Earlier today a good friend, Professor Niklas Myhr aka “The Social Media Professor” of Chapman University, reached out to me about his social media profile picture, bio, and content, being used to impersonate him. He was looking for thoughts, ideas and legal solutions to help fix the problem (because this is a problem we all face, Professor Myhr gave me permission to use his name in this post).
I don’t think Professor Myhr (follow him on Twitter) is very happy about his identity being used by someone else. I say this with confidence because I know exactly how he feels. Over the years, my profile picture and bio have also been used by scammers to misrepresent who they are. Because this is a problem that seems to be getting worse, I’m sharing a few legal tips you can use if this happens to you.
Before I go forward, please understand that while I am a really good (and very humble) California lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. No legal advice is being given in this post. What I am trying to do is share concepts, approaches, and resources you can use to protect yourself.
Social media profile theft (SMPT) comes in all shapes and sizes. For purposes of this post, I will be referring to two types of SMPT which include:
(1) recreational SMPT and
(2) criminal SMPT.
Recreational SMPT usually involves people who are bored and seeking attention. Some are nasty individuals using online anonymity to disrupt other people’s lives. They show up, set up their SMPT and see what happens.
Criminal SMPT uses the same approaches to defraud and commit crimes. They are trying to scam money from unsuspecting victims or establish relationships using false facts and fraud.
Regardless of the motives of criminal SMPT, the perpetrators are cruel, hateful and usually exhibit an intent to destroying reputations, businesses and promote a criminal enterprise.
Both kinds of SMPT can be slowed down and often completely stopped using these approaches and techniques.
Tools, Approaches, and Ideas
There are several different ways to deal with recreational SMPT:
1. Ignore the SMPT: Avoidance is often the best policy. Don’t feed their desire for interaction. Report them to the social media platform provider using the steps below and then ignore them.
2. Screenshot the Profile: Using the services below, screenshot the fraudulent profile to preserve the evidence.
2. Call Them Out: If you can, post on their platform that it is a fake account and that you are reporting them to the local police. Private message them with the same message.
3. Block Them: Next, block the fake account from all your active accounts. Then move on.
4. Report Them: Using the resources below, report the SMPT to the specific social media platform and IP host provider (use template letter I provide below)
1. Report the SMPT to local law enforcement. Use the screenshot tools mentioned below to collect evidence.
Because criminal SMPT is by definition breaking the law, in addition to having the local police authorities step in to handle the fraud, you may also have state and federal civil claims allowing you to bring money damages and equitable relieve (injunctions) against the criminal SMPT. Depending on the state and legal argument, you may also be entitled to reimbursement of attorney fees and costs.
Screenshots and Videos (Collecting Evidence)
Learn how to video record or take screenshots on your computer. When you do start to collect evidence, write down the time and date of each screen shoot or video recording.
Press Command (⌘)-Shift-4; Move the crosshair pointer to where you want to start the screenshot. Drag to select an area. When you’ve selected the area you want, release your mouse or trackpad button. Find the screenshot as a .png file on your desktop.
Record Video with QuickTime Player. This allows you to create a movie of all or part of your Mac screen. From QuickTime, choose File > New Screen Recording.
Click the window you want to capture. Press Alt+Print Screen by holding down the Alt key and then pressing the Print Screen key. The Print Screen key is near the upper-right corner of your keyboard.
Use Snagit or Jing from TechSmith
Various third-party apps and tools are available to live video capture a stream while using your smartphone. The above solutions that allow you to capture content from your laptop or desktop are easiest.
Letter to Social Media Provider
Once you find out that you’re a victim of recreational or criminal SMPT, complete and send the provided template letter mentioned below to the social media platform hosting the fraudulent SMPT. The letter is just a template so modify as needed and share as much detail as possible.
The letter places the platform on legal notice that a user is improperly targeting you with recreational or criminal SMPT. If you have been harmed emotionally or physically or, if you or your business has been damaged, then include all details.
Point out that the person committing recreational or criminal SMPT has violated the platform’s terms of service (TOS) agreement and should be banned from the platform. Include any identifying information you have including the recreational or criminal SMPT handle, username, and screenshots.
If the recreational or criminal SMPT has violated the law and committed a criminal act, advice the service provider that you have reported the recreational or criminal SMPT activity to the local police and legal authorities. Include their contact information, and case identification numbers, in the letter. Also, demand that the service provider so the same.
I believe the best practice is to send this letter via Certified Mail Return Receipt Requested, Federal Express or UPS. This way you have written confirmation that the information has been received by the platform. It also allows your complaint to stand out above and beyond other complaints submitted via email or direct message on the provider’s social media platform.
Yes, it is perfectly OK to simply submit all the above through the platform portal, but the chances are high your message will only get an automated response and fall on deaf ears. In my opinion, the best course of action is to send the snail mail letter via Federal Express, UPS, or US Postal certified mail.
If the recreational or criminal SMPT problem continues or, if the harm is so high such that simply notifying a platform provider is inadequate, file a lawsuit to (1) identify the person who is engaging in SMPT, (2) stop the harm, (3) obtain an injunction, and (4) seek money damages.
You can either hire a lawyer or do this yourself. If you need help finding a top-rated lawyer in your state to do this for you, I recommend this service.
If you don’t know the identity of the recreational or criminal SMPT, most jurisdictions allow you to prepare, file and serve a lawsuit naming the unidentified individual as a Doe defendant. Depending on your legal jurisdiction and the recreational or criminal SMPT’s misconduct, you may be able to bring causes of action for negligence, infliction of emotional distress, defamation (libel), civil conspiracy, harassment, interference with economic advantage, and other related causes of action.
Once your lawsuit is filed, your lawyer can use the power of a subpoena and serve the social media platform hosting the recreational or criminal SMPT content with the subpoena demanding all information relating to the account.
The service provider may be able to use metadata to ascertain the IP address of the recreational or criminal SMPT or internet provider used by the recreational or criminal SMPT. The IP address information can be used to verify the internet provider of the recreational or criminal SMPT.
A similar subpoena can then be issued to that internet provider regarding all contact information associated with that particular recreational or criminal SMPT. You should be able to get the name, billing address and other contact information like contact number, email and more from one or more of the providers. In big damages cases, experts such as Alex Holden are skilled at doing this for you.
Once this is done, you can have the local sheriff or process server serve the recreational or criminal SMPT with a summons and complaint (a lawsuit). In California, the recreational or criminal SMPT will have about 30 days to respond. Again, the easiest way to get all of this done is to use an experienced law firm in your state.
This process was done in the lawsuits below. One involved a business receiving false and harmful reviews.
Want to see what an $8M lawsuit against a troll looks like? Click here
and for all you TMZ fans out there… James Woods sues troll for $10M
When a recreational or criminal SMPT commits a crime, he or she can and should be held accountable. While you can use the above steps to determine the troll’s identity, for safety and preservation of evidence needs, I suggest you immediately get your local police and District Attorney’s Office involved.
Present your demand and evidence to the police and District Attorney’s Office in a letter similar to what is described above. Make sure it is physically delivered to the police agency and/or District Attorney’s Office via certified letter, Federal Express or UPS. Place these agencies on written notice that there’s a criminal problem. If your safety is at issue, emphasize this fact. A clear and concise paper trial is key to getting these agencies involved.
New state and federal laws re cyber-stalking, harassment, bullying and hacking roll out each year. Contact your local lawyer or police authorities for updates on pending and new cyber-harassment related laws.
Do It Yourself
Although I recommend getting an experienced lawyer involved (you may be able to do this on a contingency fee basis with no out-of-pocket expense), you can take the following steps yourself.
The initial TOS violation letter (below) can be completed and mailed as per my instructions.
A Small Claims or Superior Court lawsuit can be filed in pro per (without a lawyer), and the subpoena can be issued by the court on your behalf.
If the Internet provider is not cooperative or fails to comply with the subpoena, you can independently research the IP address of the troll using free online services (Do a Google search “How to trace an IP address”).
Once you obtain the recreational or criminal SMPT internet IP address, you can have a more specific subpoena issued by the court to acquire the personal information of the recreational or criminal SMPT from either the social media platform provider and/or the Internet provider.
[send one letter to the social media platform and a separate letter to the Internet provider- addresses below]
Notice of Social Media Profile Theft and Fraud: Terms of Service Violation
DEMAND FOR ACCOUNT CLOSURE AND REPORTING
Name of Company (Social Media Platform Company or Internet Provider)
City, State Zip Code
Re: Your Account Username: @TestAccount
Recreational or Criminal Social Media Profile Theft Username: @xyz
Date(s) of Violation: Date
I am the victim of illegal civil and criminal online harassment and identity theft. The above-identified person, who is using your platform with your permission, has caused harm to me. This person has stolen and is using my identity (profile picture, bio and more), to defraud others and in violation of your terms of service agreement.
Before bringing in legal counsel to assist me with this matter, I thought I would first give you the opportunity to help. What happens next is completely up to you.
Please immediately take the necessary steps to prevent this person from causing any further harm. The wrongdoer is in violation of your “Terms of Service” (TOS) agreement, and that violation is resulting in harm to me and third parties.
Please immediately block this person’s account and bar this person and IP address from further use of your social media platform. If you must first conduct an independent investigation, then please do so immediately.
Copies of picture and video screenshot violations are attached (or included in the USB stick). Your independent review of your internal servers will support my concerns and also confirm the wrongful conduct and TOS violations.
[if the action is threatening then include this paragraph] The actions of this person not only violate my civil rights but may also be in violation of certain state and federal criminal laws. By copy of this letter, I am also notifying the local police department, and District Attorney’s Office, of my concerns.
Please confirm in writing, within ten (10) days, that you have taken all of the requested action. If you fail to do so, I will seek all available legal remedies. I trust this will not be necessary.
Your written confirmation to me as to what action you will be taking must be received within the above noted time parameter. Otherwise, I will hire legal counsel to protect my interest and safety. This is not the first of many demands. Please review the above carefully and conduct yourself accordingly.
Your Contact Information
1601 Willow Road
Menlo Park CA 94025
1355 MARKET ST STE 900
San Francisco, CA 94103
1601 Willow Road
Menlo Park CA 94025
1355 MARKET ST STE 900
San Francisco, CA 94103
2029 Stierlin Ct
Mountain View, CA 94043