Prank Internet Messages

By Henry Bagdasarian

We receive many internet messages from people we don’t know or recognize. For example, I recently received a Skype message from a guy (his first name was Eric) who communicated as if he knew me. I asked him a few times who he was and how he knew me, and every time he responded with a completely irrelevant message. He gave me the name of the company he works for which I didn’t recognize, then he said he was traveling back from Chicago. Now, I’m not sure if he (again, I assume it was a male based on his first name) was phishing for information or if he was bored or had other motives. The point I want to bring up is that 1) how do we determine another's online identity when the profile of the person contacting us is missing details such as full name, photo and other personal information, and 2) given personal details, how do we validate the identity and related information. In this case, the person’s profile lacked complete and detailed information about his identity except for a first and last name; therefore, I didn't have to worry about validating his online profile except for asking "him" a few questions in an attempt to establish who he was.

This is just one example, but we deal with many online profiles every day whether we are interacting with others about work on professional sites like LinkedIn or about personal matters like diet, politics, or dating. One of the challenges that Linkedin group managers face when managing the identity theft group on LinkedIn is that each time a member requests to join the group, managers have to make a decision to approve the request based on the available profile information. Sometimes, when the profile lacks sufficient information to determine whether the person is not a spammer and has legitimate reasons for joining the group, group managers have to reject the request. One example is when the requestor has no connections or the profile is very incomplete.

A while back, I wrote an article about dating real identities, where I raised the risk of the person not being who he or she says the person is. When dealing with internet messages and identities, we assume certain risks and the risks can be low or high depending on the purpose of the interaction.

We face similar risks even when we meet new people face to face, but there is a difference between meeting and interacting with people in person and online. The difference is in the number of available identity validation and assessment options. When we meet people in person, we might ask for information and observe their business cards, driver’s license, appearance and facial reactions when answering questions. However, it’s a completely different story with online messages and interactions where we have limited identification and validation options.

We have to have a different approach when dealing with online identities. Most often, we trust online people based on their online profiles and may even share certain information which we would not in a coffee shop if the person were sitting next to us. The internet somehow makes us more comfortable when meeting and communicating with other people. Why is it that we have difficulty meeting and speaking to people in coffee shops or other public places, but yet we not only talk to strange online identities but we also easily accept them for who they say they are? Even children are exposed to more risks now than ever before. Parents are very cautious about who their kids interact with in school or the neighborhood, yet very few parents restrict online communications and internet messaging.

The TV program "To catch a predator" freaked out every parent in the US in which it showed hidden camera recordings of older adults pretending to be young boys in order to lure other young kids into meeting and having sexual relationships were apprehended. We have to teach kids and remind ourselves, not to blindly trust internet messages and online identities. In the case of online interaction and contrary to our court systems, we have to assume everyone is guilty of incomplete and inaccurate disclosure with regards to their identities until validated and proven trustworthy.

Back to my Skype internet messages, when I asked him again how he knew me, he said he had to go catch his plane. I subsequently logged off and assumed I was dealing with an example of prank internet messages. One key difference between a prank phone call and an instant online message, is that I’m usually awake when I receive the disturbing internet messages.

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