The mere act of impersonating another person is unlikely to be unlawful except in situations where the law specifically provides. For example, it is a criminal offence to impersonate a police officer.
However, where the impersonation is accompanied by certain other acts or certain other factors are present the impersonator may commit a criminal offence or a civil wrong depending upon the circumstances of the case.
Misuse of private information
If a fake profile contains private information about the person, for example, their relationship status, sexual orientation, religious views, political views or other disclosure of private information, it may amount to the tort of misuse of private information.
In Applause Store Productions Limited Mathew Firsht v Grant Raphael (2008), Mathew Firsht was awarded £2,000 for breach of privacy when his former friend and business associate, Grant Raphael, created a profile on Facebook for Mr Firsht without his consent. The profile contained certain private information about Mr Firsht including his sexual orientation, relationship status, birthday and political and religious views. Not all of the information was accurate but the court in that case held that all of it was information in which Mr Firsht had a legitimate expectation of privacy. The court held that the creation of the false profile amounted to a misuse of private information.
In Mr Firsht’s case, a claim was also brought for defamation as the false profile and a group, also created by Mr Raphael, called ‘Has Mathew Firsht lied to you?’ contained defamatory statements about Mr Firsht and his company. Mr Firsht and his company were awarded damages totalling £20,000 for the defamation.
A statement is said to be defamatory if it tends to lower a person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally, or it exposes them to hatred, contempt or ridicule or causes themto be shunned or avoided.
Defamation on the internet has become an increasing problem over recent years. Mr Firsht’s case serves as a reminder of the importance of ensuring the accuracy of statements made not only on Facebook, but in emails, chat rooms and the like. Where a person has been defamed, it is open to them to apply to the court for an order requiring, for example, Facebook or an Internet Service Provider to provide information relating to the defamation, including the IP address of the computer from which the defamatory statement was made.
Fraudulent impersonation and deceit
Impersonation for fraudulent reasons, for instance, to obtain money, goods or services will amount to criminal activity under the Fraud Act 2006 (FA 2006) for which the impersonator could face prosecution through the criminal courts for the offence of fraud or a similar type of offence.
For more information on:
- Trademarks and passing off