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Likeness Theft: What To Do If It Happens to You


What is likeness theft?

Likeness theft is taking another person’s name and image and pretending to be them, usually online. It happens on the Internet all the time, as you may know from news stories. “Catfishing” is a common term for scamming someone online by representing yourself as someone else. It’s easy to scrape a photo from a random person’s social media profile, give yourself a fake name, and start chatting with people online.

It’s difficult to put a complete stop to likeness theft because it’s impossible to catch every instance when it happens. But when it involves celebrities or public figures, it’s easier to track and crackdown. Likeness thieves may often use images of known people because it’s easier to get their hands on photos or videos of a well-known person, which they can doctor and modify for their scams.

Likeness theft is unfortunately very common on dating apps and websites. Scammers will set up fake accounts to grow close to someone and start an online “relationship” with them, only to scam them out of their money. If you use dating apps and websites, or any social media platform for networking purposes, always be on the lookout for fake profiles.

How can you identify likeness theft, and what should you do if someone steals your name and image?

Signs of likeness theft to look for

How can you tell if someone you’ve met online is really who they say they are? While it’s become easier than ever to catfish someone, creating deep fakes, doctoring videos, or stealing images, there are still signs that can tip you off to a likeness theft scam.

Although techniques may vary depending on the nature of the scam, the most common signs are:

  • They ask you for money. Any time anyone you’ve never met in person asks you for money online, it’s a red flag. It doesn’t matter if you’ve met them on a dating site or LinkedIn — if they ask you for money, get out now.
  • They are out of the country or somewhere exotic. This sign is more common in dating scams, as a way to avoid having to meet in person or explain a poor connection (and thus the inability to video chat or a low-quality video that was stolen from someone else’s profile).
  • They pull on your heartstrings. A person with a fake profile usually has some sort of tragic backstory. They might tell you they have a spouse or children who died, or a parent in the hospital and can’t pay their bills. This explanation is meant to play on your emotions so you’re more willing to send them money.

How to avoid being scammed by a likeness thief

What can you do when you suspect someone is catfishing you? Keep these tips in mind:

  • Reverse image search. If you meet someone online, right-click on their profile photo and do a Google image search on it and see what comes up. If the photo they’re using is of a public personality, like a TV host or public speaker, you’ll see that in the search results.
  • Look for their name online. Fake profiles often claim they have a job that makes them travel a lot, such as a Fortune 500 CEO. If someone is a Fortune 500 CEO or owns a large international corporation, there should be a company website — and you should be able to find them on it.
  • Report it. If you come across a fake profile and you can confirm they’ve stolen someone’s name and likeness, report it. Contact the website or app to let them know it’s fake and if the fake profile is running a scam, report it to the local police or the Federal Trade Commission if you’re in the US.

What to do if someone uses your likeness for a scam

Likeness theft doesn’t only happen to celebrities or public figures, it can happen to anyone. The most common iteration of it is social media profile theft (SMPT). This is when someone steals your photos and personal info to make a fake Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media accounts.

SMPT can either be recreational or criminal. There’s usually no legal action you can take against recreational SMPT unless they’re using your likeness for commercial gain without your permission. Doing so violates your publicity rights. When someone uses your name and photos for criminal purposes, however, you can report it. Take screenshots to collect evidence and contact your local police department.

To deal with a fake profile of yourself that isn’t conducting criminal activity (that you can tell), you can screenshot the profile for evidence then report them to the social media platform. Stealing someone else’s profile is a violation of the terms of service on most websites, and the profile should get banned.

Likeness theft is a big problem

As long as the Internet exists, scammers will continue to catfish people and pretend to be someone they’re not. Not to mention trying to rip off unsuspecting victims. As an individual, the best you can do to combat catfishing, likeness theft, and social media profile theft is to be careful. Always do your due diligence when someone you don’t know tries to initiate any kind of contact with you online. Usually, all it takes is a few minutes of research to uncover a scammer.

To learn more about likeness theft and hear about how it has affected one public figure’s life, listen to our Easy Prey podcast episode featuring primetime television host, public speaker, and author Jeffrey Hayzlett. Jeffrey’s image is regularly used in scams on popular dating sites, and he tries to track down these scammers as well as spread his story, so more people become aware of this issue.

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