Finding ways to protect people from online impersonation has been growing in recent times as the number of victims of e-impersonation, a new phenomenon known as catfishing, has risen. Brought into the spotlight by the MTV show Catfish, and the recent Manti Te’o scandal, catfishing is a form of identity theft, or online impersonation, where someone creates a fake persona online, and uses it to lure victims into online romantic relationships or devoted friendships. Online impersonation can also include forgery and cyberbullying, but rarely involve money (2). Laws against identity theft are primarily used to protect people against financial harm caused by a fraudulent identity; they generally do not apply to fictitious, people. However, using someone’s photo without permission, intending to blackmail, or causing emotional distress is considered a criminal offenses (1).
Many state and federal authorities have called for laws against online impersonation and acknowledgement of its dangers after the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who killed herself after being cyberbullied by a woman impersonating a boy. In addition, after the Sandy Hook Elementary incident, people began posting inaccurate information about the shooting, and posing as the shooter on social media sites (3). These cases of online impersonation are threatening, cause emotional distress and are criminal in nature, according to Connecticut State Police Lieutenant J. Paul Vance (3).
California, New York, and several other states have made online impersonation a criminal offense; many people believe it should be a criminal offense throughout the nation, especially after the Sandy Hook impersonations. However, finding ways to prosecute online impersonation is not a simple process. One concern is running into first amendment rights if an online impersonation is said to be a practical joke (1). Another is trying to identify suspects. Suspected online impersonators are able to hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. Even though a computer’s IP address can be identified, there is still the challenge of proving who was using the computer at that time of the accusations (3).
The bar for proving online impersonation and the repercussions that follow is set high to ensure victims and suspects receive equal justification in court. Should there be a national law passed to prosecute online impersonation, it would most likely resemble the Washington state House Bill 1652 and California’s law, SB 1411, where victims are able to gain justice, and those punishable may face a fine or time in jail. Victims would need to prove that this impersonation has caused them harm through harassment, threats, humiliation, or injured their personal, professional or financial standing (2). Overall, protecting people from online impersonation and the harm it can cause is growing in importance, and more laws to convict those who commit online impersonation will probably be brought into effect in the near future.
Raj M. Nichani, Esq. is the President of RMN Global Search, a full-service legal search company specializing in the permanent and temporary placement of legal attorneys with law firms and corporate legal departments. Raj and his team are dedicated to placing the highest quality candidates based on their own unique needs. RMN Global Search is based in Atlanta, GA with a dominant presence in all major cities in the United States. The legal recruiting company was recently named the 13th top legal recruiting company in the nation by LawCrossing.