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Facebook tampering can be a felony

A California appeals court says a juvenile who accessed someone else's account and sent obscene messages in her name committed identity theft.

By Karen Datko Aug 4, 2011 2:50PM

Have you been tempted to do something like this? You somehow get access to someone else's Facebook account, so you hop on and alter the profile, then maybe send a few offensive messages to the person's friends. It's a harmless prank, right? 


Whoa. According to a California appeals court, that could constitute identity theft and could be a felony punishable with jail time.


The case came to light in a post by lawyers Venkat Balasubramani and Eric Goldman at Ars Technica. It began when a male juvenile, Rolando, received a text message from an unidentified source sharing a girl's password to her email account. He apparently used access to her email to change her Facebook password and then signed on to her FB account. He "posted, in her name, prurient messages on two of her male friends' pages (walls) and altered her profile description in a vulgar manner," the appeals court ruling said.


Her dad called the cops and the kid confessed, saying he meant it as a joke. He was found guilty in juvenile court of a felony. The kid, who had a recent prior offense, was sentenced to 90 days to a year in a juvenile offenders program. His lawyer appealed and lost.


The California statute says it's illegal when someone:

willfully obtains personal identifying information (of the victim and) uses that information for any unlawful purpose, including to obtain, or attempt to obtain, credit, goods, services, real property, or medication information.

Even though the perp was the unwitting recipient of the victim's email password, the appeals court said he was guilty of willfully obtaining personal identifying information because he kept the password and used it, Balasubramani wrote.


The court said Rolando used that info for an unlawful purpose when he defamed the girl. Also, the court found a criminal offense, Balasubramani said. "The defendant's actions violated section 653m, which makes illegal any contact with another person using 'obscene language ... by means of an electronic communication device ... with (the) intent to annoy." (Oy. How many times have you done that today?) Post continues after video.

How can you protect your Facebook account? A few tips:

  • Goldman said: "This brings up one of my modern rules for clean living: Never tell anyone else your passwords. Ever. (Another rule for clean living is to constantly change your passwords, but this is harder to obey)."
  • "Friend" only real friends, and set your privacy settings accordingly.
  • Don't display your entire birth date (day, month and year) and other details like your street and email addresses. Sharing too much information can help ID thieves tap your credit and your bank accounts.
  • Avoid Facebook scams. This page can help. Some of these scams intend to deprive you of your hard-earned money.
  • Several commenters at various sites reminded people to log off from Facebook when they're done checking it at the Apple store.

But was the outcome of this case overkill? Kids will be kids, especially when they come across another kid's password. Goldman said, "It was unquestionably wrong behavior, but given its inevitability, it probably shouldn't be felonious."


Some commenters at Ars Technica agreed. "Stryker137" wrote:

If this happened to me when I was a kid, my dad would have told me to man up, change my password, and get over it. And that's what I'll tell my kids when this inevitably happens to them. And later in life, this is the kind of thing my college roommates would do to each other as pranks, and everyone laughed, cleaned up their pages and life went on.

"EatingPie" said it should be a crime.

Impersonation is illegal IRL, why not on the Internet? And impersonation is typically done with intent to harm -- or generally results in harm -- so, again, what's wrong with the law?

Eric Limer shared his view at Geekosystem:

I think it is pretty clear that what Rolando did was willful and wrong and that he deserves to catch some flak for it, but I also think it is dangerous to consider it identity theft. California apparently does not agree, considering that a relatively new statute, Section 528.5, doesn't even require the "willfully obtained personal information" part, effectively meaning that going online and pretending to be someone, despite not stealing (or even claiming to have) anything to prove it, is identity theft.

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