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Local Writer Victim Of Imposter Account On Facebook

Aired 6/23/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Googling yourself isn't just an act of vanity, it's become a way of protecting your online identity. We'll talk to a local writer who discovered an imposter account on Facebook using her likeness and name to engage in pornographic activity on the popular social media site.

Official Statement From Facebook

“Facebook has always been based on a real identity culture. It¹s a violation of our policies to use a fake name or to impersonate anyone, and we encourage people to report those that they think are doing this through report links located throughout the site.

We're committed to serving the over 500 million people who use Facebook the best we can, and we continue to explore new options and additional resources to accomplish this goal. For example, we've recently improved our process for reporting an account as an impostor to encourage people who are violating our policies to stop themselves.

Now, when a person reports an account for this reason, we run an automated system against the reported account. If the system determines that the account is suspicious, we show a notice to the account owner the next time he or she logs in warning the person that impersonating someone is a violation of Facebook's policies and may even be a violation of local law. This notice also asks the person to confirm his or her identity as the true account owner within a specified period of time through one of several methods, including registering and confirming a mobile phone number. If the person can't do this or doesn't respond, the account is automatically disabled.

So far, we've found this system to be very effective at getting impostor accounts off the site quickly. For those that our system can't classify, or where there's a dispute as to which is the real account, we have a dedicated team of investigations professionals who quickly review the reported account and take action as necessary.

Finally, we provide a form in our Help Center that allows people who have had impostor accounts created for them to get access to information related to those accounts without submitting a subpoena or other formal legal process. You can find this form here.

We're constantly improving our systems and processes to respond to reports even more quickly to help protect the people who use Facebook."

Googling yourself isn't just an act of vanity, it's become a way of protecting your online identity. We'll talk to a local writer who discovered an imposter account on Facebook using her likeness and name to engage in pornographic activity on the popular social media site.

Guest:

Susan Arnout Smith is a San Diego-based writer. She was recently the victim of an imposter account on Facebook.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Facebook can enhance your career, your social life, and create vibrant creative networks. It can also create a nightmare. One San Diego writer discovered how devastating a stolen identity on Facebook can be and how hard it can be to correct. Suzanne Arnout Smith is a multifaceted writer of thriller, plays, and screen plays. You may have heard or essays on National Public Radio. She wrote about her Facebook nightmare in an article for Salon.com called the Facebook Profile I could not get removed. That about says a lot, doesn't it?

SMITH: That sums it up, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Hi Susan.

SMITH: Hi, nice to see you.

CAVANAUGH: Take us to that moment when you learned that this Facebook account existed using your picture and name. You had no idea it was there. What went through your head?

SMITH: It felt like an elevator dropped. It honestly did. What happened was I was not on Facebook. I kept thinking Facebook is such a complete time sump. And a friend of mine who was a colleague, Wiley say check, who runs a site called authors on the web, kept encouraging me to get on Facebook because he said, Susan, all of your colleagues who are other writers connect on Facebook. You see them at conferences and it's the oddest question in the world, trust me, he says, when you say, so what have you been doing this last year, and they've all been on Facebook talking to each other. So I finally, finally went ahead and joined Facebook. I had been on Facebook about a week when I received an e-mail from Wiley. In the subject line it said a single word, and the word was Facebook. So I smiled to myself.

CAVANAUGH: He knows, yeah.

SMITH: He's gonna -- congratulations, you're now part of the 21st century. A little late but there you are. And instead of that, when I opened it, he said we do scans across the Internet for clients past and present. And we've come across a very disturbing/inappropriate profile on Facebook that has your complete name and your face on it. And he said here's the link. I pressed the link, I felt like I had gone down a rabbit hole. It was my complete name, Susan Arnout Smith, and my face, and it was a porno graphic profile trolling for sex. I felt this volcanic rush of -- it was like a tremor that just shot at my body. I was beside myself.

CAVANAUGH: Did you have any idea how long -- you did a lot of research, so let me put it this way: How long had that Facebook page been up?

SMITH: That was what was really the most horrible thing. The Facebook profile had been up almost nine months. And all of the privacy settings were off of that page, which means that anyone, any place, all across the globe, if they goggled my name and the word Facebook, that's what would have come up. And indeed it did. And what's really awful is being an author, and you being a public person. There were names I would have Googled my name almost at the top, I would see Susan Arnout Smith Facebook. I never pressed the link because I was sure it was a wonderful marketing ploy on Facebook's part. All of us get this, the congratulations, you have 14 new friends who are on Facebook and want you to join. I was sure that would be a time waster. So I never pressed that link even though over and over again I would see at almost the top, which meant that that was the most pressed site that had my name on it any place across the entire globe all those months.

CAVANAUGH: Now you in describing this X-Rated site that had your name and face on it also talk a little bit about the graphic sexual messages that were posted on this site, the fact that your head was super imposed on a risque photograph. So as you say, you went down this rabbit hole, and discovered this obscene Facebook identity that you had. You immediately tried to contact Facebook to get that page taken down. This is the second half of the story. Tell us what happened.

SMITH: What happened was this resounding clunk of silence on Facebook's part, which was the most terrifying part of it. What I did when I saw my name and face, I immediately -- I just wanted it to go away. I happened to have next to my book -- next to my computer a Facebook for dummies book, which is actually written by Facebook employees. So I thought there's gotta be a number this there that connects, that's a customer service number that connects. This should be an easy thing to take care of. I went through the book, and yes, this was a number. I called it, it was disconnected. Then I thought all right. Our daughter went to Stanford. We walked right past Facebook building headquarters every time we saw her. That's gotta be a number in Palo Alto. There was no regular Facebook number listed. And at that point, I really thought I'm in trouble.

CAVANAUGH: But there is, isn't there, a button that you can press? The idea of getting to customer service for Facebook and also taking down a false page?

SMITH: That is what Wiley explained to me. I was in such a state at that point, I e-mailed him and said, what do I do? I can't reach anybody. He said you're gonna have to go on the false profile, scroll down, and there will be a little button. Press it and say, yes, this is a false profile. I did that. And I also provided my real Facebook profile page. And nothing happened.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How long did nothing happen?

SMITH: Days and days and days. And the problem is that time stops at that point. Wiley pressed the little button, trusted people in his office did that. I didn't want anybody on my regular Facebook page to see this because I was so completely ashamed of it, even though I had nothing to do with it. And I didn't want to start bringing people to that profile even though they would just be pressing the link that says this needs to go away, it's not the real profile.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things that you write about is the fact that even a very close friend of yours for 20†years saw that fake Facebook profile, which you were desperately trying to get taken down and said, you know, hey, Susan, there a problem or something? Actually thought that that might have been your real Facebook page.

SMITH: That was one of the killer things that happened. I had been -- after I pressed that icon, two weeks later, I tried pressing it again, and all I got was an automated message back from Facebook saying you've already pressed this. I went in through the security system tanks to my web tech guy, Matt grimes, and he said look, there's a way we can do this. I left numerous messages in many ways to Facebook. I was walking with a friend and at this point, time had stopped upon it was a blur. I'd stopped writing, eating, sleeping, and we had known each other for 20†years. We were good friends, and she said tell me about this other Facebook profile. And I stopped because by this point I had told a few confided in a few people, but time had done such strange squeezing elongating things in my brain, I wasn't sure if I already talked to her about this. And I said, did I tell you? She said no, I Googled your name, and both of these profiles came up. And I looked at her and said surely you don't think that that could have been me. Then I realized by the look in her eye, she looked so sad and dismayed and embarrassed and I realized, I said, you actually thought this could have been me. She said, well, I did ask one of my daughters if people create avatars, and my daughter said, yeah, all the time. So she said I knew you were a writer. So I thought, well, maybe you had done this. I said Shirley -- this was a graphic, horrific, if you want one sentence about how graphic it is, I'll be happy to tell you right now. Otherwise we can let your listeners --

CAVANAUGH: I think our listeners have a pretty good idea about what might have been contained in a false Facebook page like that. I want to take you to the idea that you began your own investigation into this. What did you find out? Who were the people behind this?

SMITH: Well, that was the interesting part too. What happened was this. I finally reached the point where I realized Facebook is doing nothing. They might never do anything. And then I thought, I need to do this -- to do something myself. I went on the page, I finally made myself look at it completely. Before that, I knew what was on the page but I never looked at it word for word because it was just too disturbing. And I kept thinking Facebook will do something.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

SMITH: I just have to detach enough and Facebook will do something. Then I switched a corner and realized they're not gonna do anything. I need to get on this page and see what's gonna happen and who these people are. When I did that, I realized that there were 22, most of the faces were blocked. Most of the other people that were on were young. And so I thought I used to be an investigative reporter. Long before I did anything else, in anchorage Alaska, I was an investigative reporter. They put me all over the state and I did fun things. I thought, I am going to do that. I am going to separate out the confusion and the anger and the rage I'm feeling. I'm just gonna focus on getting these guys.

CAVANAUGH: What did you find?

SMITH: They were kids and like kids, they left the equivalency -- the trail of Cheetohs through cyberspace. I realized that from the small clues that they left, because everything was blocked. They had really successfully tried to shut down stuff. But I realized from the small little clues that they left me that they were not in this country. I finally -- the music that they lived to wasn't music, the television programs were different. I began to narrow it down to a country. From that I narrowed it down to a city, from that I narrowed it down to a specific location. I narrowed it down to two schools. They were religious schools side by side in another part of the world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you say in your article that you don't want to reveal the name of the country or the people behind it because you don't want them to be remembered by this any more than you want your name to be remembered by this particular incident. But do you have any idea how they found you, why they chose you to create this false Facebook page?

SMITH: Well, the reason I really don't want to tell who they are is because I don't want them to be defined by what they did on one of their worst days. And I believe that my telling and revealing who they are would change something in me too if I did. As far as why they picked me, I think it was random. I think I was just sort of something that they pulled off of the net and thought, this will be fun. This will be funny. This will ark muse us for a while. I was their bouncy toy, and then they played with me for a while. And they were gonna release me into the -- release this false thing into the world. But they were kids. That's what I realized. They were in their late teens. And that's who they were. They weren't really thinking through. I don't think they targeted me directly. It wasn't as if it was an vendetta to get me. They didn't know me. It was just fun. It was something fun and they weren't thinking.

CAVANAUGH: Did you take any legal action or anything like is that?

SMITH: I decided I wasn't gonna do that. There are a lot of reasons. In their country, there are things in place where if I sued them, probably I could take apart their schools. I realized these were the kids at the schools that were the community's greatest hope. These were the good kids. These were not the bad kids. These were the good kids, the scholars and the athletes, and the ones who were building things and achieving things. I read speeches that they wrote, I saw their artwork on the net, I saw -- both of the schools, their primary focus was to the disenfranchised and lost and the powerless.

CAVANAUGH: This is it an amazing story. I want to let everyone know. If you want to read the whole story, you can go to salon.com and pull up the fake Facebook profile I could not get removed by Suzanne Arnout Smith. I want to let everyone know we invited a representative from Facebook to join this conversation. Instead we received a statement stating that they changed their policies since the article came out to make it easier for victims to have -- who have imposter accounts and have them removed and making it harder to have them created in the first place. I'm afraid we have to wrap it up here. I've been speaking with San Diego writer Suzanne Arnout Smith, thank you so much, Suzanne.

SMITH: It's always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Comments

Avatar for user 'eminamide'

eminamide | June 23, 2011 at 1:50 p.m. ― 3 years, 3 months ago

This was an interesting discussion, and for the first time (in my life) I was considering picking up the phone and trying to call in...but there was no phone calling. We've experienced (actually, are still experiencing) a similar situation, though fortunately not as offensive. My husband is a public high school teacher, and apparently one or two of his students created a fake profile of him. While the profile is harmless, we want it taken down. So far all our attempts to get Fb to remove it have been futile. We did everything we could, including having friends visit the fake profile and click the appropriate button reporting the profile as an impostor. It's extremely frustrating that a company this size has no customer service contact number that would allow us to streamline the process. I read some of the comments on Ms. Smith's Salon article and was annoyed (but not surprised) that many of the comments dismissed her article as "whining" or not understanding social media. I've gotten the same sort of response from my own children. "You want all the benefits but don't like the risks...." It may be true that Facebook doesn't charge for its services, so perhaps we should take what we get. But I can't help but feel that if they offer a service (like "report impostor"), the service should actually work. I read the sidebar response from Facebook about "improved" reporting function, but I'm assuming it won't be any different.

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