August 20th, 2008

Photo theft redux

And I was thinking "here we go again..."

It happens every couple years or so. Somebody who knows me will get in touch with me (sometimes anonymously) and alert me to the fact that my pictures are being stolen and used by somebody, somewhere, on some profile site. I can think of four separates cases off the top of my head. (I wrote about a previous case here.)

I mean, realistically speaking, there's nothing I can do to prevent this. For many years, I have had pictures on networking sites like MySpace, and even on my own web site; and short of removing (or greatly paring down) my online presence altogether, I can't stop people from ripping off my pictures. And it can happen to anybody.

But it's most disturbing for two reasons:

  • Obviously, it's potentially damaging if somebody effectively misrepresents me by associating my pictures with a false identity -- when said identity can be of questionable character.

  • But the big question is, if it's happened four times that I know about, how many times has it happened that I don't know about? Certainly the odds of somebody who knows me coming across my pictures somewhere, by sheer chance, are pretty slim.

In short, while this is a largely unavoidable consequence of the Internet age, it's also downright creepy. In a twisted way, it's vaguely flattering, but I think I'll pass on this particular compliment.

So what's one to do? When it happens to me, I take action. I contact the support or admins for whichever site is hosting the profile in question, and I request that the offender be dealt with accordingly. Of course, this amounts to employing a topical remedy when a systemic one is called for. Or, if you will, dealing with a termite infestation by removing each bug individually as you find it. While you may come away feeling relieved that you've located and dispatched an individual offender, there remains the disconcerting background thought of "How many more are there? And how quickly are they reproducing?"

The most recent case has been especially frustrating. I heard from several sources in the Washington DC area that somebody on (you can probably guess what that site is for) was using my pictures. I don't have an account on that site, so I couldn't view the profile myself to verify, but I asked people for a URL that I could forward to Manhunt support.

This actually all started quite a while ago, back in January of 2007. I contacted Manhunt support about the issue, they wrote back asking for a photo ID, I sent a scan of my driver's license (with non-essential information blacked out), and foolishly, I put the issue out of my mind.

You see, in matters like these, I've learned that follow-up and confirmation are critical for peace of mind.

I found the e-mail trail while cleaning up my mailbox a few months ago, and I came to the disturbing realization that I had never heard back from Manhunt support after sending my driver's license scan. So I e-mailed back to check. And waited. And e-mailed again. And waited. No fewer than six times since May did I e-mail (the same address I had exchanged messages with previously), yet I never received a reply.

Today, tired of this ridiculousness, I went to their site, got a phone number, and simply called. And the person on the other end, while at least physically present (an improvement over e-mail support), wasn't much more helpful. I gave him the user ID from the URL string, and he couldn't find anything. Potentially, this might have meant that the situation had been dealt with long ago after I sent my photo ID scan. But he said "without a profile name (??), I can't find anything." He also offered no explanation for why my e-mails had gone unanswered, but are we surprised?

I ended the profoundly unhelpful phone call, departing with some vague hope that the "support" person's inability to find anything with the user ID in question meant the offending profile had already been removed.

But hey, I have no qualms about publishing the original URL I was given: If anybody reading this has a Manhunt account and would like to notify me (anonymously if you so choose, although I'm not going to judge) whether my pictures are still being misappropriated, feel free to get in touch.

Otherwise, I'm done with this particular mess.