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Online impersonations: no validation required

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Invading my space

While email allows you to communicate and web pages provide a narrow view of your world, blog services such as MySpace allow you to create an entire online persona. Visitors can see up-to-date content as well as friendship relationships. Unfortunately, as with email, anyone can create a MySpace profile and impersonate anyone else. Politicians, sports figures, and celebrities are frequently impersonated. Even law enforcement and kidnap victims are not immune. Teachers are another common target for MySpace impersonations.

Refuting a MySpace profile

Disabling a MySpace imposter is much more difficult than other online services. While Yahoo!, Google, and even Hushmail have well-defined, single-step processes for reporting abuse, MySpace seems intentionally complicated. I have assisted a half-dozen people with the removal of false MySpace profiles, and none have been painless.

MySpace provides a specific FAQ and request form for reporting abuse and impersonation. They want you to (and I'm not kidding) send them a "salute". The salute is "an image of yourself holding a handwritten sign with the word 'MySpace.com' and your Friend ID". If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the same type of embarrassment used at 419eater.com against advanced fee fraud scammers. There are a lot of problems with this type of authentication:

  • Validation. Just because it is a picture of a person does not mean that it is a picture of you. Anyone can use this approach to terminate anyone's MySpace account. MySpace has no method to tell that the picture is of the actual person.
  • Photoshop. Even if the person in the salute is real, there is no way to tell if the sign is real or if it was added to the picture using Photoshop. I know first-hand that photoshopped images are acceptable for terminating imitation MySpace accounts.
  • Submission. Okay, you have your picture of "you" holding a sign. How do you submit it? The MySpace form only allows text, not pictures or attachments. Furthermore, there is no email address for sending the picture. Yes: first they request an unverifiable image, and then they offer no method for submitting it. What they don't tell you is that if you fill out the text form, then they will respond a few days later with an email where you can send the salute.

If you are the victim of a MySpace impersonation, then you have two options for reporting abuse:

  • Teachers. MySpace has a special submission form for teachers who are being impersonated. This form does not require the submission of a salute. In fact, they have no means to validate that you are even a teacher. You should expect the imposter's account to be terminated within a week.
  • Salute. If you actually do manage to send in a salute, expect the imposter to be around for two to three weeks.

In all cases, you will receive no acknowledgment that the complaint has been received, and no case number for tracking the complaint.

Addressing other blogs

Most bloggers are friendly and want to provide accurate information. If you find that an imposter is posting on someone else's blog, then consider contacting the blog owner. A simple, polite email explaining the situation is usually enough to have an impersonator's comments corrected or removed.

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