There have been a lot of stories lately about identity fraud, particularly connected with the internet. It seems that consumers nowadays are so influenced by customer reviews and comments on retail and service websites that there is a growing trend for fake reviews posted by people using fake identities.
In fact a recent BBC investigation revealed a global market for fake review writers who use stolen identities to post reviews and comments and then get paid for doing so.
For example, Ashley Booth Griffin from New York supposedly posted a positive review for a loan website, writing in glowing terms about how fantastic their service was. It transpired that she was killed in a car crash seven years ago and the photo used in the review came from her memorial website.
The BBC also spoke to students in Bangladesh who supplemented their student fees by writing fake reviews and Tweets. Apparently the practice is widespread and commonplace on the world wide web. Unbelievable, don’t you think? Well so did I, until I discovered that I was an unwitting victim of exactly the same thing.
So how did this come about? A few weeks ago I received a private message on Facebook. It was from a total stranger called Jane Bell (not her real name) who had read a very hostile and damaging review written about her new business on its Facebook page. In fact the comments had been so malicious and unjustified that she immediately became suspicious. So she looked up the person who had posted the comment and discovered it to be a woman called “Jocelyn Makepiece” and when she clicked on her name, Jocelyn Makepiece’s profile appeared. The photograph, this so-called “Jocelyn” was using however, was a picture of me.
Now it just so happened that Jane Bell recognised the photograph from my columns in Belfast Telegraph (the perp had stupidly chosen one of my regularly published byline pictures) and remembered my name, so she got in touch with me via Facebook to warn me about the fraud and the abuse of my image.
Naturally I was both curious and outraged at the same time, so I looked up the profile myself. Apparently in my alter ego as Jocelyn, I was a nurse living in Cumbria. There was details of my education (a BA in Human Biology at Newcastle, no less!) and a few areas of interest were included on the profile too, such as teaching Taekwondo, knitting and a particular penchant for films starring Bruce Willis. Other than those (very random) points, the profile itself was sketchy. There were only six “friends” listed who were all public figures and therefore easy to access and no more photos other than that one of me beaming out jovially from the page, unwittingly co-conspiring in internet fraud.
My second response was to investigate the details, so I placed a call to “her” place of work and her university and (lo and behold) no-one of that name had ever existed at either. Finally I send “Jocelyn” a message. I will paraphrase what I actually wrote, as this is a family newspaper. “Who the flipping heck are you and why the hecky-pecky are you using my picture to write malicious messages on the internet? I have contacted Facebook admin and instructed them to block your profile immediately before contacting the police.”
Within a minute the page was removed without a trace.
The next day I got a follow-up message from Ms Bell. It transpired that the fake profile and subsequent malicious reviews had been set up by a disgruntled business competitor, male, who was now being investigated for fraud. He’d obviously just lifted my picture off Google images and then created a fake account using the bare minimum of information. But any sage and experienced Facebook user knows how to spot a dodgy account and that couldn’t have been more suspicious if it had put the made-up name in inverted commas.
As for Bruce Willis, are you kidding me?