Know the Laws:
UPDATED January 11, 2017
Below we discuss various ways that an abuser can commit abuse using technology, including cyberstalking, sexting, electronic surveillance, abuse involving nude/sexual images, impersonation and online harassment.
Impersonation generally refers to when someone uses a false identity and commits acts that will result in personal gain or that will deceive or harm another person.
It depends. Some states have laws that criminalize impersonating certain types of professionals or public figures (such as law enforcement, political officers, or lawyers) or criminalize impersonating another person with the intent to defraud someone (cheating/tricking someone out of something). However, even if impersonating you or someone else is not a crime under your state’s laws (if, for example, you do not fall under a protected category), the acts committed during the impersonation could be criminal. For example, if an abuser impersonates you to withdraw money from your bank account, s/he may be committing the crime of theft or fraud. If an abuser impersonates someone else in order to harass you, s/he may be committing the crime of harassment, and, if there is a restraining order in place, s/he may also be committing the crime of contempt.
There are many ways an abuser could impersonate you and not all of them involve technology. For example, an abuser could use your name and Social Security number to take out a loan in your name, or s/he could fake your signature on a check without the use of technology. However, many abusers also misuse technology to help them impersonate someone, as explained below.
Abusers might create fake social media accounts in your name, log into your accounts by having or guessing the password, or manipulate technology in a way that makes it seem like a communication is coming from you. Through impersonation, abusers may gather confidential or personal information about you from your friends, family, or employer; spread harmful information about you; or even create false “evidence” that casts doubt on your courtroom testimony or on your version of events that you included in a court petition or police report. Some abusers have even created fake messages to make it look like they are the person who is getting harassed. Additionally, an abuser may try to impersonate you or someone else online as a way to learn information about your location or trick you into meeting him/her somewhere.
Abusers may create “fake” email accounts (accounts not connected to their own name) for various reasons. They may use the accounts to send harassing emails that look like they are coming from someone else or that mask their identity as the sender. In many cases, however, the original sender can still be proven with the help of law enforcement.
Abusers may also send an email from these “fake” accounts to trick you into opening a message that contains a virus or spyware that would then allow them to spy on your computer. Abusers may also create an email account in your name in order to send emails to others while pretending to be you. This could be done because they are trying to embarrass you, discredit you, put you at risk of harm, or cause some other negative consequences in your life.
Spoofing is a term that means masking or hiding one’s actual phone number so that another phone number (chosen by the user) shows up on the recipient’s caller ID. Abusers may use spoofing to pretend that they are someone else so that you will pick up the phone (especially if you wouldn’t pick up a call from the abuser’s number).
Another way that an abuser can use spoofing for impersonation is that s/he can call others and enter your phone number as the “caller.” The abuser may pretend to be you to cause problems with your personal or professional life or to create a false record of you calling him/her multiple times in order to report you to the police or courts for harassment. If an abuser does this, however, it can easily be proven that you did not make the phone calls since they will not appear on your phone bill in your outgoing calls.
Some of these spoofing services allow the users to not only change the caller ID number but to also alter their voice so it appears to come from another gender or another person, to add background noise, and/or to record the call. However, it can be illegal to use caller ID spoofing to defraud someone or to cause harm. See What laws protect me from impersonation below? for more information.
There are ways that spoofing can be proven in court. Law enforcement or a lawyer who is familiar with technology abuse should be able to help you track down phone records or other documentation that will prove Caller ID spoofing. You can check your state’s Finding a Lawyer page for legal resources.
An abuser may also use your private information to pose as you on the Internet and invite others to harass you or put you in danger. For example, an abuser may create an advertisement (posing as you) directing others to contact you for escort or massage services, or inviting others to come to your home or call your home for a specific purpose.
Some abusers could even use impersonation to encourage others to sexually assault you. An abuser could include information in the advertisement or online post that states that you have a “rape fetish” or “rape fantasy” and asks for someone to carry out this “fantasy.” The purpose of these types of online posts is so that the third party who is sexually assaulting you thinks that your protest or resistance is part of some type of “role-playing.” (Note: In these types of cases, the abuser who makes the post will often be charged with rape or solicitation to commit rape, in addition to whatever rape charges are filed against the person who actually commits the sexual assault).
Depending on the abuser’s behavior, there may be laws in your state that can protect you. Please note that these laws, explained below, do not necessarily have to involve impersonation, but may apply when someone is impersonating you.
If an abuser impersonates you or someone else for the purpose of harassing you, that may be a crime that you can report to the police. As a victim of harassment, you may also be eligible for a restraining order, depending on your state’s laws. To see if there is a law against harassment in your state, go to our Crimes page for your state.
Defamation is a legal term that refers to the act of saying or writing false information to others that damages a person’s reputation in the community. If the damaging statement is spoken out loud, that act may be considered slander; and if the statement is written, then it may be considered libel. Slander and libel are not considered crimes, but they are classified as “torts” (civil wrongs) in most states, which means you could sue someone in civil court for damages.
For a statement to be considered slander or libel, the judge will generally require proof that:
If an abuser has impersonated someone else to speak or write false and damaging statements about you, or has impersonated you to spread false information, you may be able to sue in civil court for money damages. See our Suing Your Abuser page for more information on civil lawsuits.
False light is a tort (civil wrong) that is available in some states and is similar to defamation (explained above). False light privacy claims are different from defamation claims because defamation is meant to protect your reputation and false light privacy laws are meant to protect your mental or emotional well-being. To prove false light, the courts generally require proof that:
If an abuser has impersonated someone else to share information that places you in a false light, you may be able to sue in civil court for money damages. Generally, even if the information published about you is not necessarily false but is misleading and offensive, a false light claim may apply.
There may be criminal laws in your state that specifically address impersonation. If the abuser is impersonating you with the purpose of defrauding someone, or if the abuser is impersonating a law enforcement officer or public official, his/her behavior may be a crime. You can check your state’s Crimes page to see if your state has a specific impersonation crime. You can also find information about your state’s identity theft laws on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.
In addition, there is a federal law (which applies to all states) called the Truth in Caller ID Act. This law prohibits the falsifying or spoofing of caller ID information with the intent to defraud (cheating/tricking someone out of something), cause harm, or wrongly obtain anything of value.* If a person violates this law by illegally spoofing his/her caller ID, s/he can be reported to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and face penalties of up to $10,000. Note: The law does allow for people to use spoofing to mask their caller ID information as a way to protect their personal information and privacy (such as victims of domestic violence concerned for their safety) as long as it’s not being done to cause harm or to defraud anyone.
To learn more about the Truth in Caller ID Act, including information on how to make a complaint if you believe someone is spoofing you illegally, visit the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Guide on Spoofing and Caller ID.
* 47 U.S.C. § 227(e)