September 2010
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Social networking sees rise in identity theft

World-renowned economist Amartya Sen is a recent victim of identity theft but he certainly is not the last. Billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani had a profiler using a fake Twitter handle @MukeshAmbani, which was recently suspended.

With an increase in use of social networking sites such incidences are unavoidable, say security experts. “Only a few sites have a verification process in place.”

An individual who has been affected by such forgery or his/her identity has been compromised can report to the website or take legal action. In India, they can approach the cyber crime cell, lodge a compliant, get the IP blocked and take appropriate legal action. Popular websites like Facebook (FB), Orkut and others should also start verification mechanism.

“It’s a Catch-22 situation. Most of the social websites at the very outset tell the users that they are not responsible for the data that they share on their websites. All this is mentioned in the contract when one signs-up to become a member of a site. But how many times does anyone read it? That is not all; users are also sharing their cellphone numbers and email ids on sites like Facebook. This will add to the identity theft issue,” said Kartik Sahani, country manager, RSA India & Saarc, the security division of EMC.

The fast growing micro-blogging site - Twitter is perhaps the only one to beta test a verification process for a handful of accounts to establish their authenticity. “Right now, we’re only verifying a handful of accounts, including well known accounts at risk of repeated, proven impersonation, and government agencies. We’re only able to verify a small number of accounts now, but we’re working on verifying more types of accounts in the future,” said the company on its site. Well-known personalities like Kerala MP Shashi Tharoor, and the now suspended chairman of Indian Premier League (IPL) Lalit Modi, among others, have a Twitter ‘verified’ mark on their page. Twitter verifies accounts by asking users for a set of contact numbers and emails along with that of other people who could verify the same. It then goes through the process and certifies that the owner is who he or she claims to be. The accounts are then tagged as ‘verified’.

Pritish Nandy, founder of Pritish Nandy Communications and a member on Twitter who has a verified account, tweeted: “Twitter takes time but verifies accurately. Their procedure is stringent and effective. It certainly helps the follower in understanding the person and not waste time on following fakes! Facebook should also verify accounts on request.” Social networking sites like FB, Orkut and LinkedIn, however, do not have a verification process in place. The sites mention the security measure in place to handle fake users.

“It has become a must for every social media site to have a verification mechanism in place. Sites like LinkedIn and FB have a growing user base in India and it can’t be ignored that these sites have no identity verification, especially for celebrity users or bigger brands that use the sites,” said Hareesh Tibrewala, social media strategist and joint CEO at

A professional networking sites like Linkedin that has over six million users in India, does not have a verification process. Tibrewala said, “I can pretend to be anyone in the industry on these sites and until someone reports the fake profile or claim abuse, there is no way to identify fakes from real person.”

LinkedIn’s site, however, has a policy wherein any member can flag a fake account and the site will take an appropriate action against the user. However, a mail sent to LinkedIn India management on their policy on verification did not get a response.

Mahesh Murthy, founder of Pinstrom, a digital marketing firm, said: “Facebook has a natural in-built ability to sniff out fake accounts — your network of friends. Sooner or later one of your network will know it is not the real you. When that happens – or when you believe there is an impostor using your name – there is a simple mechanism of asking FB to remove the fake person and re-claim that ID. We have helped several of our high-profile clients do exactly this.”

However, this simple test did not work in case of Sen, who did not get a response from FB when he contacted them. It was after four days that Sen’s fake profile has been suspended on FB.

Divya Tejuja of Eye D Communications, – the company that manages celebrity clients like Neil Nitin Mukesh, Freida Pinto, Lara Dutta and Genelia Dsouza, among others – admits that monitoring the web for fake profiles is a daunting task. “We had a fake profile of Freida Pinto on FB when she wasn’t even on FB. We reported the profile by the ‘report abuse’ option on the website and the page was taken off the web.”

“This is not a new phenomenon, the issue of ‘federated identity’ has been the point of discussion in the industry for over a decade. In case of businesses they have established their own framework of a trust mechanism which is within the regulatory system. But when it comes to individuals, it’s a vast area. And it is up to the individual to fend for themselves,” said Anand Naik, director-systems engineering, Symantec.


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