Internet Identity Theft

Internet identity theft is introducing extremely complicated challenges for everyone including the challenge of validating online identities. Identity theft and the Internet is a dangerous combination that could also be a deadly mix. Especially, social networking sites such as MySpace where members freely share personal information as if the entire social network community was trustworthy, pose a great deal of identity theft related risks.

There have been numerous reported cases of Internet pranks including MySpace pranks. In one case, a MySpace hoax resulted in the death of a teenage member of the MySpace community, which was caused by the fake identity assumption of the perpetrator. The minor female member of the MySpace community was repeatedly teased and bullied by an adult male of the same community who finally succeeded in pushing the girl to a point of no return forcing her to kill herself. It was later determined that the boy was actually an older female mom who created a fake MySpace profile in collabroration with her daughter and a friend. They knew the MySpace minor suicide girl.

The questions I have are; why was the adult mom introduced to the minor girl as a boy in the online community? Why wasn’t the girl’s age validated to exclude a vulnerable minor person from the MySpace community? In other words, what measures, if any, did MySpace take to validate the identities and online profiles of its members? Obviously, those measures, if existent, failed in this particular case.

As I stated, Internet identity theft is a growing issue facing both the Internet companies and their customers. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have been extremely popular especially with young people. Sometimes, these young social networkers are minors and need to be protected. The Internet sites and the online social networking communities must validate the identities of their customers and members as part of their customer service experience to ensure their identity components as reported during the sign-in process are accurate including their ages. Unfortunately, since social networking sites heavily rely on young Internet traffic to sustain advertising revenues, they might be somewhat reluctant to take online identity protection decisions that would negatively impact revenues. There are many ways that social networking sites can validate the age and other identity components of their online members, however, not only some of the validation means such as age determination might be way too expensive for the social networking businesses, but they could also not be compatible with their business model. For example, what if the age validation process resulted in less members and loss of revenue? It means that some social networking sites may not have a vested interest to introduce an effective identity validation process while knowing that a good portion of their members might be minors.

Every thing is changing fast on the Internet and as we move toward the next generation of social sites, Internet companies must rethink their business models and ensure the safety and security of our children by addressing Internet identity theft, keeping them away from predators that the social sites let into their communities. This business model reengineering must apply both to keeping minors and predators out of the social sites. This can only happen when a) the social sites validate members’ identities to keep out minors and predators, and b) improve security to keep the “excluded crowd” out of the sites.

Those of us in the Internet business must follow ethical and best practices without waiting for the Internet regulators or more deaths to protect our online customers. At the mean time, parents should take an active role in keeping their kids from unsecured and untrustworthy sites that are not concerned with Internet identity theft.

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