A West Texas man hijacked his ex-girlfriend’s email address to create a fake profile of her on a dating website.
In Utah, a policeman was suspended after someone posted racist remarks on a Facebook profile created to look like his wife’s account.
Meanwhile, a Louisiana man stole a stranger’s photos to pretend to be a woman on social media as a way to lure women into sending him illicit photos.
The West Texas and Louisiana men were both arrested under state laws prohibiting someone from impersonating another online with the intent to do harm. No such law exists in Utah, however, where law enforcement could do little to stop the defamation.
Texas and Louisiana are the outliers: online impersonation when coupled with malicious intent is illegal in only a handful of states, but it could be outlawed soon in North Carolina, too.
House Bill 341 would make it a felony, punishable by up to 25 months in jail, for a person to use email, text messages, or a fake social media account to impersonate someone with the intent of “harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding.”
Last week, the bill passed the House unanimously, 118-0, with two absentees en route to a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Donna White of Clayton, says she filed the bill after a conversation with two constituents—a young married couple—whose reputation and small business had been damaged by someone impersonating them on social media.
White says two people created a bogus Facebook page in the likeness of the business owners then posted messages on the page that made it appear as though they were racist. The imposters also created other fictitious Facebook accounts to comment on those racist remarks as a way to spread them across social media.
“So, they were kind of doing two things,” White says. “They were impersonating, and then they were responding to their own impersonation.”
The business owners reported the scam to law enforcement, who were willing to help and had identified the perpetrators, White says, “But they didn’t have the teeth to do anything because there was no law.”
Word of the racist remarks from what appeared to be the business owners started spreading in the community, she says, and it soon had real-world consequences.
“They were really losing business badly.”
Under the proposal, stealing someone’s information to hijack their online identity or creating a completely bogus profile using another person’s image would both be criminal offenses when coupled with malicious intent. The language of the North Carolina bill mimics statutes already adopted in at least 10 other states, which have criminalized online impersonation uniquely from other cybercrimes, such as identity theft, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The origin of e-personation laws can be traced back to the 2006 suicide of a Missouri teenager named Megan Meier, who was duped by the MySpace profile of what appeared to be an attractive boy named Josh Evans. The two teens flirted for weeks until Evans eventually turned on Meier and wrote, “The world would be a better place without you.” She later hung herself.
An investigation revealed there was no Josh Evans. The MySpace profile was created by a 47-year-old mother of one of Meier’s former friends as a way to retaliate for Meier allegedly spreading rumors about her daughter.
The mother, Lori Drew, was convicted under a federal computer fraud statute, but the conviction was overturned on appeal after a federal court ruled the law did not apply to Drew’s actions.
Meier’s death and Drew’s acquittal received widespread media attention and led to state lawmakers across the country racing to criminalize cyberbullying against minors.
But state law hasn’t kept pace with this new type of online harassment, says Senate Majority Whip Jim Perry, a Republican from Lenoir County.
Perry, a member of the Senate Rules Committee that will consider White’s bill, also introduced legislation this session to ban online impersonation.
Similar to White’s story, Perry says he was motivated to author the bill following a disturbing conversation with a troubled constituent who had a family member whose life was turned upside down by an imposter.
“A third party created some social media accounts in this person’s name,” Perry says, “and they did some very vile things, and really brought up a lot of very inflammatory subjects in the most inflammatory means possible.”
The fake account spread on social media, he says, “and you had hundreds of thousands of people who were upset with this person who did nothing.”
The victim received death threats and was concerned for their life, he says.
As he listened to the story, Perry says he realized the person who created the fictitious account had found a loophole in state law that needed closing.
“This can do a lot of damage to someone.”
Joseph Kennedy, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor who specializes in cybercrime, says there is some disagreement in the legal community over how lawmakers should handle e-personations.
“Some believe that such conduct can be addressed more simply through existing criminal fraud statutes,” Kennedy said in an email to the INDY. “It is a matter of debate among legal scholars whether special computer crimes should be created to deal with conduct that existing crimes already cover. One issue is whether using a specially created computer crime clarifies the law or needlessly complicates it.”
But the victims in White and Perry’s districts turned to legislators only after learning law enforcement could do little to stop the activity. Perry says the law needs updating to keep pace with technology.
“There’s a warm blanket of anonymity out there that makes people do some really bold and nasty things,” he says. “It’s such a gray area. The law didn’t contemplate issues such as this.”
Follow Managing Editor Geoff West on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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