Sunday, April 22, 2018

Column: Hey, Facebook, some guy stole my life!

Recently, I found myself looking at something very strange — a Facebook page full of pictures of myself.

This might not have been strange had I been looking at my own Facebook page.

But I wasn’t. I was looking at the page of someone allegedly named "Brett Colin."

Brett and I had a lot in common. We had taken the same vacations. We had the same children. We even had the exact same face. (Poor Brett.)

I thought it was I who rode a horse to the top of mountain in North Carolina several years ago. No, apparently that was Brett.

I thought I took my son to a Bucs game where my son beamed after Mason Foster gave him his receiver’s glove. Apparently that was Brett, too.

It was pretty clear someone had lifted my personal information and photos to create a fake Facebook page. (I learned about the page after someone Brett was trying to con let me know. Brett had left some of the "tags" with my real name on a few of the photos.)

So I contacted Facebook and told them about the scam — which was when my weird story got weirder.

Facebook quickly let me know it understood the problem: "You reported someone for pretending to be you."

But Facebook also said that was fine with them.

Um ... what?

Specifically, Facebook responded that they had investigated the matter and concluded that Brett’s page — where he was pretending to be me — "doesn’t go against our Community Standards."

Well, then your standards blow, Facebook.

I ultimately got the page removed, and I’ll share how. But the greater message here is that you can’t trust anything to remain private.


"I always tell people that anything you put on social media should be something you would be comfortable showing the whole world."

Those are the words of Joan Goodchild, an expert in social-media security with Information Security Media Group.

Joan checked out my situation and said the fake page was a pretty clear example of "catfishing."

That’s when someone creates a fake page to try to lure someone in — often under the auspices of romance, but ultimately to take them for money.

The key giveaway in my case was that, while Brett lifted lots of things directly from my Facebook profile — like his journalism degree (what were you thinking, Brett?) and graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Go, Heels!) — he changed one key thing. Under marital status, it said: "Divorced."

Now, some days, my wife might be tempted. But we are, in fact, together and quite happy. Still, Brett had removed any evidence of my/his wife from all the pictures.

Why? "He’s catfishing," Goodchild explained, "portraying himself as a divorced, single dad interested in having a relationship. But then, after a while, he’ll start saying: ‘I need money to support my son.’?"

I do need money to support my son. He’s 15 and eats like a hippo. But I use Publix BOGOs to deal with that problem. Not Facebook.

One of the key things I’d done wrong was not place private settings on all my photos to keep strangers from seeing them. Actually, I had always tried to do so. But Goodchild said that, in Facebook’s earlier days, it often reset users’ settings back to public-sharing status when it updated its platform. Not cool, Facebook.

Also not cool was the social-media giant’s response to my problem — you know, when they said the problem wasn’t actually a problem. (No wonder the Russians got in so easily.)

A Facebook spokesman later admitted they’d messed up. He said a human being incorrectly handled my complaint, but said the company’s "automated" system later caught it. (This is why droids will be doing all of our jobs in a few years.)

How did the "automated" system catch it? Well, after Facebook told me they were cool with some fraudster using my info, I asked others to report the fake page as well. Apparently, volume works.

Still, Goodchild said there are basic things everyone should do.

Regularly check your privacy settings. Use the "View as public" feature so you can see what strangers see. And use the "limit past posts" feature to hide everything you’ve ever posted in the past.

But more importantly, go back to the original point: Don’t assume anything you "share" with friends will stay there.

I never post anything I’m not prepared for the whole world to see. I increasingly believe there are no secrets anymore. But we don’t have to make it easy for scammers.

So this was a good reminder.

Thanks, Brett.

Scott Maxwell is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.
© 2017 Orlando Sentinel

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