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Catfishing, Instagram and a Wise Elderly Nun

A few years ago I arrived at a small Catholic elementary school to present our Responsible Technology Series. The building was located on a quaint, urban campus that appeared to have weathered well the advance of time over its 80 some years of existence.

The school was run by an articulate, energetic, elderly nun who greeted me with a hardy handshake and bright smile. As with any presentation, I asked the principal if there had been recent issues in which I should be aware. She paused and then told me that over the summer, a 7th grade female student created a “fake Facebook account” in the name of another female student with intent to humiliate her. The girl uploaded naked photos and videos that were of another similar looking young lady that could be construed to be the other girl. Since the girl who had her identity stolen didn’t have social media, she wasn’t aware of the fake Facebook account until she returned to school. She was consequently humiliated by the page and subsequent comments made to her in school.

Her parents and the principal became aware of the site through comments made by other parents at the start of school. They quickly called the police — who in turn felt the Facebook page to be vile enough to contact the county prosecutor. After reviewing the issue, the prosecutor requested a subpoena from a judge so that they could legally secure  the IP address from Facebook of the computer that generated the original Facebook account. In less than two weeks law enforcement were able to track down the young women that had created the original fake account. She was summarily expelled from school and potentially faced both criminal and civil consequences for her actions.

I learned so much in those first 10 minutes of my conversation with that elderly nun – not about technology – but about the psychology and motivation of young people. She had spent her entire life working with young people. She knew kids over multiple generations. Nothing really surprised her. At the ripe old age of about 75, she had learned the “ins and outs” of children, technology and the legal system. I was amazed,

Since that time, it appeared that issues related to teens creating fake social media accounts had all but vanished from the ether’s of “The Network.” However, this past year incidents of such behavior appear to be again on the rise.

It begs the question, when is it a crime? Perhaps more importantly, what steps can you take if it happens to you or your child?

WHEN IS IT A CRIME?

In short, it’s generally assumed to be illegal to ever provide another person’s personal information with the intent to do them physical or emotional harm.

Some of the crimes that can be committed using personal information are:

·         Stalking and/or posting embarrassing or false information about an individual

·         Harassing someone through the use of digital media, websites, apps, etc.

·         Logging into another person’s social media account without their specific permission

·         Threatening another person or using intimidation — including the threat to post something online if they don’t provide something to you. This often takes the form known as “sextortion.”

In reality, illegally using a social media account comes is various flavors. However, the following scenario is somewhat typical of what you might find in middle and high schools.

SCENARIO:

Jill has been best friends with Julie since the first grade. They vacationed together and have played soccer together for years. However, recently Jill has become annoyed because of the attention a boy they both like has given to Julie. Since then, they stopped sitting together at lunch and seldom talk in the hallways of their school.

The tension continued to build over the course of a month until Jill decided to get even with Julie by creating a fake Instagram page using Julie’s identity. She copied several photos from Julie’s real Facebook and Instagram accounts and posted them onto the new public Instagram page she created as Julie. She also found some inappropriate photos by doing a Google image search and posted them onto the same fake page — alluding that the girl in the inappropriate photos was Julie. She then sent out friend requests to all of Julie’s friends. Many of them were surprised to have received the invites because they were already friends. However, most went ahead an accepted.

Julie’s friends were shocked by the images — with many deciding to shun their long-time friend. However a few quickly brought the issue to Julie’s attention.

Julie was devastated by the Instagram page and the subsequent bullying that ensued by some of the boys and girls in her class. She told her parents of the issue who then immediately contacted the school principal. The principal contacted the school resource officer for his opinion. Given the naked images that appeared on the page — and the references to sexual behavior of a minor, the school resource officer contacted the local county prosecutor.

Upon reviewing the same information, the county prosecutor requested that a judge issue a subpoena to Instagram to reveal the IP address of the person that created the fake Instagram account under Julie’s name. The judge agreed.

Since Instagram has an entire department responsible for responding to such subpoenas, Instagram turned over the records related to Julie’s fake page — including the IP address of the tablet used to create the account. Law enforcement contacted Jill and her parents and eventually revealed all the evidence related to the date, time and IP address used to create the page.

 Jill now has a problem:

  • There is verifiable proof that her tablet was used to create this fake page. It was the same tablet used to create all of her personal social media pages.  Moreover, her parents know that she has been annoyed with Julie for the past 30 days and certainly had the motive to attempt to hurt her.
  • Since Jill had broken the “Responsible Use Of Technology Pledge” in the school’s Handbook, the school suspended Jill from class for one week.
  • Julie’s parents are furious. Their daughter hasn’t slept well since the page was created. She endured hurtful text messages from her classmates and faced embarrassing comments in the halls of the school. Her parents are seeking a civil suit if the criminal courts don’t punish Jill.
  • Lastly, and perhaps the least of Jill’s problems relate to her user agreement with Instagram.  Jill violated multiple aspects of the Agreement by posting naked pictures; posting copyrighted material from a Google search; and by creating an account without the permission of Julie. Jill has now been suspended by Instagram.

REALITY CHECK

In an ideal world, this is how most cases would begin to unfold. The culprit would be found and quickly face the consequences of their parents, school and the courts. However, this is not NCIS New Orleans. Seldom are crimes neatly wrapped up in 60 minutes, with a detective smugly smiling at the camera as the file is placed into the CLOSED CASE drawer.

In the real world, law enforcement must prioritize what cases should consume the time and treasure of their offices. Sadly, the growth of heroin; other street crimes and now terrorists using social media smother already strangled police departments and court systems. If no person is severely damaged by the actions of another — Julie’s parents might be forced to seek other avenues of justice; such as a civil suit or talking it out with Jill’s parents and the school system.

While the above scenario involves malice on the part of Jill, often cases involving fake identities are simply pranks. However, they’re not without their consequences as well. It is illegal to access or change someone’s social media account and/or password without their permission – even as a joke. The issue grows significantly if you use their account to threaten or extort favors. But again, reality suggests not every breached account can or will be fully pursued by law enforcement.

For example, in 2012 after her school and police said that they could do nothing about a fake Facebook page and subsequent cyberbullying, a Georgia teen filed a suit against two of her classmates for creating a fake Facebook account in her name. They distorted photos of her; posted a racist video that implied she hated African-Americans and suggested that she was sexually active and a drug user.

Cases such as this can be traced back as far as 2007,  after an adult named Lori Drew created a fake Myspace account with her teen daughter and another girl  to assist in bullying 13-year-old Megan Meier. Sadly, Megan later took her own life. Drew  was charged and later convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for violating Myspace’s terms of service by creating a fake account. Unfortunately,  the conviction was overturned by a judge.

Sharing Passwords Is Part of The Problem 

Frankly, sharing smartphones and tablets happens every day at schools across the country. Often teens know each others passwords for devices and associated accounts such as email and social media. By logging into each others accounts and sending messages without permission, teens can face charges as well. This in particularly important to understand should a message be sent that is vulgar, threatening or contains images of a person under the age of 18 in the state of nudity or partial nudity.

As far back as 2011, articles concerning the practice of sharing passwords between best friends or those in a relationship have been written. In fact, that same year, Pew Research revealed that 30 percent of teenagers that regularly used social media shared a password with someone such as a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend. Girls were almost twice as likely as boys to share.

Catfishing

No, were not talking about  Hillbilly Handfishin,’ the reality television show about the noble sport of fishing using only your bare hands and feet. In this case — Catfishing is related to the creation and use of fake online profiles. The reference started as a kind of Internet dating hoax made popular by the 2010 documentary film and MTV reality series. Generally the motivation for catfishing is for the purpose of a developing a misleading internet liaison. Online teens and adults might simply create a fake profile with seductive pictures or comments meant to lure in their victims. Often times the victims are individuals with low self-esteem, lonely or simply curious. But that is not always the case.

In fact, the University of Michigan hired the company, 180 COMMUNICATIONS to help teach their football players a lesson in how they can be easily lured. The company used a beautiful young employee to send a friend request to every member of the football team. Many were all too eager to oblige. Beautiful young girl… Athletic young men playing for a high-profile university….What could go wrong?

Fortunately, nothing went wrong since the university was using this as a lesson for their players, i.e., “Don’t trust that the person on the other side of the app is who they say that they are.” Don’t believe me? Just ask Manti Teo.

WHAT ROLE CAN SCHOOLS TAKE?

All schools throughout the United States and in most western countries consider cyber-bullying and catfishing to be a serious crime. Most schools have policies against such actions whether on the school premise or otherwise. At the start of the year, most of these institutions review this policy with their students — often requiring the parents of the student to sign the policy or handbook.

Social media has placed a heavy burden on schools to police the actions taken outside of the school. Social media often creates disruptions inside the walls and on the grounds of the school. To that end,  the punishment that a school provides might be swifter than that of the court system.

For example: Students who bully other students — and in some cases bullying teachers — can face suspension or expulsion. Moreover, as we mentioned, the school system might also request the opinion of the local police to determine if a crime has been committed.

What can you do to protect yourself and your children?

Below are five quick steps to consider in protecting you family against having social media accounts breached or hacked.

 1. Always monitor your own online activity and that of your family: If you believe that your account – or the account of your child has been hacked, change your password immediately. Also, most sites have a contact link that allow you to report such suspicious activity. (I have posted these links later in this blog.)

2. Don’t post too much personal information: Don’t post your location, full name, address, phone number or email address. That makes it too easy to create a fake profile of your information. It also makes it easy for someone to attempt to secure credit in your name, and create other social media accounts in your name.

 3. Google your name and/or nick-name for any fake profiles that might exist about you or your child:  Should you find such a profile, contact the owner of the app or website. If you’re a teen, tell a parent, teacher, or school resource officer.

 4. Make your passwords strong and Don’t Share:  Use strong passwords and change them often. Don’t share the password with friends.

 5. Be careful when using using free wi-fi or a public computer: First and foremost, you should always sign out of your accounts when finished. If you’re using a public computer and don’t sign out, others can access your password and information. Also, when using wi-fi, it might be easy to record your keystrokes or even access your account if a user on that same network is using the right software.

 Too Late! It Happened to My Child. What Can I Do Now?

I recommend the following steps for anyone that has had their information hijacked:

  1. Record the evidence: This includes screen grabs and/or print any posts that have been directed at or about you.
  2. Talk to your teacher, coach, school counselor or principal: As I mentioned earlier, most schools in the US and in other western countries have “responsible use of technology” policies that cover cyber bullying and identity theft. If the person involved in such activity attends the same school as the victim, the school may provide more options than the legal authorities. However, ultimately you’ll want to contact the police if the issue can’t be resolved through the school. See my next point.
  3. Report it to the police: If you believe you are the victim of one of the crimes explained above, you should report it to the police. However, if your situation involves a nude or sexual image of a young person, you might want to consider obtaining legal advice before going to the police. Each state varies as to the proper process.
  4. If You Know The Person That Created The Fake Account, Ask them to delete it: If an account has been created about you, chances are you know who created the account. If they don’t represent a physical threat to you, ask them to delete it. If they refuse to delete it, you should contact a trusted adult, parent, teacher or school resource officer.
  5. Apply for a protection order: Every so often these issues might involve a potentially dangerous person. If this is the case, and you’re being stalked, intimidated or threatened consider applying for a court protection order. In some states this might be known as a restraining order.
  6. Report the abuse to the app or website owner: It’s important that any fake profile created in your name (or act of cyberbullying) be reported to the app or website owner. For example: If a page has been created in your name, both Facebook, Instagram and many others have a process that you should follow.

Below are links you should use if you suspect such activity:

Facebook Reporting:

Instagram Reporting:

Twitter & Vine:

Snapchat:

Everything Else Has Failed. Are There Other Options?

If you’ve received no relief from law enforcement or your school, there are steps that you can take to possibly find the individual that created a fake social media account in your name. To do so, you may wish to consider subscribing to a service such as Spokeo.com.

Every new social media account requires an email address at the point of registration. They also require that you provide a different email address in the event they need to contact you.  Since email services such as Gmail and Yahoo are so easy to create, often offenders quickly create a new email account using one of these two services. These email addresses are generally linked to an email account that they actually use.

If you know the email address that is associated with the fake social media account that is in your name, Spokeo can often find other emails created by the person who used that address to create that account.

For example: If a student named John Doe created a fake Instagram account related to James Johnson, he would have likely used another email account to do so. To that end, if he created an email account named jamesjohnson#1977@gmail.com — Google makes him use an existing email account that can be used in the event Google needs to contact him.

Spokeo searches all email names that have been used to create such accounts. If John Doe does not have his privacy settings set to friends only — there is a good chance his real email and name will be displayed during the Spokeo search.

Lastly, if you think you know  who created the fake social media account, and you have a name, phone number or email address for the person, Spokeo will also find most email addresses and social media accounts created by that person. If your fake page was created by the individual under suspicion, there is a chance it will appear during your Spokeo search.

Unfortunately, no approach is guaranteed to work every time. However, if it does, James Johnson now has the person’s name that created the fake account – and perhaps many others. At that point, James’ parents can contact John Doe’s parents, school or the police.

The Wild Wild West

We are very much living in the era of the wild-wild-west when it comes to policing digital ne’re-do-wells. Technology that was created to help bring society together often is used to break it apart. In schools, the petty jealousies and popular cliques of the past continue today – but are emboldened due to the scope, power and at times the perception that social media is anonymous.

The greatest means of protecting your family’s online communication is to actually keep the lines of communication open at home. Children know what is going on at their school and with their friends. They often know when other children are having problems with classmates in the school or online. Knowledge and subsequent action are key to circumventing problems.

Make certain your children understand some of the points we’ve addressed in this blog. However understand that with the constant evolution of apps, it takes vigilance to keep ahead of those that might not have your best interest at heart.

If you have any stories you’d like to share, please let me know. As I mentioned, the best way for us all to learn is to talk and share… but mostly listen.

As the wise elderly nun taught me, you’re never too old to learn.

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