When My Identity was Stolen Online

Friday, August 28, 2015

This is quite a scary post for me to write and not one in which I enjoy remembering. It's is a little more honest and personal than my usual posts but I feel like it's an important issue that social media users and bloggers alike try to hope won't happen and therefore underestimate the risks. So bear with me as I post this... eeeek.

The internet - what would we do without it? We're now in the generation that I can't imagine going more than a couple of days without checking social media, using Whatsapp or Facetime, whipping out the maps on my phone if I get a little lost or going 'shall I just Google it?'. The internet is amazing. It provides you with a creative platform, a way of keeping up with old friends and a way of making new, makes a whole lotta things a huge amount easier and enables us to learn and experience all the time. Also without out the internet none of us lil bloggers would even have this hobby!  Our thoughts and feelings would still be confined to old diaries and journals, offline blogging the old fashioned way. However the internet also has a huge dark side, one of these being it's lack of safety.

I've been thinking about safety on the internet quite a lot since I've taken a dip in this big blogging pool but I was inspired to write this post by Em Sheldon's thought-provoking post on internet fraudsters. She discussed how she is constantly impersonated by others who contact PR companies and has often found fake Twitter and Instagram accounts using her images. Her story inspired me to tell you about mine, an altogether similar scary experience.

My story

One day a few years ago (before I got into blogging other than Tumblr - dem good old days) I was just casually scrolling through my Facebook when I got a message out of the blue from a guy who had been two years above me at school. We hadn't spoken in a few years so I obviously thought it a bit random. He told me that someone was impersonating me on Facebook. Thinking he was joking, I brushed it off with a 'haha good joke'. It never crossed my mind that he was being serious - why would someone impersonate me? And how? I had a private Facebook. But he wasn't joking. His girlfriend had been receiving dodgy messages from an account so he'd checked it out for her and recognised me in all the photos. At this point my heart basically stopped and I froze. He linked me to the account and all I could see were photo after photo of me all under a different name. The worst part was that the person had been sharing disgusting pornographic videos from their profile and messaging many girls asking to meet up with them. The thought of it still makes me sick to my stomach. I immediately took screenshots of everything - I don't actually know how I was so rational through extreme anxiety. I then reported the account to Facebook who immediately took the imposter account down, for once being speedy and helpful.

The legal bits

After I had calmed down a little, a friend (I'll always be grateful for her rational calming nature to this day!) took me to the local police station armed with the printed screenshots of the profile. I'm sad to say that both the local police stations basically laughed in my face. They told me it wasn't fraud as they had only used my photos and not my name and that it was my own fault for having online social media accounts. I'm not joking - that is legitimately what the police officers said. I had zero help from them. Now from a legal point of view, 1 law degree later, I understand that they were in a sense right. I had suffered 'identity theft' as in that someone had stolen (part of) my identity. However, what is illegal in the UK is 'identity fraud' when someone then uses that identity for personal gain. I would argue that the imposter had used my images for personal gain but as it was not financial - the police didn't really care. The main issue was that I think the person using my photos was dangerous. They were trying to lure girls to meet up with them. They were and probably still are a warped person and should have been questioned. I was also worried people could perhaps have recognised me in the street and thought I was the actual person sending creepy messages. Despite the fact I hadn't suffered identity fraud, the experience was no less scary for a young adult and I still believe to this day the police should have taken my complaint more seriously. Perhaps now five or so years down the line and with a lot more understanding of social media and online crime, the incident would have been treated differently.

I've still never found out who stole all my photos and created the account and the scary part is that they could still have them all saved on their computer. It terrifies me. My parents were all for me deleting every form of social media I had but I, perhaps stupidly, decided not to. I enjoy the internet and social media too much to let these crazy fraudsters stop me from living my life. I'm not the one doing anything wrong or acting carelessly with my personal information, like I said my account had very high privacy settings. I guess it's like I know there are dangerous people outside in the world but it doesn't stop me leaving the house. I do however totally understand their fear. I had a huge cull of Facebook friends to only keep the ones I trusted and upped the security on all my accounts as much as possible but who knows if that will even help - people like that will find a way.

The research

Until I read Em's post I thought what had happened to me was a little bit of an isolated incident. I mean we've all seen the programme 'Catfish' but you kinda hope that it doesn't happen all the time to regular people. My Voucher Codes however just conducted some shocking research which showed that:

'23% of social media users have had their photos used by someone else without permission.'

This completely shocked me that such a high percentage of people had suffered a similar experience as I had and even those who are fairly fluent with the internet and how it works. With social media and the use of the internet only on it's way up it's scary to think where this new breed of internet fraudsters could smuggle our images and identities off to in the future.

Until this happens to you it's really hard to imagine the feeling of invasion of your person and the vulnerability. It's so scary. To be honest I still don't know whether I did the right thing - should I have just completely removed myself from the internet forever more? Should I have just avoided embarking on this little blog too? One thing I have learnt is that you do need to be careful how much you share on the internet and I know coming from a blogger that sounds silly however there are certain things you shouldn't share. 

I hope that this never happens to any of you as it's completely terrifying but if it ever does Facebook has as part of it's policy that you can't make a fake profile and they were extremely swift at removing the profile when I reported it. If you ever also suffer identity fraud like Em did - you can go to Action Fraud, the dedicated police website but I'm still yet to find any legal or police help if your identity stolen and used to post dangerous material and this itself is disappointing to me. Something needs to be done as the reach of the internet gets wider and wider and cyber crime becomes more prevalent especially after the research shows just how common this is becoming.

I'd be so interested to hear if someone like this has ever happened to anyone else and how they dealt with it? Or any other experiences of internet safety?

Keep safe out there guys and gals.

You can read more about the research that My Voucher Codes carried out about what can happen when your identity is stolen online here along with some more personal stories from other bloggers.

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  1. Wow Laura, what a story. I think you were really brave throughout this whole incident and I can't believe more wasn't done to help you during this time. I also think you were right to stay on social media - you love it and the person that stole part of your identity isn't in a place to take away something from you that you love.

    1. Hi Holly! Thank you - your comment means a lot. It seems crazy to me that this type of fraud wasn't taken seriously but hopefully nowadays it would be :) Thanks so much for the lovely words of encouragement - without social media I wouldn't have found people like you! x

  2. Oh my goodness that's so creepy!! I'm so glad that it was taken down, but I"m so sorry you had go through that! Thanks for the resources--this is such an important topic.

    1. Hi Rebecca! I know - it's so creepy :( Made me feel so sick! Thank you for your lovely comment - I'm thinking of doing a follow up post more about the resources and the best ways to try and avoid compromising our safety as bloggers!

  3. This is really scary! I don't know how I would react - I would be really upset though. Thanks for sharing! As bloggers it is really important we talk about this kind of stuff.

    Gisforgingers xx

    1. Hey Claire! Yeah it's a really strange unsettling feeling but hopefully it'll never happen again! Thank you so much :)

  4. I'm so sorry that happened to you, Laura; but thanks for sharing your story. Something similar happened to my sister once - her pictures turned up on an internet dating site. It's a scary reminder to keep an eye on your social media accounts and not accept "friend" requests from people you don't know and trust.

    Lis / last year's girl x

    1. Hi Lis! Thanks so much for your lovely comment :) Oh gosh really - that's awful! Makes you wonder how on earth they get them. Exactly- I think it's quite well understood with our personal accounts but often forgotten when it comes to our blogging accounts.

  5. I had this happen to me back on Myspace (so a long while ago). What was even worse is that Myspace then wouldn't delete it because they were old photos of me from back when I was an emo child and I didn't look like that anymore. Basically they didn't believe it was me. It was so shit. I've a few female friends that have it happen to them on a regular basis and my mate got a message on facebook about a dating profile he had on a site that wasn't his. It's mad!

    Mike x


I read, love and reply every single one of your comments! Thank you so much for taking the time to leave one - Laura x