
Pipl offers email addresses and identity verification, along with other data. There is a free five-day trial, and you can access limited information without signing up.
If you have the name of a business or website, a public records search might lead you to the name of the owner. Many courts and government entities make their public records databases searchable online. Below are four public records databases you can search:
Secretary of State
A quick search of your state’s Secretary of State website can yield important identifying information about a business, including the name of the person who registered the business. Keep in mind that a poster’s blog name might also be their business name.
If you suspect that the person targeting you is operating in multiple states, you can check the various state websites to see if those searches yield any results. The Balance Small Business has a list of websites for all 50 Secretaries of State.
National Sex Offender Registry
You can search the National Sex Offender Registry by entering a name or location. Each state also maintains its own sex offender registry.
The FBI maintains a list of every state’s sex offender registry site.
Copyright and Patent Records
In some cases, a business name is linked to a patent, copyright, or trademark which can reveal information about the person who filed it.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and U.S. Copyright Office databases are both free to search.
In the past, you had to physically go to the courthouse in person to ask for records. Now, courts have online databases.
An online docket search can yield important identifying information about a person, however, it will help if you have some information to start with.
For example, if you have a business name and location, you can search county and municipal court databases where the business might be located. This could turn up business filings, liens, or lawsuits that reveal the owner’s name. For further reading on how to remove mugshots and court records off the internet, we recommend checking out our article, “How to Remove Court Records from the Internet“.
In some cases, you might have the name of an online poster but have no way of contacting them or finding out where they live. Fortunately, sometimes a name is all you need.
Below are three apps and tools that can help you pull contact information from places like LinkedIn.
Contact Out is designed to work as a business lead generator and recruiting tool, but it can also help find email addresses and phone numbers from LinkedIn.
In many cases, Contact Out can even unearth email addresses hidden behind a protected LinkedIn profile. It is available as a Chrome extension.
If you can trace an anonymous online defamer back to an employer or business, Findthat.email might help you quickly locate their email address.
The Hunter.io Email Finder tool lets you find bulk email addresses for companies. You can also conduct a “John Doe” search with a company domain name to return all the email addresses associated with that domain that are available online.
How to Find the IP Address of an Anonymous Person
Online trolls hide under the guise of pseudonyms to preserve their anonymity on the Internet. To shield their identities, they may create their fake online profiles using a burner email address. A person who creates a burner email address can still be identified through their Internet protocol (IP) address.
IP data can reveal a lot of information about an Internet user, including:
- When they logged into a platform;
- Their geolocation;
- Their IP address;
- Their timestamped activities
IP data leaves a digital paper trail, and you can often follow it to identify the person using that IP address.
Every IP address on the Internet has an owner, whether it is an individual or an entity. In many cases, you can use an IP address to find a poster’s Internet service provider (ISP).
ISP data is highly protected. Even though you will need a court order to receive user data from the ISP, there are many free sites you can utilize to discover the ISP and ascertain the geolocation of an IP address.
At Minc Law, we utilize the following domain lookup tools to find this information:
- InfoSniper – Domain lookup service and IP locator tool. Free and paid versions available.
- Domain Tools Whois Lookup – Whois Lookup from Domain Tools lets you search for IP address history, domain ownership information, and other data.
- Whatismyipaddress.com – If you know a poster’s IP address, you can use this site’s IP lookup tool to trace it back to the ISP. It may also give you country, region, and city info.
Many times, the only way to discover an IP address is by filing a lawsuit and conducting discovery on Internet platforms. If you are struggling to attain the IP address of the person who posted defamatory content about you, it may be time to elicit help from an attorney.
Related: If someone else has registered your or your business’s name as a domain, you have three key options available to acquire the domain from the current owner. For further reading on the subject, visit our article “Someone Registered My Name as a Domain Name: What Are My Options?“.
You should keep in mind that the longer you wait to track IP addresses and subscriber information, the higher your risk of losing this data point and subsequently, an identification.
When to File a Defamation Lawsuit
After you identify the person attacking you or your business online, your next step is to request that they remove their posts. Sometimes, the embarrassment of being unmasked along with the threat of litigation is motivation enough for defamers to comply.
If the defamer does not comply (or you were unable to identify the person through the aforementioned free tips and tools) your next step is to learn how to file a defamation lawsuit.
The decision to file a defamation lawsuit should not be taken lightly, as every defamation case is unique and numerous factors must be considered when assessing a libel claim. It is critical to consult an experienced internet attorney before filing a defamation suit. They can help you:
- Determine whether you have an actionable defamation claim;
- Determine if the poster has any valid defenses, such as opinion, truth, or defamation privilege;
- Determine how much content the person targeting you has published and preserve it for evidentiary purposes;
- Work with websites and ISPs to receive data on who is defaming you;
- File the lawsuit;
- Negotiate and secure the removal of defamatory online content.
If you have questions about filing a lawsuit against an anonymous defendant, check out our detailed blog post explaining the process of a John Doe lawsuit.
Work With Experienced Internet Defamation Attorneys to Hold Anonymous Online Defamers Liable
In some cases, free tools available online are all you need to track down the person behind defamatory posts. However, if you are still struggling to identify an online defamer, or you have identified your online defamer and need help with your next steps, it is critical to reach out to an experienced internet defamation attorney.
Ali was sensitive to my situation while also being proactive, professional, and extremely timely. It was clear how invested she was in her work and in helping me and she was able to give me results that I didn’t believe were possible. Ali made me feel comfortable and supported through a really uncomfortable and demoralizing time. She responded to emails after hours on Friday nights, and acted just as excited as I did when she had good news to share. Ali, along with the rest of her team at Minc Law have the tools, knowledge, and strategies to track down and reason with the most stubborn and slimy of site hosts. I would absolutely recommend her to anyone in need of online content removal, and I could not be more grateful for her and her work!
MP, Nov 22, 2019
At Minc Law, we have proven success conducting online investigation services to identify anonymous perpetrators and can generally identify them 9 times out of 10 where data points on the individual are fresh and they are not a high-level hacker.
Reach out to schedule your free, initial no-obligation attorney consultation by calling us at (216) 373-7706, speaking with a chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.