Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

It's easy to create an account in someone else's name and harass people. It's not so easy to track or punish the offenders, but it can be done.

I don't know what to do but someone has taken my name, set up a new e-mail account and is sending very nasty e-mails to family members. I've contacted Yahoo! but I don't know the personal information to get into the account since I didn't set it up and they still haven't contacted me back. I don't know if this is a punishable offense and I don't know how to get Yahoo! to take me seriously. What should I do?

It's trivial to set up accounts on the free services in which you can be anonymous - using entirely fake information - or in which you can impersonate someone else.

I'm not sure I'd expect much help from the provider - Yahoo, in your case. To be honest, even if they did bother to reply, they wouldn't know who to believe. You and I know that you're not, but how's Yahoo to know that you're not the impersonator, or just someone trying to hassle someone else?

Here's what I would do...

First, I'd make sure to distinguish it from a form of spam that may also look like it's coming from you. This article: Someone's sending from my email address! How do I stop them?! covers that scenario.

Second, I'd seriously consider whether it was worth doing anything at all. As we'll see in a moment, I believe that chances of resolution are actually pretty small. If you can simply ignore what's happening, or let your friends and family know to ignore email from that bogus address, it might be the simplest solution of all. Basically ignore it, and get on with your life.

I know that's not always an option.

Certainly it doesn't hurt to contact Yahoo, or Hotmail, or the customer service desk of whichever service this person is using. I'd go ahead and do so, but would keep my expectations very low. Free email services simply don't invest in a lot of customer service, and actual responses are very, very rare. Make very sure that you are using the correct contact method, and that your request is tagged as a report of abuse.

In addition to the normal customer service channels, I would also email "abuse@" that service. That's supposed to be a standard email address for reporting system abuse like what you describe.

As to whether or not it's punishable - there's no way to know. It could be in violation of the service provider's terms of service, and in fact I would hope so. But as we've seen, it's nearly impossible to get the service provider's attention.

"... taking legal action may be your only recourse."

It could be illegal. Again, that may depend on many factors including exactly where you and the other person are located, and the exact form of the email abuse or harassment. It could even be considered a form of identity theft, I suppose. The bottom line here is that there's no way to know for sure, without contacting law enforcement.

And if things are serious enough, then yes, that's my next step. But once again, I'd keep expectations low. Depending on where you are, cyber crime and cyber harassment may simply not be a priority, or the agency may not be knowledgeable about these issues. Hopefully they are, or can direct you to the appropriate agency to deal with this.

The good news, if there is any in all this, is that the service providers such as Yahoo, Hotmail and others, do respond to law enforcement.

But ultimately, as long as the problem is serious enough to warrant their attention, taking legal action may be your only recourse. And even then, there are no guarantees. My only advice is to remain persistent - but again, only if the problem is serious enough to warrant it.

Article C2738 - July 31, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Greg Bulmash
August 1, 2006 1:02 PM

Probably the most important thing you need to do (and which Leo neglected to mention) is make sure that when you cantact the mail provider, you provide the full headers of the e-mails being sent so they can track down the sender.

If I know your e-mail address, I can easily put it in the "From" line of my e-mail, so it looks like it's from you, even if I'm sending it to you. Or I can make one up. I can send e-mail that looks like it comes from fribblegrotz@yahoo.com, even though there may be no such address.

You'd have to check the mail headers to see that it actually got sent from a Comcast customer via Comcast's mail servers, and didn't go through Yahoo at all.

Now, that's not to say that mail headers cannot be faked. But that takes a much higher level of sophistication.

If you're not providing Yahoo copies of the mail with full headers, then they won't do anything. At most, they'll tell you they need copies with full headers.

I'm sure Leo has posted bits about how to read headers (and how to view them so you can read them) previously. Check them out.

Kandy Kirtley
August 18, 2006 10:36 AM

someone has created a myspace with my daughters picture and information. My daughter has tried to get it deleted, but with no luck, it is password protected. how can we find out who created it and how to get it deleted? My daughter is only 15.

mildred castillio
December 23, 2008 12:26 AM

someone using my name and create a friendster account..and use my picture as her primary photo.and
and post a shoutout with bad thing about me..how can i cancell it..

martha hope
February 13, 2009 3:39 PM

someone created a gmail account using my husbands name, and with all of his information. We have had about 50 calls saying that he is inquireing on different insurance, moving, and investing. That was bad enough, but now we are getting calls from Sex stores and XXXvideos. Is there any way that we can find out whose computer or who created this address. I'm afraid there going to get us in trouble.

If a crime's been committed, then law enforcement. Otherwise, I know of no way to resolve this.
- Leo
14-Feb-2009

ereylyn fernandez
March 8, 2009 7:40 AM

thank you so much for giving a time.but i need your help leo,when i report it to all the sites witch he make my account with my name and pics on it,he will make an account again.i dont know what to do,i need your help desperately...

Chris
June 3, 2010 3:56 AM

Someone has set an account up using my email address and my details on Plenty of Fish.com. I have no idea how they got all these details and also they used a password ive used before in the past. Do you know how they did this and is there anyway i can find out who it is?

Christopher
October 28, 2010 4:28 PM

any word on how to find out if someone has created an email account falsley. Someone has made one for my wife I was wondering if there is anything she can do about it. She thinks it might be her exhusband

Not really. If they're doing something illegal with it then of course you can contact the authorities, but the best you can hope for is to contact the ISP or email provider and see if they can help in some way. Usually they cannot.
Leo
29-Oct-2010

Melanie Blakeman
February 26, 2011 8:47 PM

I am a avid internet user, so I found out accidentally that you can bury the google listings of the fake accounts so many pages into google that people never get to them!

The accounts you use often, will normally come up first. Your entries on other people's blogs will list. Your comments on the sites of your favourite politicians and newspaper articles will list. Your amazon.com and other shopping accounts will list unless you turn this feature off. Your tweets lifted from twitter and put on other people's sites will list. Your own blog will list and every topic in your own blog will list if you keep it active.

To make a long story short, your genuine activity on the net will supersede any fake activity.

I let sites and accounts go dormant and to my dismay the fake or defamatory accounts started to rise in the listings.

I'll let you know if they go back down after I open everything up and start using it.

This is not a solution for people who don't like to be online, but if you are online a lot anyway, I believe this will work well.

Who searches 10 pages in on google, and how much weight will they give to a listing that far back, that contains false information, after they have scrolled through pages of what is true?

on the other hand...

If someone has created a situation whereby you can be put in grave physical danger, law enforcement may intervene.

Melanie Blakeman
June 25, 2011 8:22 PM

It took several months, but the strategy I outlined above was successful.

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