Online impersonation is one of the most dangerous kinds of online reputation problems. It happens when someone else assumes your identity and communicates using your real name, photograph or avatar.
Communicating under someone’s else name and identity is online impersonation. It is a crime in most places.
Sometimes they’ll hack into your real accounts, other times they’ll just create fake profiles or comments purporting to be “you.” They may be motivated by revenge, sadism, extortion, or playing some kind of twisted prank.
The reputation damage caused by impersonating someone online can be substantial and hard to clean up. Here are some things you should know:
The Law & Impersonating Someone Online
- Online impersonation is (arguably) illegal in most jurisdictions. First Amendment “free speech” protects people’s right to share their unflattering opinions, but it usually does not protect unauthorized speaking or writing under someone else’s name or identity. Some states, like Texas, have specifically outlawed online impersonation on social media sites. Most other states have more general laws about “criminal harassment” or “identity theft” that can apply to certain online impersonation scenarios.
- Many police and sheriff’s departments now have “cyber crime” divisions. The computer crime units are often obligated to help out in cases of libelous online impersonation – but the detectives’ caseload and level of technical expertise varies among jurisdictions. It’s usually best to try and resolve the issue yourself before getting police involved, but if you reach a dead end, they will often help with researching and negotiating on your behalf.
- Online impersonating may be grounds for a successful civil court case. If negotiation, law enforcement help and/or online reputation building are unable to undo the damage – you may have grounds to threaten or file a lawsuit to mandate content removal or a cash settlement. Lawsuits often create additional animosity, so only do this is a last resort.
Identifying and Tracking Your Online Impostor
If you know who did it, you might be able to explain the legal ramifications and quickly get the online impostor to remove the false information. If you aren’t sure who is responsible, you’ll have to do some internet detective work:
- Find Their IP Address. An IP address is a unique “serial number” that identifies a specific computer or device (like a shared wireless router). Most blogs and social sites capture the IP address of visitors and commenters. This information can usually only be viewed by the owner or administrator of the site. If you contact them with a friendly letter explaining you are being impersonated online, they’ll often give it to you. If they won’t give it to you, sometimes they’ll give it to a detective or an attorney. If your impersonator used a proxy server to obscure their IP address, most proxy owners will give information to police detectives or upon being served a legal subpoena. This tool can help you find the internet service provider who owns the IP address, and they may have give it to you or the police in a serious incident.
- Making a List of All the Damage. Carefully search for your name and e-mail address — in quotes (“John Smith”) — in Google, Yahoo and Bing. Dig deep… far back page one and two of the search results… and use a tool like NameChk.com to see if your username is registered on social sites. Save every URL that contains evidence of impersonation in a spreadsheet so you can managed and remove it.
- Completely Change Your Passwords. If your password was compromised — or even if it wasn’t and using the same password across all your sites and accounts — now would be a great time to change all of them. Use a simple password algorithm or tool to help you remember all of them.
- Monitor Against Ongoing Impersonation. Make your own reputation monitoring dashboard, or use a commercial reputation monitoring service to track your name in case any new incidents pop up.
Removing the Damage & Clearing Your Name
Use a combination of tact and tech savvy to get the mess cleaned up once and for all:
- Examine the Terms of Service on Sites Where You Were Impersonated. Most social media sites, ISPs and blogs have a terms-of-service (ToS) that is designed to legally cover their tracks. It explicitly spells out what kind of behavior and content is allowed and not allowed on their site. Many social sites’ ToS explicitly ban impersonating someone online – for example, here under section 4d. Many blog hosting sites, like Blogger.com, forbid it also. Citing their own policy is good ammunition to help get it removed ASAP.
- Contact the Webmaster or Blogger and Ask for Removal. Write to the administrators of the sites and blogs you were impersonated on, tactfully explain the situation and how it’s impacting your life – and kindly ask (not demand) they remove it. Be pleasant but persistent until you get some kind of response. You may have to hunt for their e-mail address. Note: many big sites have a “email@example.com address for these kinds of issues.
- Tell Search Engines to Remove the Deleted Content from Their Index. Once you have successfully had the impersonating remarks removed from the blogs and pages, you should let Google know it is gone by using the Webpage Removal Request Tool. Check the box that says “the information has been deleted by the webmaster.” In my experience, the listing’s description and cache should disappear within a couple of days, but the blue title link may take longer to officially fade away. Yahoo has a Report Abuse” form and Bing has a feedback form with options to report spam. Try it!
- As a Last Resort, Contact the ISP. The ISP (internet service provider) may be required to take down defamatory information or forgeries (in certain jurisdictions), so if all else fails you should inquire about their policy. This can get expensive, contentious and complex, according to this history of online takedown notices.
- Don’t Get Revenge by Counter-impersonating or Doing Anything Illegal. If someone has committed a crime against you, don’t do anything illegal or morally questionable (impersonating someone online as revenge) that is likely to get yourself in trouble also!
- Optional: Blog About the Incident to Publicly Clear Your Name. If you have the courage and transparency to say what happened in your real voice, people are very likely to believe the truth – far more than anything that seems suspiciously out of character. If you don’t have a personal blog of your own, find a high-ranking site (like a university or company website) to post the truth and clear you name. Get your friends and family to link to the article so it will be more visible.