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dot life Monday, 18 November, 2002, 16:07 GMT
'How my identity was stolen'

You can pose as anyone online, just as an acquaintance pretended to be Kevin Connolly on a website that reunites old school friends. It could happen to you too.
In an age where everyone has a story about how they've been a victim of crime, I've always counted myself lucky.

I had a car radio stolen in Moscow once and someone recently nicked the hub caps off my modest family car in Belfast.

And that was it. You can see why I don't get asked to write those "Why Oh Why?" pieces about what's going wrong with modern Britain.

School yard
Remember the days of the old school yard?
But last week, someone stole a part of my past. The scene of the crime was Friends Reunited, the British website which allows you to find out if the people you went to school with have ended up richer or happier than you. Or both.

I have never bothered to write anything about myself because while my time at the Sacred Heart College in Droitwich was happy enough, it all seems hopelessly remote. And that sense of remoteness was compounded when the college went out of business in the 1980s.

It was an independent institution which had always relied on Catholic priests teaching for free to keep the bills down. The harder it became to tempt young men into this profession, the more expensive lay teachers had to be recruited to fill the gaps.

Then the end of the Cold War meant the Ministry of Defence stopped paying for military families in Germany to send their children to boarding schools back home. The figures didn't add up anymore and the Sacred Heart College became a footnote in British social history.

Posed by fake

Yet I peruse Friends Reunited because in some ways it captures the essence of the internet. It doesn't serve any useful purpose, but it does offer immediate gratification of idle curiosity.

All I know of my mysterious detractor is that he can't spell sabbatical

When I browsed the site last Monday, I was rather surprised to find in the midst of the doctors, opticians, and toy soldier salesmen, an entry written in my name. It was a curious combination of some facts about me which are true - I am a BBC correspondent - and some which are not - I've never been posted to Washington.

Nor have I written a novel called Why Have I Spent All My Money on Food? - although if that is meant to make the point that I'm both literate and overweight then I suppose I'm guilty as charged.

It was the tone of the thing which irritated me, implying that I have a sneering and patronising attitude towards my old classmates. I haven't, and there's no reason why I should.

The fake Kevin Connolly writes: "Wouldn't particularly want to meet up with anyone from SHC, as success is equated with the obligatory wife, a couple of brats, zero ambition, and a charisma by-pass."

And so all I know of my mysterious detractor is that he has failed to move on much in emotional terms from our shared schooldays in the 1970s, and that he can't spell sabbatical, which pops up elsewhere in his ramblings with a single "b".

Could be you

When I complained to Friends Reunited, they removed the offending entry immediately and were very nice about it, but in truth their system is hopelessly open to abuse.

Kevin's detractor set up a free web-mail account in his name
Whoever wrote my entry had done it by opening a Hotmail account in my name. When I complained to them, I received an incomprehensible three-page letter which dealt with all sorts of other internet security issues, but completely missed the point I was making.

And the point is that you too could create an e-mail account in my name and pass off any opinions you like as mine. And of course, someone could be doing it to you, even as you read this article - and yes, I did really write it before you ask. Check the spelling of "sabbatical".

Hidden identity

Now I can't honestly claim that I feel violated, or that my soul has been stolen. And everyone knows that the person in the internet chatroom posing as an aristocratic supermodel from Geneva could easily be a lonely fat bloke from Worksop typing away in his attic.

"Ah, I wonder what they're doing now?"
But I do feel that my identity has been appropriated, and there's something uncomfortable about knowing that someone who wishes me ill has a small mind, and a large amount of time on their hands.

Like hundreds of millions of people around the world, I turn to the internet for entertainment and information every day - and almost always log off feeling satisfied.

Not at the moment, though. This past week the internet seems a rather uncomfortable place, and the digital age fraught with new irritations that computers have created but can't solve.

You are wrong to suggest the essence of the internet is something which offers no useful purpose or indeed fulfils only idle curiosity. Tell that to the millions who conduct 100% of their business online and those of us who not only find old friends but new ones too.
Mic Docherty, USA

Somebody in China recently sent out a mass spam, but forged my e-mail address as the reply-to address. The result was 15,000 "undeliverable" e-mails in a week! I have had to change addresses - very annoying.
David Bagley, UK

John the Baptist is alive and well, and posing as an ex-pupil of Bury Church of England High School, Lancashire.
Alison Gregory, UK

Someone posing as me was harassing a girl who lives in Scotland using my web e-mail address. I introduced her to reverse IP look-ups which revealed the IP address which he used to post derogatory comments to a newsgroup. With this information, they were able to contact the ISP concerned. If ISPs had more control over their subscribers and communicated user data to other ISPs, then internet abuse would surely fall since users would think twice before committing such actions.
Neil Barclay, Finland

I recently logged onto Friends Reunited to find that an old university acquaintance has come out of the closet. This is news to him!!
Chris, N Ireland

Most people happily take an e-mail address as proof of the sender. No special skill or software is required to do this. Would you take the address on the back of an envelope to be proof of sender? The same logic should be applied to the internet.
David, UK

In February I spotted an Apple Powerbook G4 being offered for sale on eBay. Since the seller was using an escrow service to assist in the transaction I assumed that my funds were safe. To cut a long story short, an account was opened in my name by the fraudster with information I can only imagine was gathered from the escrow agent and the funds I wired were speedily withdrawn.
Weenson Oo, United Kingdom

I know of a lady who had her identity stolen by a drugs gang: she is strip-searched at every airport and her credit rating is non-existent. Her mistake? She answered a call supposedly from a company who asked her to confirm her date of birth and mother's maiden name "for security purposes". With this info plus her name and address, the gang was able to steal her identity. My advice: ask companies to write to you or say you will call back.
Matt, UK

My Friends Reunited account was hacked 9 months ago and more recently I've suffered a fake paypal account in my name which was used to process a credit card transaction.
Nick, London

Digital signatures. Anyone not using them as a verification of identity will suffer this sort of thing.
Joe Whiteley, UK

These would help, but need to be non-repudiatory before they are really useful. Otherwise, for now, you just have a digital equivalent of a self-produced ID card.
Sam, USA

I too found a patronising message apparently left by me saying: "Done a physics degree, training to be a physician. Nuff said!". Although it was true that I studied physics - and most people would realise it was a fake as a physician is actually a doctor - I felt cheated. But I did laugh about what they wrote about certain other people we went to school with!
Paul Malish, UK

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Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

22 Feb 02 | Newsmakers
21 May 02 | England
10 Sep 02 | England
27 May 02 | Science/Nature
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