|Using your name and image, frauds can have a little fun — or wreak a lot of havoc
Folks in Austin, Texas, may have thought they had a direct line into the mind and tactics of their local police department via Twitter, the online micro-blogging service. “Warming up my radar gun,” was one of the tweets posted at “Austin PD,” which also used the official city seal.
In March, however, the 450 followers of the account found out “Austin PD” was a fraud as officials worked to have it shut down. Although the fake tweets appeared to be mostly joking in nature, not everyone whose identity has been misappropriated on Twitter has been so lucky.
Matt Friedman, co-founder of Tanner Friedman public relations agency in Farmington Hills, Mich., said someone “used our company name to post disparaging and vindictive tweets about us. We are now trying to get our name and the ID from Twitter, so we can start using it for our own business.”
According to Twitter’s terms of service, “Using a company or business name, logo, or other trademark protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others may be considered trademark infringement.” The company claims that accounts with clear intent to mislead others will be immediately suspended. Of course, they have to be reported first.
For Mike Flacy, a content manager for several consumer electronic Web sites at Internet Brands in El Segundo, Calif., that meant contacting Twitter’s terms of service team to claim an impersonation violation.
“After I got to the correct department, I was quite surprised how easy it is to reclaim a Twitter account that’s been brand-jacked,” Flacy said. He noted that it took about 48 hours for the Twitter account to change ownership after he sent them an “official” company e-mail, which is one that contains the domain of the site in the address.
“As far as I can tell, Twitter has no safeguards for protecting brands,” Flacy said. “Anyone can register for a name without actual affiliation to a company. Companies should really be vigilant in pursuing brand-jacked Twitter names, even if they don’t plan on using it.”
Vigilance also paid off for Amanda Mullin, of Hanser & Associates in Des Moines, Iowa, when her client, Megabus.com, became the victim of Twitter ID theft.
“Megabus.com’s name and logo were being used on Twitter by an individual posting incoherent, incorrect, and expletive-filled information about them,” Mullin said. “We would see random tweets that would be declaring ticket prices to cities that Megabus.com doesn’t serve, with choice expletives included.”
Mullin said her firm found the problem when doing research to prepare their client’s Twitter account. They were able to get the problem resolved and have now started the real Megabus Twitter account.
Twitter’s soft underbelly was easily exposed by Fake-Twitter.com, a service launched in March that allowed you to make a fake status update to anyone’s Twitter stream, with the update looking as if it had been posted by the account holder. The site, which claimed later to be a social experiment, was taken down in mid-April after an official request from the real Twitter.
Sometimes it’s not your Twitter account that’s at risk, but the feed that results from it.
Megan Fitzgerald, a personal branding coach from Rome, Italy, said her Twitter feed was hijacked by someone using Plaxo, an online network that allows you to associate your Twitter account with your profile.
“Anyone can claim any Twitter handle. Plaxo even prompts the user with suggested handles and never requires a password to claim it,” Fitzgerald said. “Someone has claimed my Twitter handle, which means my tweets show up on their Plaxo feed, and people will assume that she is the one posting these tweets.”
Plaxo’s terms of service read, “If you believe that any material on the site infringes upon any copyright which you own or control, you may send a written notification of such infringement to our designated agent.”
Fitzgerald said she has spoken with Plaxo representatives “at length,” and they claim they can do nothing about her hijacked Twitter feed.
“They don’t seem to have changed their policy regarding claiming Twitter accounts. It’s a pretty bad situation,” Fitzgerald said. “Frankly, I am shocked that Plaxo has been so unwilling to help or do anything about it.”
Sometimes, fake Twitter accounts are so obviously bogus that it’s clear the tweeter behind it is merely out to have fun. That’s why you can follow Jesus Christ, God, and Darth Vader. Other famous names, however, have been followed by fans duped into believing it was the real thing when it wasn’t. These include Oprah (before she really joined), Ewan McGregor, the Dalai Lama and Keith Olbermann, the outspoken host of MSNBC’s “Countdown,” who subsequently stamped Twitter with his nightly “Worst Person in the World” designation.
There are a number of ways to track potential Twitter impostors, and even if you’re not tweeting yet, you should be monitoring these search engines. The main Twitter search engine is www.search.twitter.com, where you can search for keywords, names, or phrases. There’s also www.tweetgrid.com where you can do the same thing but have multiple searches under way in many different boxes across your screen.
And there’s www.twazzup.com where you can see tweets, related links, pictures, and other Twitter-based items connected to your search phrase. Of course, if you want to expose a fraud, you should get a Twitter account of your own. That way, you can start replying to anything the fraudulent tweeter posts with corrections, warnings, and links to the real you.
The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year via the standard phishing scams, dumpster diving, and plain old-fashioned theft. Though most people are concerned primarily about their Social Security numbers and credit ratings, the more recent online tactic of “brand-jacking” may pose an entirely new realm for law enforcement to address. In the meantime, it’s every twitterer for himself in trying to defend personal or corporate brands and warn their friends.
“I tweeted that people should claim their Twitter account,” Fitzgerald said. “It would be nice for this situation to be broadcast in a bigger arena so more people know to protect their online identities.”
Ari B. Adler is a media relations professional with experience as a newspaper reporter and editor as well as a government and corporate spokesperson. He is the communications administrator for Delta Dental of Michigan and an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @aribadler.