I’ve been a writer a long time, but chances are, you don’t know my name.
I’ve written thrillers, been an essayist for NPR, won the Stanley Drama Award as a playwright and was finalist for a PEN-West for a television movie. In other words, I write and get paid for it, but I’m not Mary Higgins Clark or John Grisham. And yet somebody thought it was a great idea to steal my identity and put up a fake profile on Facebook with the privacy settings removed.
I was still in that first-week euphoria — reestablishing connections, notes from people I hadn’t seen or heard of in years — when I got the e-mail from Wiley.
“Facebook” read the subject line. I expected a droll message welcoming me to the new century. Instead, what I saw rocked me back in my seat: We came across a public Facebook profile from “Susan Arnout Smith” that gave us pause because the comments are very disturbing/inappropriate. Though we hate having to do so, we wanted to bring this to your attention …
I pressed the link. There are moments that are burned into the heart. I saw my face. It was a photo taken off one of my websites. I saw my name. The persona they had created, using my name, my face, was pornographic, trolling for sex. I pay good money. I sat stunned. There had to be a way of connecting to a real person, somebody who could help me get this removed.
I’ll be the first to tell you, dealing with computers makes me tense. I once erased an entire play with no backup, simply by pressing one button. Yeah, the button was “delete.” But still. Next to my computer is “Facebook for Dummies.” It is well-named. So what added to the shock of this profile was the confusion: my normal channels — let me call someone, I want to speak to a manager — were like phone lines that had been cut.
I tried the number listed in the front of the book. It no longer connected to Facebook. I called Palo Alto information. No listing.
The short answer is, I couldn’t. Not for a very long time.
The fake profile had been created the first of last year, before I’d even joined Facebook myself. When I discovered it, it was autumn. That meant that for over eight months, anywhere around the globe, if someone had Googled my name and the word “Facebook,” this fake profile would have appeared, pretending to be me.
Wiley immediately e-mailed me instructions from Facebook: Get on the fake profile, click an icon that identifies the profile as fake and type in the Facebook address for my real profile. He had already done this, as had an associate in his office. I braced myself, scrolled down the profile and clicked. I asked friends, family and trusted colleagues to do this.
Fake, fake, fake. Remove, remove, remove. Click, click, click.
Nothing happened. No response from Facebook.
Every day, I’d click onto the fake profile, hoping it was gone. Every day, it was there. I couldn’t bring myself to read the entire thing. It made my heart bleed.
After two weeks, I clicked the “remove this fake profile” box again. I received an automated message from Facebook, telling me I’d already filed a report. I thought about going on my real profile and telling my Facebook community what had happened, but the fake profile made me feel ashamed, even though I had done nothing to create it. I wanted none of my friends to see it. I just wanted it to go away. It didn’t.
I checked with a police source. Unless I’m being stalked or have lost money (Lost money? How many people saw the fake profile and decided not to buy one of my thrillers?) the police can’t do anything.
My tech guy left a message on Facebook’s security site. I did the same. I received back an automated message from Facebook, telling me not to expect any personal response, nor any message that indicated that anyone had actually addressed whatever my concern was.
As time went by, and the fake profile came up next to the real one every time I Googled it, a slow rage burned in my heart.
Who were these people at Facebook? I visualized them throwing darts and eating pizza behind impenetrable walls. The difference between the fake profile and mine was clear. Mine has quotes from Goethe and ee cummings. The fake profile was slimy and disgusting. All someone had to do was pay attention. Press one small button in an office cubicle someplace in Palo Alto. Click. And the fake profile would be gone.
A month passed. Facebook hadn’t responded. I stopped sleeping. I couldn’t follow conversations. Words swam. Worst of all, I couldn’t write. Writing is what I do. It’s how I make my way in the world, how I help put food on the table, a roof over our heads, paid for the shoes on our kids’ feet and the education they’ve taken out the door.
The breaking point came during a walk with a good friend.
“So. Tell me about this other Facebook profile.”
She’d Googled my name, and there it was, this scummy doppelgänger, pretending to be me.
“You can’t for a single moment have thought …” I let the sentence trail.
But she had. She shrugged, embarrassed, helpless. “It didn’t sound like you, but still …”
She and I had been friends for 20 years, and yet this good friend had wondered if maybe those words, that profile, had come out of me.
I felt humiliated. Powerless. All roads led to dead ends and messages unreturned. I had built my reputation brick by brick over decades, one project at a time, only to discover that out there in cyberspace, my life and reputation had been shredded.
Our nephew, Ben White, an attorney practicing in Walnut Creek, Calif., decided that if we hadn’t heard from Facebook in another week, he was going to take action to encourage it to dismantle the profile. But there was one thing he asked me to do first, and it was a killer.
He wanted me to get on the fake profile, and finally read it, every word. People had friended it. He needed me to look at their faces. See if I recognized anybody.
Reading the profile was like plunging into an icy pond from such a high distance it felt as if I’d slammed into a wall. And then the sensation of drowning.
I took a breath. Made myself read. The comments they had left behind were graphic, vicious. The responses of the person pretending to be me were raw, degrading. In one post, my face had been spliced onto a body wearing underwear, a post offering sex. Another post linked the fake to a legitimate book site. The fake pretending to be me had left chatty, obscene comments on other profiles, describing sexual practices and asking for advice and sex aids.
Some of the people who had friended this had thousands of friends. That meant that thousands upon thousands of people I didn’t know could have viewed this fake profile or seen comments left on profiles by someone claiming to be me.
Before I wrote fiction or essays, I was an investigative journalist. This was my new job: tracking down the people who had done this to me. Making them pay.
I started with the 22 friends on the fake profile. I burrowed into search engines, discovered the private things they’d kept hidden. I followed threads. Music I didn’t recognize, television shows that didn’t air in the United States.
I narrowed it down to a country. A city. Two schools. Religious schools. On the other side of the world.
I’m not going to tell you who there are. And in a minute, I’ll tell you why.
I can tell you they were star athletes, scholars, artists. I pored over speeches given by one, studied the copyrighted artwork displayed on the Web by another. One student was written up in the sports pages as one of the most promising athletes in the last decade. I found candid photos, traced links back to the kid most likely to have created the fake profile. He’d received an award from his school for his Web design work. I uncovered a lovely photo gallery for a younger sister of one of them. She wants to be a model. I traced the route of one of the students — the train route he takes to athletic events.
I looked at their unmasked faces lined up like mug shots. I stared at the soft eyes, the bright smiles.
Emotions roiled, all dark. The depth of my anger scared me. I wanted them hurt, scared, suffering. I wanted them to pay.
I hated what this experience had done to me, what I had become. My life work is about going from a dark place into light. All my writing is about this one thing. How to climb out of something terrible and be someplace better. Someone better.
I talked to my Episcopalian priest, Father Mike Russell at All Soul’s in San Diego. He is a holy man, rumpled and expansive, living in a real world.
“Go after them,” he said.
That wasn’t what I was expecting. Go after them? Are you serious?
“They’ve done something terrible. And it needs to stop.”
So here was my choice.
I could take the schools apart, the lives of the kids apart. I could file a lawsuit there and probably win. I’m no lawyer, but skimming stories on the Net, it seems that in their country, they have laws against this very thing.
In America, we’re not quite there yet. There is a new federal law that gives me the right to file a lawsuit here to try to recover any financial losses resulting from identity theft. Can you imagine how expensive that would be? And how could I prove a negative anyway? Somebody not buying one of my books, because they’d seen that profile?
Besides, these kids didn’t steal my credit. They stole a chunk of my soul. Our laws have yet to catch up with that.
So I could go after them legally. Or I could go a different way.
I took a breath. Wrote both of the school principals. Told them exactly what the students had done, what the impact was on me. And what I wanted. I wanted the profile down.
Within days, I heard back.
One of the principals thanked me for alerting them and said that they were storing all the information on the profile in order to confront the kids.
The principal wrote: We then alerted Facebook and the page has been removed.
The wording was vague. How did they get it down? I did not know. Maybe in their country, there was a support number that worked faster; maybe the principal of a school has more pull than a writer. I only know that when I looked for the profile, it wasn’t there anymore. Finally.
Of course what I wanted to know, what I’d spent hours imagining and hypothesizing about is: Why me?
Nobody seems to know. Probably not even the kids.
In that same letter the principal had written: We have tried (checked texts used at school, followed links, etc.,) and we are as puzzled as you, why they have selected your name and image.
My guess? I wasn’t real to them. I was a bouncy toy, a name, a face, pulled at random off the Net. Something they tossed into the air and batted around for a couple of months before they lost interest and moved on.
That, for me, is the scariest part.
The Internet makes it easy to casually carve up real people in some cartoon world. A drive-by shooting, a stab in the dark. A fast, vicious punch to the reputation. Easy to do damage. And awfully hard to repair.
Your name. Mine. Our names. And faces. Those brave, pinched, worried-looking faces, worn down by life, buoyed up by hope. Taken. Used. When it happens to you, it’s no small thing, believe me.
That’s why I asked the principals for one more thing. The big one. The one that takes years. The one for which I’ll never know the ending.
I wanted the kids who had done this to understand so completely the impact of their behavior, that they would never do it again. Or allow it to happen in their presence. I insisted the parents be notified and shown in detail what their star children had done, and what its impact had been on me. A stranger.
Did they learn a lesson? Did they get it, these kids? Is it changing behaviors?
I have no idea. But I know this.
They stole something from me. It was hard to get it back, but I did.
I know what it feels like to feel powerless. I know what it feels like to act. And I know what it feels like to forgive.
Which brings me to the reason I haven’t told you who they are. I wouldn’t be able to reach that point if I’d told you their names. Or even the country where they live. I didn’t want one of their worst moments be the thing that forever defines them. And just as deep, just as true, I didn’t want my telling you to be the thing that forever defines me.
If I am to live by my words, I need to reach toward light when I’m hurting the most.
I can sleep now. I dream. And I write.
There is one more thing. Not long ago I saw a story in Salon about Facebook privacy that helpfully provided the customer service number. I decided to call it to see if I could get a comment for this story.
When I pressed the customer service option at that number, an automated voice told me that talking to a real person was no longer an option.