Social media services, dating websites, and other online platforms are increasingly becoming the norm for how we communicate with one another, meet new acquaintances, and develop meaningful relationships. They are also hotbeds for more sinister uses, such as online impersonation and catfishing, which can be significantly difficult to detect.
Oftentimes, victims of online impersonation and catfishing do not know they are being “e-personated” until significant damage to their livelihood has been done. The effects can be catastrophic for victims, including the threat of financial and reputational ruin, legal jeopardy, physical assault, and even suicide.
At Minc Law, we have extensive experience stopping online impersonation and catfishing. We know what it takes to not only identify online impersonators and catfishers, but remove damaging content and hold perpetrators liable for their actions.
Should you discover that you are being impersonated online, act quickly to safeguard yourself.
- Report the offending account(s) to the online platform(s) for violation of Terms of Service (ToS).
- If you have any concerns for your safety or you suspect the intent of the e-personation is criminal, report the issue to the proper law enforcement authority.
- Take screenshots of or otherwise preserve the suspicious online activity.
- Document evidence of all damages to you or your business.
- Save all communications (if any) either directly with, or with anyone regarding, the impersonator.
- Discuss your situation and concerns with an experienced Internet attorney.
Below, we walk through in greater detail:
- Online impersonation laws in the U.S.;
- Why online impersonation poses a serious threat to you, your reputation, and your livelihood;
- How to detect online impersonation; and
- Most importantly, how to escape the perils of and stop online impersonation.
Online Impersonation & Catfishing: The Problem & Background
In today’s digital landscape, it is far too easy for anyone to create an online profile or user account. Most platforms either do very little or nothing to verify actual identity, and almost all platforms do not require that user accounts be registered, much less operated, under the user’s actual legal names.
The registration process tends to be very quick and fairly simple. For instance, to create a Google account, although such information is requested, entering your real name, phone number, address, secondary email, or any other identifying information is all optional.
The only requirements are selecting an available Google username, assigning a password to your newly created account, and agreeing to Google’s Terms of Service.
The inability and/or disinterest of online platforms to vet or in any way verify their users’ identities has allowed malicious online actors, trolls, catfishers, and impersonators to safely operate under a mostly effective shield of anonymity.
Non-Existent & Bare Minimum Identification Verification Processes
With bare minimum registration and verification processes in place, a malicious online user could rather easily create a fake online profile or account impersonating another individual and then use that account to:
- Attack and threaten other individuals (or businesses) online;
- Post factually inaccurate and defamatory content;
- Communicate with a victim’s friends, family members, coworkers, and acquaintances;
- Solicit financial and highly personal information;
- Post intimate and obscene photos and videos;
- Engage in various forms of fraud.
A related issue is when a perpetrator hacks an existing user account. If you have a social media account, email address, or other online profile, you surely have received a friend request, direct message, or email from what appears to be a friend or family member’s account but is actually a hacker trying to pull you into some sort of scam/scheme.
Lack of Necessary Rules & Requirements in Terms of Service
A website’s Terms of Service (ToS) is an agreement, to which the user registering the account is legally bound, defining the acceptable behavior and guidelines that must be followed in order to create an account and utilize the services offered.
Many online platforms, including most social media websites, do not have provisions in their ToS that require users to register accounts under their actual names. This has resulted in the common use of fictitious usernames and pseudonyms, and sometimes the creation of elaborate Internet personas and personalities which differ greatly from those of the users operating the accounts.
Illustratively, a 40 year-old man can rather easily masquerade online as a 20 year-old woman, with a name, profile picture, and other descriptive information to match this fake persona on many mainstream platforms, without running afoul of the applicable ToS.
Lack of Codified Laws Addressing Online Impersonation & Catfishing
U.S. laws covering online impersonation leave much to be desired. Very few states (e.g. Texas, California, Florida) have enacted statutes directly addressing the issue. Moreover, the state laws which have been passed are often criticized for being either too narrow in scope and application on one end of the spectrum, or too broad, vague, and constitutionally questionable on the other end.
These competing forces and interests will inevitably lead to a line of legal challenges, the outcomes of which will likely vary because there is no uniformity in the manner in which the individual states are attempting to address the problem.
3 Comprehensive Online Impersonation Laws in the United States
|Texas Penal Code Chapter 33, Section 33.07 ||“A person commits an offense [online impersonation] if the person, without the other person’s consent and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person, uses the name or persona of another person to: (1) create a web page on a commercial social networking site or other Internet website; or (2) post or send one or more messages on or through a commercial social networking site or Internet website.”|
|California Penal Code Chapter 8, Section 528.5 ||“[A]ny person who knowingly and without consent credibly impersonates another actual person through or on an Internet Web site or by other electronic means for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person is guilty of a public offense….”|
|Florida Statutes Chapter 817, Section 817.568||“Any person who willfully and without authorization fraudulently uses, or possesses with intent to fraudulently use, personal identification information concerning another person without first obtaining that person’s consent, commits the offense of fraudulent use of personal identification information, which is a felony of the third degree.”|
While most states have not legislatively addressed the issue by passing laws specifically governing e-personation, victims are not without a path to relief.
There is almost always some available cause of action or more general criminal code section a victim may utilize in response to online impersonation. More traditional privacy and identity theft laws can often be adapted to instances of online impersonation.
Are Parody Accounts Considered Online Impersonation?
Online parody accounts typically do not fall within the scope of applicable U.S. online impersonation laws and available causes of action.
Parody is a form of expression that ridicules another or imitates them in a comedic way, and is generally protected under the legal doctrine of fair use.
An illustrative example would be Congressman Devin Nunes’ ongoing legal battle against the parody Twitter account “Devin Nunes’ cow” (@DevinCow) that continuously ridicules and mocks the politician’s often-repeated claim of being a dairy farmer.
Rep. Nunes has repeatedly argued that the bovine account is “slanderous,” “defamatory”, “cyberbullying,” and “harassment.” All of these claims have been dismissed by general legal consensus as highly frivolous and undermining of free speech.
In rebuttal to Nunes’ claims, an attorney emphasized, “It is self-evident that cows are domesticated livestock animals and do not have the ‘intelligence, language, or opposable digits needed to operate a Twitter account.’”
6 Possible Reasons Someone Might E-Personate You
Online impersonation and catfishing can happen to anyone. The fact that you are impersonated online can be completely random or highly targeted. Either way, you receive no advanced warning or notice of any kind. E-personators do not seek your pre-approval or other form of consent to “be you.”
Video: 6 Signs You Are Being Catfished on Social Media & Dating Sites
The impersonator’s motives can widely vary, ranging from mental illness, to jealousy and envy, to revenge, to an aggressive bully, and to even someone who simply admired your photograph and wanted to pretend to be you.
Mental illness is a common trait that online impersonators and catfishers possess, especially those illnesses associated with depression and/or overly obsessive qualities. Hiding behind someone else’s persona or likeness, enables the perpetrator to step outside of their actual reality and into a virtual reality more to their liking.
Revenge can certainly be a motive behind many attacks, which can vary in scope and severity depending on the degree of harm sought to be inflicted. Jaded former lovers, disgruntled ex-employees, and contentious neighbors can all cause massive damage to your reputation and livelihood by impersonating you online for the very purpose of causing others to form a similarly strong dislike of you.
Cyber-bullies have been known to create fictitious accounts for the purpose of impersonating and humiliating their victims. While these types of attacks tend to be purposefully mocking and are less likely to be credible impersonations, they can be every bit as emotionally tormenting as more sophisticated attacks and often cross the line out of parody and into something more serious.
E-personation is a tactic commonly utilized by online scammers seeking to “fleece” an unsuspecting or sympathetic person out of their money.
For example, at Minc Law, we have encountered numerous situations involving a scammer who poses as a military veteran to solicit money and donations and exploit the kindness of strangers.
We also frequently encounter instances of sextortion in which the victim is tricked into sending compromising photos or videos to an account posing as an interested romantic interest only to then face demands for cash payment to prevent those photos and videos from being leaked online.
Be very wary of online accounts that are quick to request the exchange of money within the first string of messages with them and definitely be skeptical of any and all dating app “matches” that request compromising photos or video chats in advance of meeting in person.
Minc Law E-Personation & Catfishing Tip: People often colloquially refer to online impersonation as “catfishing.” However, “catfishing” is actually a subcategory of online impersonation or “e-personation”, which involves the specific goal of luring a third-party into a romantic relationship through a fictitious or misappropriated online persona. The broader topic of online impersonation involves both catfishing and other forms of “e-personation” which can have various motives and purposes.
E-personation may also be utilized as a strategic weapon by competing businesses or companies seeking to gain a financial or reputational advantage through the publication of fake online reviews.
For example, one business owner may impersonate a customer or customers of a competing business, utilizing an innocent person’s image and/or name to post negative and untruthful experiences with their competitor’s product or services. This situation may also commonly include a not-so-subtle advertisement to instead use their (the competitor’s) products.
Boredom & No Reason at All
Sometimes, a perpetrator is simply acting out of boredom. While these instances may be less targeted, they can be just as damaging depending on the uses of the impersonating accounts and profiles, and the depths of the impersonation.
How to Know if You Are Being E-Personated
Word of Mouth
Victims of online impersonation can often be alerted to the same by some third party who has been catfished or otherwise contacted by the imposter. Do not outright dismiss or ignore any emails or phone calls, even from strangers, that are trying to bring this to your attention.
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Closely Monitor Internet Search Results
You should always closely monitor your Internet search results for many reasons, with safeguarding against e-personation being a very good one.
To perform a comprehensive search, we recommend that you carefully review several pages in Google’s search results, using specific keywords that identify you, your profession, and your business. The more common your name, the more specific you will have to be in your searches.
Search for variations of your name and your business’s name as well, adding locations and industry for more specificity as needed. Flag and closely examine any suspicious results.
Creating a Google Alerts account is a free and effective way to discover and monitor what is posted about you on the Internet. For a comprehensive digital risk monitoring service with 24/7 monitoring and alerts, consider utilizing Digital Risk Protection (DRP). DRP employs swift cybersecurity scanning to monitor the Internet for online impersonation, phishing, and malware attacks. For an overview of the benefits of DRP, we recommend checking out our article, “Frequently Asked Questions About Digital Risk Protection“.
Monitor Google Image Results
Google’s search engine delivers just as many image results as keyword results. Therefore, it is critical that you regularly monitor Google image results as well. Moreover, not uncommonly, the impersonation solely involves the use of your picture/image/likeness without any reference to your name or other identifying information.
For every keyword search you conduct, you should also look at the image results for that same search. Additionally, you can upload your picture (either in URL or .jpg form) into Google’s reverse image search function in order to determine where else that image may be found online. We recommend regularly conducting reverse image searches of any photographs you have uploaded online, such as any bio, profile, and avatar pictures.
How to Stop Online Impersonation & Catfishing
Preserve All Evidence & Communications
Step one of arming yourself to better stop online is to preserve all evidence of an online account’s suspicious activity. We recommend preserving the following information and evidence (if available):
- A screen capture of the user account or profile page;
- The user account URL (ex. Facebook.com/John.Smith489938);
- Posts, comments, and media on the suspicious profile;
- Search results in which the offending content appears;
- Any communications with or regarding the suspicious profile.
Preservation of such evidence is vital to protecting your rights of recourse and safeguards against the spoliation of evidence should the impersonator delete the account.
For example, when a user deletes their Facebook or Instagram account, all of their personal data is deleted and destroyed forever. Even a lawfully issued subpoena or search warrant for user information will not produce any results. Once a Facebook or Instagram user’s profile is permanently deleted, it is gone and the saying that “the Internet is forever” does not apply.
At Minc Law, we utilize professional preservation software tools, such as VisualPing and Page Vault to document and preserve online impersonation and catfishing attacks. Both VisualPing and PageVault ensure a genuine evidentiary “chain of custody” and a proper foundation can be established.
Audit & Protect All Social Media & Online Accounts
Conduct an audit of all of your social media accounts and online profiles that you do not closely monitor or regularly use. This includes but is not limited to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email accounts, user profiles, professional networking accounts, and online bulletin board handles.
When you are the victim of e-personation or catfishing, you often do not know the depths of the identity theft and e-personation. To be safe, it is crucial that you change all passwords to online accounts and deactivate or delete any online accounts that you do not regularly use.
For all social media and online accounts that you do regularly use, consider overhauling your privacy settings to prevent unauthorized users from viewing your profile and pictures, posting on your wall, or viewing your friend’s list.
Report the Perpetrating Account to the Online Platform
Report the impersonating or catfishing account in question to the platform. If a user is impersonating you on Twitter, you should report that account to Twitter. If a user is impersonating you on Facebook, then that account should be reported to Facebook.
To report a fake account on Facebook:
- Go to the profile of the fake or impersonating account;
- Click the box with three dots on the account’s cover photo (directly next to ‘Message’);
- Select ‘Find Support or Report Profile’;
- Select the problem (‘Pretending to Be Someone, Fake Account, Fake Name, etc…) and who they are pretending to be (‘Me’, ‘A Friend’, ‘Celebrity’);
- Click ‘Send’.
When reporting a suspicious account on Facebook or another online platform, make sure to explicitly describe the reasons why the profile should be removed and how it violates their Terms of Service (ToS).
Consider Reporting the Issue to the Police & Pressing Criminal Charges
Depending on the content, motives, depths, and use of your image and likeness by the perpetrator, consider reporting the issue to law enforcement and pressing criminal charges.
If the impersonating account has crossed the line into engaging in illicit activities such as conducting scams, posting revenge porn, or extortion for money, then it is recommended that you report the account and situation to the proper authorities.
Speaking with an experienced internet attorney can help you better understand your legal options and whether you should proceed with reporting the issue to your local police.
Discuss Your Observations & Concerns With an Experienced Internet Attorney
If you are the victim of online impersonation or catfishing, you should seek a consult with an experienced Internet attorney to discuss the situation and your concerns. Doing so can help you better understand whether any civil remedies are available in your jurisdiction and if any specific e-personation statutes, defamation laws, privacy laws, identity theft laws, revenge porn laws, or other avenues to relief apply to your specific problem.
Make sure to provide your attorney with all documented evidence and screenshots, as this can help determine the proper path forward. Specific e-personation statutes, identity theft laws, defamation laws, privacy laws, injunctive relief, and other options can all be explored with an experienced Internet attorney.
In many instances, whether you have an actionable claim and what legal remedies are available to you may depend on whether the e-personation involves a credible impersonation of you by the perpetrator. A credible impersonation means that even though both you and the perpetrator know that the account(s) in question is not genuinely you, others could reasonably believe that the profile is in fact operated by you.
Speaking with an experienced Internet attorney will help you better understand whether you are the victim of a credible e-personation, and what remedy is available to you.
Consider Sending a DMCA Takedown Notice
If any images you own are used in an e-personation or catfishing violation, consider sending a DMCA takedown notice to the perpetrating account. Any photograph or media that you own and is used without your consent may be subject to a copyright infringement claim.
While sending a DMCA takedown notice is something that could conceivably be done without the assistance of an attorney, there is a lot that can go wrong during the process, so we recommend that you at least first speak with an experienced Internet attorney. For a complete picture of this process, we recommend checking out our article on the subject, “How to Send a DMCA Takedown Notice.”
Document All Evidence of Damages
Always document evidence of the damages that you have suffered as a result of online impersonation and catfishing. At Minc Law, we recommend that you keep a detailed diary to document every time you experience an adverse effect caused by being e-personated.
“I highly recommend the Minc Law firm. Not only were they knowledgeable, professional and timely in resolving my matter, but they were a pleasure to work with. Dan, Darcy and Melanie thank you for everything! My only regret was not engaging the firm earlier.”
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For example, you should track and document every time you are approached by a friend, family member, neighbor, colleague, employer, or customer to the tune of, “I saw this photograph or account of you online” or “Is this really you?” Such documentation may be critically necessary at a later date to establish the necessary elements of your claim.