The funny thing about my experience of identity theft was that if it hadn’t been for a certain set of circumstances, I may never have found out about it at all. It was August 2017, and I had gone on an exchange visit to a small village in Brittany in France with my local twinning association. I had made friends with some of the people involved in the visit on the French side who were near my age, and one of them wanted to add me on Facebook. She gave me her phone so I could find myself and send a friend request to my profile from her account so that we could be connected on the site. I made it to the search results for my name, expecting it to take a while to find my account due to having such a common moniker in the English language.
What happened next sent chills down my spine. Early on in the search results, there was a profile featuring a photo of myself and my name. But it wasn’t my account. The photo — a picture which I had used as Facebook and Twitter profile images — wasn’t my current profile photo on Facebook. Somebody else had created a profile bearing both my name and my likeness.
The fact that this happened to me still feels very strange. Though I am currently quite a prolific user of social media, I haven’t always been. I used to be a bit of a technophobe, and I’ve always tried to use the Internet responsibly. I think before I post, like or share something online, and I’ve always endeavoured to use the web in a way that doesn’t put myself at risk. I also don’t understand why someone would target me — I am not a celebrity and, though I have public Twitter and Instagram accounts, don’t have a high profile online (at the time I was targeted, I didn’t even have an Instagram account). What’s more, if I hadn’t found the profile on my French friend’s Facebook account, I may never have known of its existence, as because my name is so common in the English language, running my name into a search from my own Facebook account would have generated a different set of results (I believe it did this at the time of the incident).
When I discovered what had happened, I was scared. I was frightened about two main things, the first being what the motivation was for the creation of the fake account. Was it being used for some form of sinister activity? Did someone I know of set it up? Thankfully, the activity on the account seemed to be pretty minimal — though the profile had a number of friends, it was very limited in its content and activity (not that this made it ok). Fake Kate also had some vital stats that were very different from my own — according to the profile, I lived in London and worked at Google (!). Still, I questioned what the account, with my name and likeness, might be being used for that I didn’t know about. The second thing I was worried about was whether Facebook was going to help me out in dealing with it, given the size of the organisation. Would the fake account stay online forever?
I decided that I was going to fight against what had happened to me. I reported the fake account to Facebook and posted a status on my actual Facebook profile warning people of it, as well as asking them to report the profile in order to get some strength behind my efforts to get it taken down. Friends were supportive about what had happened. Thankfully, Facebook responded quickly to my request and informed me that the account had been removed. I do occasionally still worry if something more will come of this experience in the future though (I very much hope not).
I will probably never know what the reason was for the creation of that fake account. However, and unfortunately, this kind of occurrence is not uncommon. I know of more than one other person who has had to deal with at least one fake account being created with their information. However, I believe that social media needs to do more to stamp out this problem. In my opinion, because it is still comparatively early days for the Internet, people are still unsure about how it should be governed. Yet, it now constitutes a huge bank of personal data and is taken as a primary source of gaining information. People take the things put online seriously, and that includes social media accounts.
The final thing I want to say, though I don’t want to cause people distress, is that if this can happen to me, it can definitely happen to you. As I’ve mentioned in this post, I have no significant profile and I try to be a responsible Internet user, and I am not the only person I know that this kind of thing has happened to. I advise you to be vigilant and regularly check to see if you have been affected by this problem. Googling yourself isn’t vain, especially if you’re doing so to check that your data isn’t being stolen and used for a fake online presence. If you do find a fake online version of yourself, you should be vocal about it. Report the account/webpage to the service hosting it and inform people you know that you have been affected by this problem. My hope is that by speaking out, we can help to stamp it out.
Image (without text): fancycrave1/Pixabay/CC0 Creative Commons