Online identities are often illusory and violations of sites like Facebook are rife
Fake Facebook profiles targeted
ABU DHABI // Hhala al Shuraiki recently saw a familiar face pop up as a friend suggestion on Facebook: her own.
She was horrified to realise her likeness was being exploited in a fake profile that used her portrait and her first name.
"I'd just like to ask those people, are they happy living a lie? I was furious at the beginning, then I started looking on the bright side," she said. "That means they're using my pictures to attract others."
Authorities around the world have been clamping down on people who maliciously create phoney Facebook profiles, whether for spamming, bullying schoolmates, or secretly keeping tabs on an ex.
The disturbing trend has found its way to the Emirates.
Abu Dhabi Police have created a section within its cybercrimes unit to handle Facebook offences, said Capt Ali al Rahbi, the head of the cybercrime unit. He said criminal action can be taken if the fake profiles are used in an offensive or harassing way.
Recently, a woman was arrested for creating a fake profile of someone she knew, and sending that person's phone number to strangers, Capt al Rahbi said.
"We are noticing more and more cases of this in recent months," he said.
As the number of Facebook users has increased around the globe - including a 78-per-cent increase in the Arab world last year, according to the Dubai School of Government — so too has the number of fake profiles.
In the Middle East and North Africa, protesters have created fake profiles to express dissent while avoiding prosecution.
Other fake profiles, particularly in the western world, have been used maliciously against others.
Con artists in the US have used photos of soldiers to set up fake profiles that target women with messages of love, then later ask them for money, according to the Associated Press.
A New York state man was recently charged with violating a protection order after using a fake profile to contact his ex-girlfriend. She realised his true identity only after agreeing to speak with him on the phone, according to The Observer-Dispatch newspaper in Utica, New York.
Two teenage girls in Florida recently ran into legal trouble after creating a fake profile for a classmate and using it to ridicule her, according to the AP.
And a father in South Carolina created a fake Facebook profile of his daughter's ex-boyfriend and used it to get back at him, according to MSN news.
Numerous other cases of online impersonators involving politicians, fake dating sites, pornography, spamming, child abductions and other abuses have also been reported.
But some creators of fake profiles insist they are not malicious.
M T, a 28-year-old woman who lives in Abu Dhabi, confessed that she had often stolen pictures from other profiles to create fake ones, using newly created e-mail addresses.
She said she then uses them to check on her ex-boyfriend, whom she had befriended on one of her fake profiles, and to elicit information from people she knew without revealing her true identity.
"Honestly, I don't even mean to hurt them," she said. "There are just some certain people that I miss having in my life but I can't, so I add them to the fake profile."
She also reaches out to people under the veil of anonymity because "they start telling me more personal things to make me feel closer to them. It's so much fun," she said.
M T has another use for her fake profile: to find out whether her friends' boyfriends will cheat on them.
Flaunting the glamorous photo of a beautiful woman that she lifted from cyberspace, she initiates conversations with the men. If they become flirtatious in turn, she informs her female friends of what they have said.
"That's not evil! I'm helping," she said. "I'm sure everyone has this little voice in their head saying, 'Come on. Make a fake profile and get back at your ex.' "
Another UAE Facebook scammer, L M, 23, said she makes fake profiles with photos of pretty women for an online poker game.
"Basically, in this game, people can give other people chips, and when men see a very good-looking girl on the table, and she asks for chips, they send [them to] her," she said.
She then sends the chips to her real account.
Facebook officials say it is a violation of policy to use a fake name or operate under a false identity, and that profiles deemed misleading are often shut down.
The site has technical systems in place to flag and block potential fakes based on site activity.
Users who send a lot of messages to non-friends, for example, or whose friend requests are rejected at a high rate, are marked as suspect.
Users are also encouraged to report a fake profile through the site's help centre. Additionally, a special user operations team reviews fake profile reports, said Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for Facebook.
"Facebook has always been based on a real-name culture," he said. "This leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for our users."
Reporting a fake profile does not always guarantee swift action.
Ms al Shuraiki said the fake profile that bears her image has yet to be shut down, despite her efforts and her friends' attempts to report it.
On the other hand, Hana Yazbak, 25, who also had her pictures stolen for a profile that was not her own, said it was shut down after about 100 of her friends reported abuse.
"I was angry, upset, very negative in general and then I got really depressed," Ms Yazbak said.
"I want to have a confrontation with whoever that person is and tell them to grow up."