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Online impersonation laws

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by Staff Writer

An Elvis impersonator in front of a Las Vegas sign

This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

You know a phenomenon has become common when there’s enough material to make a reality show out of it. Thus, with MTV’s popular Catfish, we’re witnessing the mainstreaming of online impersonation.

Whether somebody is pretending to be a fictional person or a real one, it’s becoming more challenging to trust people to be exactly who they say they are online.

But what if someone’s online impersonation causes you harm? The law has been slow to react to these new challenges, but you do have recourses, legal and otherwise.

Online impersonation laws vary from state to state, as does the threshold for triggering the law. There are currently no federal Internet impersonation laws, and only nine states have online impersonation laws on the books.

Generally, these laws, such as California’s, make impersonating somebody online a misdemeanor or third-degree felony punishable by fines and some jail time, depending on the severity of the crime.

What exactly counts as online impersonation?

For someone to be guilty of an online impersonation, they need to use a false persona to cause you harm or defraud you. For example, someone who pretended to be your long-lost cousin in order to trick you into giving them money would be committing fraud. Similarly, someone who pretends to be you in order to make embarrassing statements and harm your reputation is also crossing the line.

However, that doesn’t mean all online criticism and impersonation is illegal. The law provides exceptions for parody and satire, which are the use of impersonations to make important statements on cultural or political topics.

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Of course, parody and satire are much more applicable to famous people in the public eye. If you’re largely unknown to the outside world, it’s much harder (though not impossible) for someone to make an argument of parody or satire for their impersonation of you.

Conversely, even if you are famous, that doesn’t give everyone carte blanche to make nasty impersonations of you for no reason. If the purpose is clearly to humiliate or embarrass you, with no wider societal benefit, then parody likely doesn’t apply.

Types of illegal online impersonation

There are four broad categories of online impersonation that can be illegal:

  • Defamation – When someone uses the impersonation to spread false and malicious statements about you.
  • Harassment – When someone impersonates you in order to threaten or harm someone else.
  • Professional impersonation – It is illegal to impersonate a public servant acting in their professional capacity; for example; pretending to be a detective to get information from a victim is illegal.
  • False light – This one is a little more complicated, but essentially it boils down to presenting truthful information in a way that is specifically designed to be misleading and harmful.

Impersonation as a terms-of-service violation

If you’re being impersonated on social media and you’re not sure that your situation crosses the line into illegal territory, you may also have recourse through the terms of service of the social media site.

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Facebook, for example, has a strict policy of not allowing impersonations and fake usernames. If you’re being impersonated on Facebook, follow their instructions to report the fake account.

Similarly, Twitter generally does not allow impersonations, although they do make exceptions for parody, commentary, and fan accounts. To see if your situation violates Twitter’s terms of service, check out this help page.

What to do if you’re being impersonated online?

Whether or not you think the impersonation is legal, it’s a good idea to document what’s going on. This will give you the broadest protection, both under the law and in terms of winning a terms-of-service violation appeal. Follow these steps:

  • Take screenshots of all impersonation activities you can find, including the URL if it happens on a static web page. Screenshots are better than saving links or saving the source of an HTML page, because they are harder to fake and create a permanent record, regardless of what happens to the original.
  • If you know the impersonator, collect any correspondence between you into a file, making note of events that might have led to the situation.
  • If you are facing threats, harassment, or any other type of danger, contact the police immediately and report what is going on. You may also want to contact a lawyer that specializes in online impersonation or defamation.

At this point, if the law is unable to help you rectify your situation, you should consider an online reputation management solution. The impersonation, after all, is only harmful when people can see it. If you bury the online impersonation underneath a sea of correct, quality information, the impersonator will not have much impact. Over time, he or she is then likely to give up, solving your problem indirectly.

For more information on how to launch an online reputation campaign, check out our definitive guide, which will walk you through the process and all of the steps involved.  You can also contact us directly for free advice on how best to handle your situation.