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Online Impersonations: No Validation Required
Dr. Neal Krawetz, 2007-04-20

Back when I lived in the Silicon Valley, there was an ongoing employment scam. Prospective employees would show up with perfect resumes and immediately get hired. It would not take long before it was clear that these people did not have the experience stated on their resumes. Within six months they would be fired. However, now they had six months of legitimate experience with real companies that they could reference. Their next jobs might not be as good or glamorous, but it would be much better than if they started with their real resumes.

In order to combat false credentials and gain insight into potential candidates, hiring managers have turned to web search engines and social networking sites to augment their screening process. According to a survey last October, hiring managers claimed that up to a third of candidates lied about their qualifications. In addition, about one in ten candidates had posted inappropriate messages or images in public forums, making them less desirable than candidates who always appear professional. The problems with having a less than stellar online persona were covered in a recent NPR story.

However, while resume padding has been around for years, online impersonation has only begun playing a role. What if your online profile included an inappropriate statement that you never made? In most online forums, anonymity and impersonations are trivially accomplished since you are never asked for verifiable information during enrollment. This becomes a two-stage problem. First, you must be able to identify that an impersonation is taking place. And second, you need to know how to take corrective actions.

Bad Impersonations

When people think of impersonations, they usually think of identity theft and financial crimes. However, the impacts from online impersonations can be significant. For example, one of my associates had a free email account similar to "john.doe@gmail.com". Someone with a grudge registered "john_doe@gmail.com" (underscore instead of a period) and began to send out emails that impersonated the individual. The emails were intended to undermine his credibility. Unless you looked very closely at the email sender's address, you would not realize that it was an imposter. As another example, in 2006 a police officer impersonated his ex-girlfriend and used the account to solicit dates. Men actually appeared at her house expecting a romantic interlude.

While financial impersonations may take years to rectify, information and false postings on the web may circulate indefinitely. Distinguishing fact from fiction and true actions from an imposter's can be virtually impossible. The requirements for removing an imposter vary from simple web forms to nightmarish runarounds.

Hunting Imposters

It's fun playing hide-and-seek with my four-year-old niece. She will shout from behind the curtains, "I'm over here!" Unfortunately, most online imposters will not tell you where they are hiding, or even when they are going to start. You have to find them and you must constantly be looking. If you maintain a low profile online -- never posting to forums and not maintaining a public image -- then you might only need to look around once every few months. However, if you are more widely known, then consider looking more often, such as weekly or even every few days.

The first step in the search process is to perform an ego-search. Start with search engines such as Google, Alta Vista, and Yahoo!. Perform searches for yourself. Look for your name, company, anything that you are well-known for, and anything you recently did publicly that may have been noteworthy. Use a variety of different search engines since different tools return different results. (While Google may have the largest index, other search engines find things that Google misses.)

Strictly searching for web pages will only return web pages. However, impersonators may use a variety of forums. Consider tools such as Google Groups to search newsgroups and MARC to scan technical mailing lists. Technorati is an excellent place for searching blogs -- particularly since Google does not index MySpace pages.

There are two main things to look for during your ego-search. First, look for things posted by you. Make sure that they are things that you actually posted. Second, look for things attributed to you. Even if you don't initially find an impersonator, you will probably find references to an impersonator.

Rather than doing the searches yourself, companies such as Reputation Defender and Naymz have been established to help manage your online profile. For a fee, these companies will identify potentially damaging online information about you -- whether it was created by you or by an imposter. (However, I have no direct experience with either of these services.)

Hopefully you won't find an impersonator. However, if you do then the next step is to mitigate damage. The mitigation process depends on the type and degree of impersonation.

You Have Mail?

Configuring a mailer to send email as someone else is beyond trivial. When you configure your Microsoft Outlook mailer (or Gnome Evolution or Firefox Thunderbird or Eudora, etc.), you simply need to enter in a fake email address. While laws make email impersonation illegal, who is going to catch you? Fortunately, uni-directional emails can usually be identified as forgeries fairly quickly. Any kind of return correspondence will not reach the imposter.

Unfortunately, free mail and web service, such as Yahoo! Mail and Google's Gmail, make it trivial to create "similar enough" addresses that can fool many people. As a recipient, you should check the sender's email address to make sure it really is from the person you expected. Do not assume that the sender is using a new email address unless they told you about it ahead of time.

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Dr. Neal Krawetz operates Hacker Factor Solutions, providing computer security consulting, research and development. He is also the author of "Introduction to Network Security" (Charles River Media) and "Hacking Ubuntu" (Wiley).
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