Online Impersonation: VCU student victim of false identity trend

Amir Vera
Staff Writer

MTV’s hit series “Catfish” centers around people who create fake social media accounts and impersonate others to meet people. For one VCU student, though, the comedy and romance of the show became a bizarre and unnerving reality.

Senior mass communications major Brittany Tilley was applying for jobs. In order to make sure that she had a positive online presence, she Googled herself.

“I figured nothing bad would come up,” Tilley said, who makes it a point to be careful about what she posts online.

After finding nothing on the web tab, she clicked on the images tab just to make sure there were no pictures of her in a negative light. She found four pictures, but one did not seem right.

“One was of my Twitter profile picture, one was my Pinterest profile picture and one was just a random picture of me and my sorority sisters that didn’t make any sense as to why it would be there,” Tilley said.

Following the link that the image was attached to, Tilley found a Facebook page for herself. It had the name Brittany Tilley and included photos of her, but the account wasn’t totally accurate.

The Brittany Tilley she was looking at was from Suffolk, but the real Tilley is from Chesapeake. The fake Tilley also claimed to attend Ohio State University, not VCU. The fake profile has been active since 2011.

Last summer, during its first quarterly earnings report as a public company, Facebook reported that 8.7 percent of all accounts are false or duplicate accounts. That equates to more than 83 million fraudulent Facebook accounts.

According to Javelin Strategy and Research report on identity theft, many people put information on the internet that enables impersonation. Eight percent of people with public social media profiles shared their birthday information, 63 percent shared their high school name, 18 percent shared their phone number and 12 percent shared their pet’s name. All of this information, the report says, is information people or companies commonly use to verify identities online.

Tilley said she immediately tried notifying Facebook through the site’s reporting system, but received a message about three to four days later saying that she was not being impersonated and the profile wouldn’t be removed.

“I was just kind of freaked out by this at first. First off, how does something like this exist for so long and I didn’t know about?” Tilley said. “I was mad that Facebook didn’t believe me or didn’t take enough time to investigate further because if they had it would’ve been extremely obvious that this person was impersonating me.”

Facebook doesn’t have a foolproof way to verify if a profile is fake or not and there isn’t much in place to punish fakers. The Facebook bylaws forbid the creation of false accounts, but there are no real consequences for creating one.

If an account is reported as fraudulent, it is logged out. In order to log back in, the person is asked a series of generic questions about their account. If they answer the questions, which involve identifying pictures of friends, then they can continue operating the account.

There are a few states, including New York, California and Texas, with laws punishing online impersonation with fines and possible jail time. Virginia, however, has not set laws on online impersonation. Even if had Tilley found out who was impersonating her, she would have had next to no legal recourse.

While Tilley did not contact authorities, she has recently found that the profile has been taken down. She also said that her profile had been hacked two months ago, but doesn’t believe that there’s a connection between the two.

There is little VCU can do to police the Internet, but Alex Henson, the new head of VCU’s tech services, said that his office may be able to help students out who have been the victims of false profiles.

“If you see something that looks like someone is (being suspicious) then you can come to our help desk. Someone else does control Facebook and Google, but we can look into those things if it gets into issues of harassment,” Henson said. He adds, however, that the best way to counteract impersonation is to be protective of your information.

“In general, it’s just about being cautious and careful when you do stuff,” he said. “All of the common things you hear people say. Never share your password … Google yourself here and there. Be very cautious of what you put on the social media sites.”

The experience has taught Tilley how to be aware of her internet presence. She said she is now more careful about what she does and who she contacts on the internet.

“Personally, everything I put on the internet I try to make sure that it’s not something that can hinder me in any way in the future,” Tilley said. “In this case, this person might not be hindering me but they still took my stuff.”

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