Dear Lifehacker, I started getting emails from people accusing me of trolling their sites, and other messages letting me know someone was pretending to be me on some forum. I went to check, and sure enough there's someone using my name, and someone else claiming to have "outed" them as me, using my email address, my Facebook profile and my LinkedIn page! THIS IS DISTURBING! What can I do? Signed, Mistaken Identity
Title photo by grahamc99.
Dear Mistaken Identity,
Wow, do I know how you feel. This very same thing has happened to me, and it's no fun at all to deal with. First, the bad news: there's no surefire way to deal with it that's 100 per cent effective. That doesn't mean there's nowhere to turn and nothing you can do (although "doing nothing" is one option we'll explore). Let's talk about your options.
First, Calm Down and Explore Your Options
The first thing you'll have to do is settle down, which is tough; you'll understandably feel helpless because there's nothing you can actively do to stop this person from masquerading as you right now, but don't fly off the handle. You could consider legal action against the person, but that's a lot of time and energy spent trying to uncover and find out the real person who's pretending to be you just to bring a civil suit, especially if they're just doing so in the comments on some blog or internet forum. Plus, the law varies heavily from place to place, so it may not be worth it. The first thing to realise is that while there are things you can do, there's nothing you can do to reach through the screen and make this person stop right now. Photo by brandbook.de.
Once you're settled, you can now start to explore your actual options. What exactly are you dealing with:
- Someone who's actually trying to leverage your identity?
- Someone who happens to have the same name as you?
- Some anonymous person who's actually using your LinkedIn profile or your website to create an identity for themselves to hide behind?
If you're dealing with someone who's actually trying to use your identity for more than to just obfuscate theirs, or making threats against someone else, you may have a real problemon your hands, but more often than not, you're probably just a victim of circumstance.
Appeal to Moderators/Editors/Site Managers
When this happened to me, it started on a site that I didn't frequent. I suddenly started getting hate mail from people I'd never met or heard of, insulting me for comments I'd never made, and proudly claiming that they "had finally found me". I got a few other emails from people who could see through what was going on and warned me that someone was impersonating me. If this happens to you, you have the option to appeal to the site owner or forum moderators to ask them to step in on your behalf, or at least free up your identity so you can take ownership of it -- that's what I did.
Your mileage may vary though -- some small site moderators may not care enough to step in on your behalf, and (this was my case) if the site is too large, the site's editors or moderators may not have the staff (or may not care enough) to do anything about your issue. Some sites and social networks, like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, expressly forbid users from impersonating others, and if you can prove your own identity, they'll usually take action against the impersonator.
In my case, I got a standard "we'll look into it" response, and after that they just stopped replying to my follow-up messages. Some sites, on the other hand, will take the issue seriously, and if the user really is violating their terms of service or community policy, they'll take action. If you don't get anywhere with the moderation team and the issue is really serious -- as in the person is actively claiming to be you and to represent your opinions or business interests, you should take it up the chain past an editorial team or an intern tasked with moderating comments. If the person is just using your name and making a jerk of themselves, you may have more trouble escalating the problem. Either way, this is a good first step. familiarise yourself with the abuse policies and terms of service of the site or services in question, and take the appropriate action.
Fight Fire with Fire, If You Have Time
If you have the time and energy, you can reclaim your identity by signing up for the site in question and staking a claim on your identity. You have the option to challenge the person directly in public and ask them to stop impersonating you, or you can private-message them and ask them to stop. Again, there's no guarantee that they'll actually care, or that they'll stop, but if they don't respond in private, you can always go back over their old debates with other people in the community and make it clear that you are the real deal, and willing to prove it. That alone may make your imposter think twice about masquerading as you, but be careful -- this is a double-edged sword. They may thrive on the attention, and engaging them may just encourage them. Be careful going down this route, especially if you don't think you have the time to join a new community for the sole purpose of fending off an impostor or waiting until they get bored.
Write About Your Experiences
One of the most effective things you can do is to write about your experience with someone impersonating you in a public place. Let everyone know what's going on and where. Share your story on your own blog, post it to your social networks, and get as many eyes on it as possible. Not only will it get the word out to the people who matter to you, but it will also let anyone who's fallen for the dupe see -- as soon as they click on the impostor's profile link -- what's really going on.
In fact, this was ultimately what worked for me. My impostor was linking to my own sites and my own profiles, and as soon as I penned an article about how someone was masquerading as me, the trouble stopped. It's difficult to pretend you're someone else when that other person is sounding the alarm at the same time.
Do Nothing and Move On
While it may seem like you just have to do something, sometimes the best thing is to do nothing and walk away. Especially if you've tried everything above (including exploring your legal recourse) and it has gotten you nowhere, all you can do is move on with your life. In my case, writing publicly about what was happening and pointing directly to where the person was posing as me (as well as my thoughts on anonymity and what it meant to be responsible for the things you say on the internet) was enough to make the person stop. Whether they got the message or just knew they couldn't hide when people figured out they weren't me anymore, I'll never know. Ultimately though, you have to stop worrying about it and move on. Photo by Shannon Yeh.
The nature of conversation on the internet means that anyone could be impersonating you anywhere you're not looking, at any time. You can't be everywhere, and while most people have enough sense to not try and pass themselves off as another person and will instead make up an anonymous persona for themselves, there's nothing stopping someone from taking your identity as their own on some obscure forum.
None of the above methods of approaching the issue are foolproof, and there are enough holes in each method that someone who wants to believe that person is you can convince themselves if they choose. Dealing with an impersonator is difficult, tricky business, and it can make you anxious, stressed, and depressed. Try to stay calm, stay relaxed, do the things you can, filter out the rest and move on with your life. Good luck!
PS Have you had to deal with someone impersonating you on the web? How did you handle it? Do you have any additional suggestions for Mistaken Identity? Let's hear them in the comments below.
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