Many counselors probably have, at some point, needed to deal with a Facebook issue. Be it the dreaded friend request from a client, learning of an employer checking on a client you’re working with in a rehabilitation setting, or even accidentally discovering something about your client while browsing on Facebook. There were so many issues to take into consideration from the counselor perspective that the original blog I had started about Facebook took on a life of its own. I decided to, rather than post an obnoxiously long blog, narrow it down one of the more interesting topics – my experience having a client impersonate me on Facebook.
In the spring of 2011, a friend emailed me and asked if I was aware there were two Facebook profiles with my name. She commented how odd it was, that my picture was linked to both. Curious as one would be, I checked Facebook and almost passed cold to the floor – there was an additional profile that not only had my picture, but also listed an email address that had been created with my name at a yahoo account and the address and contact information for my office!
Needless to say, I freaked! I wasn’t sure how to handle shutting the page down, so I did what most people would likely do – the real me emailed the fake me! I asked whoever was hosting the page to close the account. Of course, my repeated requests were ignored as I realize now it just further encouraged the host to have more fun with it. More status updates began to emerge as the fake me wrote complaints about my job, how busy I was doing presentations and meetings, etc. Mind you, the page was public, so the next step was obviously to inform my employer that someone was misrepresenting a state employee.
At the time, I was employed as a supervisor for a state rehabilitation agency and had not only myself, but the protection of my employer and fellow colleagues/clients to take into consideration.
In the midst of the mayhem, a friend had emailed the fake me asking if she could get together with ‘me’ and discuss something important. The fake me quickly replied as though scheduling a new client and setting up a date and time along with providing my office address and number! Clearly this was going too far
Being that it was still in the early portion of 2011, the Facebook’s current Family Safety Center did not exist. All there was to work with was an 800 number that could be used to file a harassment complaint, which went straight to an answering machine that was quick to explain you would not receive a return call following your message. I used the available ‘report/block this person’ tool and explained in detail the page was an imposter, but of course, never received a response. Once the initial report was sent in, Facebook did not allow for follow up reports or inquiries.
I further reached out to the state police who appeared to have a rehearsed answer about Facebook harassment as it was apparent they receive calls of this nature routinely. They basically explained if there was no immediate threat being posted endangering my life or others, their hands were tied.
I continued my quest to get the page shut down. I purchased an email verification check online that confirmed the email address that had been used to set up the page – which was my name at a yahoo account – was indeed a valid email. I sent several emails to that account, but they were, of course ignored.
As I set to work on deciphering who may have set up the account, it never once occurred to me it could have been a client I had worked with in my role as a rehabilitation counselor. It wasn’t until I followed the activities of the fake me like a hawk, that I noticed the comments being made by ‘me’ were targeted toward students of a high school that I had worked with assisting students with disabilities with their transition from school to work. One by one, I personally contacted the students that had friended my fake page and explained the situation and asked that they close their friendship with the fake profile.
It took time, most of the students readily obliged, while some did not and responded with comments such as, “Sorry, I don’t know you.” Obviously that would give one pause as it makes you wonder why these high school students would friend someone they don’t know in the first place, and then refuse to close the connection reasoning it is because they don’t know the person. I was able to eliminate several students from the fake profile and it came down to only a few remaining on the page. Following the posts and comments made by the fake me; I noticed a pattern emerging where many of my posts were followed by comments by a female student I knew. To the innocent bystander not knowing the profile was fake, you’d have assumed she and I were on good terms, engaged in frequent daily banter with one another.
That was my smoking gun – it was her. I emailed her directly explaining I discovered she had created the fake profile and if it was not shut down immediately, I would take further legal action and involve her parents. Within minutes, weeks of stress and frustration ended with the page promptly disappearing. I then received numerous responses from her blaming others, asking me not to involve her parents, and then requesting I be her Facebook friend!
Once the dust settled and I had ceased banging my head on the wall, it all started to make sense. I had spent time with her in a past meeting discussing her future career goals and was encouraging and supportive, as a rehabilitation counselor is expected to be. She wanted to continue to receive attention from me and seemed unable to understand that our communication and visits were limited. Creating the fake profile, she not only got my attention, but also the entertainment of pretending to be me, the person she felt was rejecting her.
I discovered later how easy it had been to create the fake profile. It’s free to set up a yahoo email account and my name @ yahoo had been up for grabs. Once she established that, she was able to easily open a new Facebook profile and copy a photo from me that was available through Google images, from a hypnotherapy practitioner listing from several years ago. The rest of the information she simply plugged in from my business card and was good to go!
My employer had been informed and kept in the loop from the get-go. The student was assigned to work with another rehabilitation counselor and was not allowed further contact with me, although it did continue for a while with random phone messages and emails asking me to call her, which I immediately disregarded. Mental health counseling was also arranged for her through her school.
When I joined Facebook in 2008, it was for fun – I enjoyed reconnecting with old friends, fellow graduate alumni from my Rehabilitation Counseling program at UNC, and family. While I still enjoy Facebook, I now routinely check for a re-occurrence of the fake me. I have heightened security settings on my page and have downsized my friend list to only people whom I trust. Working as counselors, we’re especially vulnerable to individuals who are unstable and have an abundance of technology and media outlets to use to their advantage. I’m confident that Facebook and social media laws will continue to implement more ways to protect our privacy, but until then I’ll be sleeping with one eye open.
Shannon Ruane is a counselor and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor in private practice in Philadelphia, PA. Fluent in American Sign Language & a fan and practitioner of hypnotherapy; Shannon can be found at www.ruanecounseling.com