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Online impersonations: no validation required

How do you know what's real and what's not?

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Back when I lived in the Silicon Valley, there was an ongoing employment scam. Prospective employees would show up with perfect resumes and immediately get hired. It would not take long before it was clear that these people did not have the experience stated on their resumes. Within six months they would be fired.

However, now they had six months of legitimate experience with real companies that they could reference. Their next jobs might not be as good or glamorous, but it would be much better than if they started with their real resumes.

In order to combat false credentials and gain insight into potential candidates, hiring managers have turned to web search engines and social networking sites to augment their screening process. According to a survey last October, hiring managers claimed that up to a third of candidates lied about their qualifications.

In addition, about one in ten candidates had posted inappropriate messages or images in public forums, making them less desirable than candidates who always appear professional. The problems with having a less than stellar online persona were covered in a recent NPR story.

However, while resume padding has been around for years, online impersonation has only begun playing a role. What if your online profile included an inappropriate statement that you never made? In most online forums, anonymity and impersonations are trivially accomplished since you are never asked for verifiable information during enrolment. This becomes a two-stage problem. First, you must be able to identify that an impersonation is taking place. And second, you need to know how to take corrective actions.

Bad impersonations

When people think of impersonations, they usually think of identity theft and financial crimes. However, the impacts from online impersonations can be significant.

For example, one of my associates had a free email account similar to "john.doe@gmail.com". Someone with a grudge registered "john_doe@gmail.com" (underscore instead of a period) and began to send out emails that impersonated the individual. The emails were intended to undermine his credibility. Unless you looked very closely at the email sender's address, you would not realise that it was an imposter. As another example, in 2006 a police officer impersonated his ex-girlfriend and used the account to solicit dates. Men actually appeared at her house expecting a romantic interlude.

While financial impersonations may take years to rectify, information and false postings on the web may circulate indefinitely. Distinguishing fact from fiction and true actions from an imposter's can be virtually impossible. The requirements for removing an imposter vary from simple web forms to nightmarish runarounds.

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications

Next page: Hunting imposters

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