Internet News / Online security

Online Name Hijacking – What to Do if You Are a Victim


identity theft

identity theft (Photo credit: Rosie O’Beirne)

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What’s in a name? When it came to my own, it seemed not much. I am not a celebrity and my name is not exactly one which has any
particular significance other than being unusual. At least, that’s what I thought until someone or something hijacked it to use it as their own author name on some press releases distributed all over the Internet via spam bots.

I found out about this by merely searching my name on Google. I was trying to see whether Google was including my photo on pages with appropriate SERPs. It was, but along with attributions for articles I had written were some results for material I had not written with my name preceded by the word “User.” Luckily, my photo was not.

See Google Results for Marilyn Bontempo

In a panic, I researched this issue to find that someone had chosen to register my name on sites which allow posting of press releases without any bona fide proof of authorship, apparently. Although the material was not offensive in content, mostly about men’s footwear, the writing was atrocious, as if it had been subjected to an online translation service which substituted incorrect synonyms to add variety to the text.

I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I have been so careful to avoid using Facebook and other social sites to keep inappropriate content from following me to the grave, courtesy of Google. I have been industrious in trying to make sure my name is associated with subjects pertaining to my area of expertise and content of which I can be proud. Yet, for some mysterious reason, my name was chosen from the entire universe of possibilities to grace this flawed press release on countless sites to promote one company’s footwear for men.

“There Oughta Be A Law!”

Since I work with many lawyers and I am aware of identity theft issues, copyright infringements, etc., I am well aware that I don’t have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to prosecuting such a crime. First of all, having researched a similar transgression a couple of years ago, I realize it is impossible to identify the thief. Secondly, there is no way to prove that there isn’t another person in the world with exactly my name, as unique as my name is. Finally, unless I can claim I have been damaged by this incident, it is not likely it would qualify as a crime in any court of law, despite the blow to my ego and black mark on my reputation as a writer.

In addition, the last thing I need is to spend my dwindling income on paying a well-meaning lawyer I might hire to try to help me with this. The odds of even reaching the offender are so remote that it is ridiculous to even try. (I know this from a past attempt to locate someone who had stolen an article I had written, verbatim, posting it on some blog site with their name as author. I learned quickly that such sites protect their posters with ambiguous disclaimers and avoid confrontation of any kind with the only contact information available as emails to nowhere.)

But for the sake of argument, let’s say we were to locate the perpetrator, and even prosecute to the full extent of the law. There is no guarantee that someone else totally unrelated may repeat this “crime” in the future leaving me with much more dire circumstances with which to contend. By using spam-bot distribution services, the problem could be exponentially magnified in both intensity and ubiquity. What began as a minor problem could become a never-ending battle costing me a fortune in legal fees with the only evidence of evasive victory coming at the steep price of online humiliation.

So, what are my alternatives? It had been my understanding that Google and other search engines place a good deal of importance and priority on the most recent of one’s contributions. This would imply that as time passes, those older counterfeit attributions should lose prominence in search results particularly if I were to take the necessary steps to eradicate them.

How to Solve the Name-Hijacking Problem

While there is no quick fix to do this, there is a simple but tedious solution at a relatively modest cost. It involves spending time to create valuable new content with which to fill up the Internet. As fresh material I have authored push these bogus attributions way down on the list of search results, they will finally disappear into oblivion.

Unfortunately, after having again checked SERPs associated with just my name, there at the bottom of page one are three of the fictitious “User” attributions, preceded by correctly-attributed results for my own material. On a mission to hunt down more of these false attributions, I found no others on the following twelve pages of results but plenty of attributions to lots of my newest and older work. Perhaps search engines dedicate page one of SERPs to a general overview of all possible variations on a theme whether true or not. I don’t know how else to explain why those three “User” results appear on page one since their dates originate approximately six months ago and I have submitted lots of newer material since then. Could it be that page one is reserved for the most popular of search results? Again, since I consult Google Analytics on a regular basis and have direct access to how many visits are made to all of my articles, my most popular articles do not reside on page one of SERPs.

How Search Engines Prioritize SERPs

With further analysis, I now realize that the results on page one for my name are indeed according to Internet popularity: site popularity, not article popularity. They include my profile on the crowd-pleasing sites of LinkedIn; SiteProNews; Google+; my own website blog (probably because it is targeted by worldwide spam commenting bots more than any other site on earth!); Facebook; as well as an article about me on a major newspaper chain; my listing in a major white page directory; and finally, the créme de la créme, the three fraudulent “User” sources from no other than a “wiki” site for press release postings.

The day I first realized this problem was one of the worst days of my life until I decided to take a walk to get away from my computer. Suddenly it dawned on me that unless I am looking at SERPs on the Internet, the “problem” doesn’t exist. Out in the fresh air, in the real world, I was free of the shackles of Internet malice. Besides, I thought, how many people would be searching specifically for my name? And even if they were to investigate those fallacious attributions, would they muddle through such boring entries about a subject so uninspiring that they would come to any conclusion about writing so deficient other than a result of poor editing or worse, a domineering client?

If you are a writer, or a business owner, or anyone using the Internet with your own name, you too could be targeted in this way. It is our new reality and we’d better get used to it.


Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing, based in Holmes, New York, has been developing strategies for business success for more than 36 years. A professional writer and graduate of Bard College, she has won numerous awards for excellence in marketing, photography, graphics, writing and web design. As a specialist in branding, she assists many of her clients with management of their social media and public relations initiatives. In addition, she handles e-commerce for a number of online merchants not only on their own websites but also through eBay, Amazon and others. View her work at http://www.midhudsonmarketing.com.

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