In Cyber Safety

The Effects and Causes of Impersonation

Impersonation involves pretending to be someone else with the intent of gain or to harass people in the process. For decades, impersonation was essentially only effective when using the phone or when someone looked enough like someone else to use a fake identification card resembling the victim. The key factor was to either have a good resemblance or to use a medium where sight of the perpetrator was not possible. Then came the Internet. Now the problem has gone exponential, with perpetrators able to fake entire identities of people and companies with the use of digital tools. As a result, fake accounts and fake personas are a real risk in the digital age.

Understanding How a Fake Works

The impersonator needs at least a few elements of truth to spin a fake web online. This is often a full name, a social security number, a person’s home address, and their image. If they are able to obtain a birth date or a driver’s license number, even better. The bank vault is practically open at that point. With this information a person can go to any service on the Internet and essentially create fake profile pictures, fake Facebook profiles, and fake scam accounts and more. In most cases the service involved won’t validate the information, believing that the initial identification criteria came from the original owner and that’s enough for proof.

Types of Impersonators

As long as the impersonator is not looked at closely, he can pretty much get away with quite a bit of damage on the Internet for a long time. This then gets into the type of impersonators that exist. They are:

  • The Scammer – This type is the most common and is primarily after identity fraud for the purposes of financial theft. Anything and everything he can access has a goal of finding funds to steal or purchasing power to then use illegally to buy things by fraud. He doesn’t necessarily need to be able to get into a bank account; the scammer can instead create a person’s account with a new credit card company and use that account to steal goods and services until shut down. Identity fraud for theft is one of the biggest crimes occurring today, and it is also one of the hardest to stop.
  • The Hacker – This type of impersonator is more interested in the challenge of breaking into someone’s accounts versus stealing anything. His interest is to show the victim, whether it is a person or a company, that the hacker has the ability enter as he desires without control or authorization. Hackers often change passwords on existing accounts and create new accounts with a person’s information to create havoc. Much of the damage is on the scale of a practical joke, causing a victim frustration. A few will steal funds if given the chance but most just create headaches with renamed passwords and posting embarrassing information about a victim publicly.
  • The Vindictive Ex-Partner – This is a person who is likely committing the crime of stalking using digital tools. He or she is in a bad relationship where the impersonator is domineering or controlling, or he or she has just been dumped and wants revenge. Using knowledge gained in the relationship, the impersonator goes out in the digital world anonymously and starts creating damage. The intent is to embarrass, irritate, frustrate, and hurt the victim partner. In many cases, the vindictive type doesn’t know when to stop and often has to be arrested to realize he or she has gone too far.
  • The Online Bully – This could be a person from school, work, a social situation or any other regular interaction environment. In almost all cases the victim knows the bully in some form but the identity may be hidden for a while online until guessed. The bully’s focus is to cause harm, hurt, and frustration as well as fear. He or she uses impersonation to further a goal of destroying the victim. Ideally, the bully wants the victim to feel so helpless that she accepts the bully is in total control of the situation. Then the bully will often try to manipulate the victim for further entertainment.
  • The Group Bullying – a phenomenon that has completely originated thanks to the Internet, this involves a group of people focused in a coordinated, ongoing effort to bully a victim and cause fear. The group usually starts with Internet attacks, including impersonating the victim to embarrass or cause havoc. The group will then often engage in physical contact as well via following while driving, moving things around a victim’s home or workplace, breaking into the victim’s home and rearranging things or making things disappear. The whole focus is to scare the victim to the point that he or she feels there is no protection from the group except to leave and get out of the area.
  • The Oddball – This person is probably the most unpredictable because he or she is frequently unknown to a victim. There may have been a temporary contact or she was seen by the perpetrator in passing. In most cases the initial interaction is slight, but the impersonator is now suddenly committed to get into the life of the victim as much as possible. Most of the actions of the Oddball are irrational, driven by a mental need to be part of or control the victim’s life. Impersonation usually occurs as part of breaking into a victim’s life and learning everything possible. This person’s action frequently devolve into criminal stalking and, if caught, the person is usually diagnosed as mentally ill.

Spotting the Fake

There are many effective ways available on how to spot a fake profile or fake account on the Internet but all of them require the assistance of the service or account administrator in charge of the system that has the accounts. Unfortunately, many administrator companies are still taking a hands-off approach to the whole matter, not wanting to lose business or customers due to mistakes or an overly-aggressive filtering of new accounts. This is there bread and butter in many cases, so being difficult to create an account with often goes against the company business model.

Secondly, many companies also don’t want to get involved due to the legal risks that may occur. Instead, by not getting involved, the company has a strong defense against any charge of conspiracy or participation. This is often the case with larger companies that gone corporate and most of their external interaction policies are covered by pages of legalese boilerplate language from the company lawyers. Ironically, their lack of involvement is often what allows the impersonation problem to fester and grow on their platforms.

Defense Against an Impersonator

The number one defense a person can apply against potential impersonation is to make it extremely hard to get a victim’s personal information in the first place. People need to think proactively and seal up their personal identification data in a way that an immediate alarm would be triggered by any attempt to get it. This means doing the following:

  • Limiting as much as possible any account or service that requires or wants the use of a person’s name, social security number, address and birth date. This also means contacting those companies, usually financial, that do have the information and making sure they don’t give it out to anyone else.
  • Using extremely hard passwords for online accounts and then changing the passwords on a regular basis such as every 60 or 90 days if not sooner. Hacks usually occur across most people’s accounts because they use the same password for every account to make it easy to remember. That also makes it easy to hack a person’s digital life.
  • Monitoring accounts daily for any odd behavior or attempts to access. Most services will send a notice by email that an attempt was made to change a password to an account as an alert.
  • Using a monitoring service that will watch a person’s financial profile and flag any attempts to open new financial accounts with the person’s identification. Using a regular credit freeze is a great way to stop such activity before it starts.
  • Keeping accurate and detailed records of any add behavior, including any possible identifying factors. Where criminal behavior has occurred, a police report should be filed every time. While the police may not be able to do anything immediately, the police report adds material that could be helpful later on when aggregated with other case information. Patterns of behavior are often what gets criminals arrested, not singular events.

An impersonator can’t always be stopped from causing trouble, but a potential victim can make it extremely hard for the problem to get started online with some basic steps of protection. People do bad things regardless of common sense; but no one has to roll over and be a victim for them, helplessly waiting for an attack.

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