What do popular shows like ‘You’ and ‘Catfish’ have in common? Other than being incredibly binge-worthy, shows like these realistically depict how simple it is to mimic someone’s online presence today, to create fake profiles using their name and photos, and to con other people with this ‘stolen’ identity.
Rising Cases of Identity Theft, Online Impersonation
As we use social media platforms more and more for work as well as leisure, we share more and more of our personal information – making it almost too easy for our pictures and name to be stolen and used by someone for their gain.
Thus, it doesn’t come as a surprise that cases of identity theft or online impersonation are on the rise. And it is not just a few influencers and celebrities who are being targeted.
While we can be lulled into a fake sense of security and think passwords and security questions make us impervious to online impersonation for malicious reasons, it is better to be educated on the recourses available if the need arises.
Provisions in Law
Impersonation is a crime and legal remedies are available to address any cases. If you think someone is impersonating you, you can (and should) approach the police to file a criminal complaint.
The primary Act dealing with cyber crime and security is Information Technology Act (2000) based on the UNCITRAL Model Law on E-Commerce, as recommended by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The Act was later amended in 2008 to address issues like child porn, cyber terrorism and voyeurism.
The relevant provisions for the case of a fake profile would be sections 66D and 66C.
Section 66D states, “Whoever, by means of any communication device or computer resource cheats by personation, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees”.
Section 66C states, “Whoever, fraudulently or dishonestly make use of the electronic signature, password or any other unique identification feature of any other person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to rupees one lakh”.
Other sections of the Indian Penal Code, such as 415 (cheating), 416 (cheating by personation) and 499 (defamation) can also be invoked, depending on the scale and grievousness of the crime.
How Do I File a Complaint?
In an effort to help victims report cyber crimes easily and efficiently, the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal was set up in 2019, and can be used to file a complaint. The website has thorough explanations about the legal provisions, the documents that need to be submitted, collecting screenshots and other evidence etc. The website also offers the option of allowing anonymous complaints in cases involving women or children.
In emulation of this model, different state police forces, for example Delhi Police, have also opened their own online portals where cyber crime can be reported.
Further, these have guidelines to ensure online safety, methods to recover data, information on the kind of crimes that may occur and so on.
If I Don’t Want to File a Complaint, What Are My Other Options?
If you would prefer to not file an official complaint, you can always turn to the website-specific resources provided for such a situation. While we usually press 'I agree' on the terms and conditions without even skimming through them, they might actually be helpful in certain situations.
Social media platforms have their own privacy policies and customer data guidelines, the violation of which can lead to consequences. The policies and actions taken in the event of their violation vary from website to website, but here are explanations of those of the three most popular platforms in India.
Twitter is one of the few platforms to have a comprehensive 'Impersonation Policy', perhaps necessitated due to its popularity among celebrities, politicians and public personalities. It is also one of the platforms that allows you to report not just your own fake profile, but also flag fake profiles of people you may know. Sharing names, posting similar photos, or having a parody account does not automatically qualify as impersonation, unless harm caused can be proved.
You need to submit a government-issued photo identity proof in order to prove that the account is an impersonation. The form and complaint can be filed on Twitter itself.
For the purpose of this story, we tried to report a profile and received an instantaneous response to guide us through further steps.
If the complaint is genuine, Twitter’s response ranges from a temporary suspension and removal of the stolen content to a permanent ban on the profile. Reviews from the Twitter community who have gone through the process are also very positive.
Instagram only acts on reports filed by the person who is being impersonated, or their authorised representative (parent, legal guardian). This makes reporting fake profiles slightly difficult in case the victim does not wish to be the filing the complaint.
In order to prove your own identity, it is necessary to upload a photo of yourself with a legal photo ID. Subsequently, Instagram decides if or not to take action. However, many people who have been impersonated on Instagram have spoken out about the non-transparency of the process, and the lack of case closure or summary reports.
Old-school Facebook also allows only the victim or their legal representative to file an impersonation complaint.
“Authenticity is the cornerstone of our community,” the social media giant claims, and allows you to report both Facebook accounts and Messenger-only accounts.
There is a separate procedure to be followed based on whether the perpetrator is a profile or a page, and according to previous victims, the process is non-transparent and slightly cumbersome.
Even as it may look like Twitter is the best at handling impersonations and fake accounts, the most ideal situation would be to not have to deal with such a situation at all.
With increasing awareness about data protection, a range of resources and guides are available online to help you safeguard your data and not fall prey to identity theft or impersonation.
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