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msnbc.com
updated 10/6/2003 6:59:02 AM ET 2003-10-06T10:59:02

“Don’t put your picture online” was a common warning in the early days of the Internet. Sound paranoid in the era of online dating? Don’t tell that to Laura, who 18 months ago put up an online personals ad for one month. Since then, her photo has been stolen and used in dozens of fake personals ads soliciting hard-core sex and pornography. “You have no control,” she said. “What’s hardest is you have no idea who’s seen it. What if someone really believes those things?”

ONLINE PERSONALS ADS are all the rage, and it seems everyone is doing it. — a recent survey by Jupiter Research indicated some 34 million people have at least taken a peek at the Internet’s dating scene. But taking such personal matters into such a public place has risks. In September, MSNBC.com revealed a widespread scam that has infiltrated all the major services. Someone is peppering sites like Match.com and Yahoo.com with tempting fake personal ads, almost exclusively women seeking men. The fraudster even engages legitimate ad posters in e-mail conversations, offering to strike up relationships, inviting them to online chats — all to lure the unsuspecting would-be lovers onto expensive porn Web sites.

But now, it’s clear men aren’t the only victims. Real women’s pictures are apparently being stolen and used in the fake ads.

The personals firms have been playing cat-and-mouse with the con artists for months, taking down advertisements that are obvious porn ploys. So the con artists have taken to stealing photos from real personal ads and using them to make the fake ads look genuine enough to slip under the radar.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Laura’s picture was pilfered by just such a con artist in March of 2001, when she signed up for a free month of Yahoo’s dating service. Her story also shows that the scam has been evading dating sites’ monitors for at least 18 months, far longer than the 6 months initially suggested by MSNBC.com’s September story.

Laura, not her real name, requested that MSNBC.com obscure her identity, but wanted to reveal details of her ordeal to help other women who might have suffered the same fate.

“I did everything I could think of to make it a safe experience. I started a new e-mail address. I didn’t use my real name,” she said. She went on a couple of dates, but decided online dating wasn’t for her.

The trouble started almost immediately, when one of her prospective online dates ran across her pilfered photo.

“A month later I got a reply from someone I’d been corresponding with, saying ‘What’s going on with you? First you tell me you’re 26 from Chicago, now it says you’re 23 from Connecticut.” She also got a second note, from a different suitor who guessed what was happening:

“I got an e-mail saying, ‘Do you realize someone is using your picture in an unflattering way?’ So I look, and there’s my picture, but that’s not my listing. And I think ‘Oh my God, that’s me but I didn’t post this. How did this happen?”

It kept happening. Laura provided MSNBC.com with a 3-inch thick pile of paper, documenting dozens of personals ads using her photo.

In one, she was “Firecracker_heaven007” a 22 year old from Woodsville, N.H. In another, “lil_spank_spank,” a 23 year old from Denver who expected “breakfast in bed” after the first date. In still another, she was “Chocolate_Starfish_0,” who promised to “bring you the danger that firecrackers have” and invited men to “send me your e-mail and a pic of yourself. Who knows, maybe I’ll make you explode.”

In fact, many of the fake ads played on the firecracker theme, Laura said, making them relatively easy to find. So, last April, she began a near-obsessive journey to investigate the porn purveyor and stop the abuse.

NOWHERE TO TURN

She called Yahoo, which initially responded well to her plight. The firm removed the first two ads quickly because they didn’t conform to site policies, she said. Apparently, the company was aware of the scam.

“When I called Yahoo, I was told ‘It happens all the time. You’re just the first person who’s discovered their picture was being used,” Laura said.

But after a while, the Yahoo abuse monitors insisted that she fax a photo ID and a written statement for each instance of her photograph, something Laura refused.

“They say it’s my job to prove I am who I say I am,” Laura said. “I understand that they need to not be deleting random things ... but if they make procedure so difficult, they know no one will reasonably follow it.”

Yahoo didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this story, but issued an e-mail statement:

“Yahoo has a strong track record of enforcing its Terms of Service and property Guidelines. The Yahoo! Personals Guidelines clearly outline what is and is not acceptable use of the service and Yahoo has strict processes in place to help ensure the proper use of our service and tools. We take appropriate action on all violations of our Terms of Service and Guidelines,” the statement read.

Laura struck out on her own, attempting to identify and stop the abuse. Consultations with privacy rights advocates and lawyers bore little fruit.

“Everyone is sympathetic, but no one is able to do anything,” she said.

Lawyers weren’t interested because Laura couldn’t prove actual financial harm; and without subpoenas to perform IP address traces at Internet service providers, privacy advocates couldn’t stop the anonymous criminal. Law enforcement didn’t help, either. Three months into the ordeal, an officer from the Illinois Computer Crime spent two hours interviewing Laura, but in the end concluded she didn’t have a case because she couldn’t prove threat to her well-being or financial loss. When he left, Laura remembers him saying “I hope I don’t sound like a father, but I hope that you’ll think twice before you put your picture on the Internet.”

With nowhere to turn, Laura began to be depressed over the situation. Things only got worse when she became a victim of the economic downturn and lost her job. That gave her ample free time to chase down her abuser. Searching for new ads with her picture became an obsession. Her counselor warned her she was “going a little overboard.”

All the while, Laura kept copious notes, and even did her own undercover investigating. She set up anonymous e-mail addresses and started to respond to ads that included her picture, noting IP addresses and Web site invitations that came back. She even believes she has a good lead on the criminal — but no law enforcement agency would take on the case.

Five months later, depression overcame her, and she checked herself into a hospital.

“The thing that was most suffering was my self esteem and (the stolen image) played a major part in that,” she said. “Imagine suddenly discovering you can’t afford to pay your rent, but someone else is making money off your picture. It seemed like a really big injustice ... and I was wondering, if it’s this easy to make money, why did I bother going to school? I could be making money off my picture. It’s like being valued as a piece of meat.”

‘HOW’S THE PORN STAR’

When she emerged from treatment, Laura realized she had to follow her counselor’s advise and “let it go.” Around the same time, Yahoo changed its personals service from free to fee-based, so new ads with her picture were appearing much less frequently. She has new work now, as a teacher, and she tries not to poke around Yahoo looking for her image, but occasionally, she finds it — most recently, two months ago.

“My friends walk up to me and say, ‘Hey, how’s the porn star?’ We joke about it but only because I have to have a sense of humor about it. But then sometimes I have to say, ‘OK stop, that’s too much.’ I’m still upset about it,” she said.

Laura also plays in a rock band, and she’s worried that someone might recognize her in a picture and approach her at a show some day.

“Guys get enough strange ideas when you are in a bar at 5 a.m.,” she said. “I am not extremely frightened, but I really have no idea who saw that and got the wrong idea.

“You can think, ‘Well, no no one’s ever going to see it, they are putting up ads and locating them in different cities, so who would recognize me?’ But still, if two other guys who e-mailed me found this right away, and took the time to e-mail me, I have to wonder how many other people have seen it? ... I just have this nagging suspicion in my mind that that someone will walk up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re into S&M. And I’ll have to say, ‘No, I’m into graphic design.’ ”

I DON’T KNOW IF THERE’S AN ANSWER

Linda Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said that it’s common for women to discover their picture is being used in some unsavory way online. Most of the time, though, it’s not quite as anonymous: for example, an ex-boyfriend seeking revenge posts images of his former girlfriend along with claims like “she likes it rough.”

Foley was at a loss to recommend advice for anyone in Laura’s situation, other than to avoid posting pictures with online dating service altogether.

“I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know that there is an answer,” she said.

That’s because the Internet has been designed, from the start, to make it easy to share and swap information like images, said Rob Douglas, CEO of American Privacy Consultants, Inc.

“You can right click on any picture and copy it over to anything you want. ... It’s the rarity that you see a Web site that takes any technological countermeasures to prevent copying of their material,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is just one more example of how cautious we have to be in anything we put on the Internet. There’s just so much nonsense going on, and so much that can go wrong.”

For now, Laura has nearly stopped searching for personals ads with her picture attached, but she is still looking for satisfaction. When law enforcement wouldn’t help, she started working through the privacy advocacy groups, like the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. She’s also interviewed with a lengthy list of legal assistance agencies. She’s received little more than sympathy. Most recently, in August the DePaul Legal Clinic turned down her request for assistance, saying it would be hard for her to prove statutory damages, and it didn’t have the resources to pursue cases involving monetary damages.

But she thinks the person who stole her picture is likely to be responsible for many of the fake ads that are now peppering all the major online dating sites — an issue that is now looming over the otherwise booming services. One informal MSNBC.com survey revealed that about 5 percent of the ads in the Seattle area were fakes.

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Her theory fits with what FreeNetPass operator Dave Anderson told MSNBC.com in September. FreeNetPass is a service that lets Net users pay a single fee for access to thousands of pornography Web sites, and Anderson claims a single scam artist is using online personals to trick would-be daters into signing up for FreeNetPass, then collecting commissions. Anderson says online personals services have a pretty good idea of who’s behind the scam.

Laura believes a suspect will eventually be caught. In the meantime, she’s moving on with her life, and still uses the Internet as much as ever.

“It’s not that I’ve made peace with it,” she said “It’s just that I’m extremely patient. What goes around comes around. Sooner or later this is going to get resolved, and in some way I’ll be compensated. Even if it’s just the satisfaction of me having been so meticulous that he got in trouble.”

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