Stalking Becky: The Girl Who Stole My Space

NPR's Veronica Miller has a cyber twin named "Becky." This "Becky" copied Miller's Myspace profile and tried to impersonate her. Miller reports on her quest to find out who was behind this online identity theft - and what happens when something goes wrong in a system without authority.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Last year media magnate Rupert Murdoch purchased MySpace.com, the social networking site, for $580 million dollars. He told Wired magazine that sites like MySpace are the wave of the future because, as he put it, it's the people who are taking control of the media now. But in a system without authority, what happens when things go wrong? Veronica Miller has this story about a recent debacle on MySpace.

VERONICA MILLER reporting:

I live on the Internet. Like most of my friends, I have a MySpace page, a Facebook page, a blog, and as of today, seven different email addresses. Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with it all, but I figured I had a pretty good sense of how I was presenting myself to the world via the Internet. Until I found Becky. Browsing through MySpace one day, I came across a profile with a picture of myself. Someone had lifted my photo and information from Facebook and created a page on MySpace. She said her name was Becky, but other identifying characteristics were the same as mine. Just like me, Becky was a 2005 college graduate with a degree in journalism and a job in the media industry. This is how her About Me message read.

Well, I work for the Columbus Dispatch and my job is pretty boring, but I've only been there a year. I like to chill with my friends on my free time. Life is too precious to waste any second of it, so I enjoy everything in life. If you want to know more, just send a message.

I don't work at the Columbus Dispatch. I wanted to believe that this was a prank by one of friends. But they're much more creative. They would have listed my occupation as penguin breeder and said that I suffer from chronic halitosis. So no, this wasn't the handiwork of one of my buddies. Someone was actually pretending to be me. Why would someone cyber-impersonate somebody else? Professor John Suler of Ryder University's Department of Psychology clued me in to some possible reasons.

Professor JOHN SULER (Ryder University): Maybe there's some characteristics of that person that they wish they had. So it's a kind of wished-for self, an ideal self that they may be trying to create in this online identity experimentation. Perhaps they want to gain admiration and praise from other people. Maybe they're just trying to get away with it. Can they succeed in pretending to be this other person? So they may see it as like a game. It's fun. It's challenging.

MILLER: At first, Becky didn't bother me too much. Until I visited her page a week later and found photos of my family and friends. The pictures were posted with captions that said, Me and my brother, and, Dad and I when I was very little.

Prof. SULER: There you can sort of see the sort of invasion of your psyche, or what we call like we call like a poor self other differentiation, almost like a symbiotic sort of relationship in their mind where they feel like they're sort of becoming you and that feels spooky, when you see that sort of thing happen.

MILLER: Spooky indeed. I decided that Becky had to die. I emailed the tech people at MySpace and let them know someone was pretending to be me. They responded fairly quickly and within days Becky was obliterated. Still, I wondered if there was anyway I could find out who she really was. When I called MySpace to find out, they told me no. All you need to register with the site is an email account and anyone can create a free one with sites like Hotmail and Yahoo. So they told me there was no way to accurately trace who creates profiles.

But even if I did find the face behind the forest, could I take any further action? I called Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer who specializes in cyber crime. She said since Becky's page neither posed a serious threat nor was designed to defraud people, I'd done all I needed to do by reporting it and having it removed. According to Aftab, my experience was a mild one.

Ms. PARRY AFTAB (Attorney): It can be a lot more involved. Often they will pose as you and post something in a hate/white-supremacist group targeting a black student, in a Neo-Nazi group targeting a Jewish student, in a pedophile chat room targeting a child of someone they don't like or the child themselves. They may create a clone of your site and post things on it that could cost you your job.

MILLER: She said that while cyber harassment involving children has gotten a lot of media attention lately, the harassment of adults is a growing and often overlooked phenomenon. But I wondered if, by living on the Web, I'd set myself up for cyber impersonation?

Ms. AFTAB: People are entitled to use the Internet without being harassed and without someone posing as them online, even if there is no financial ramifications and they're not sending you death threats. You're allowed to preserve your own identity. And you're allowed to be free of harassment.

MILLER: That's true. But I'm still curious about the identity of my online imposter. What was her motivation? Or his? Becky, lets talk. I don't know where you are, but you know where to find me. In fact, send me a note on MySpace.

ELLIOTT: Veronica Miller is a freelance writer and producer here in Washington.

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