How to Prevent Real Identity Theft: Claim Your Name

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this-is-real-gold-1175628-1279x1032During the heady days of the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors would hurry to their preferred site. They hoped to be the first to discover the valuable ore there and then stake their claim, thereby giving them preemptive rights over all other prospectors to that particular spot of land. This practice wasn’t limited to miners. The Homestead Act of 1862 (and the other Homestead Acts that followed) allowed any adult who was the first to settle a piece of property to lay claim to it. You even see elements of this “first come, first serve” philosophy in traditional U.S. Patent Law. Here, the first to claim an invention retains all patent rights on it.

These three examples have one thing in common: a wide open territory. Whether it be undeveloped land for miners and settlers, or the vast unexplored realm of ideas, there’s a bit of terra incognita associated with the idea of being the “first to claim.” The other commonality they all possess is they aren’t new. They come from an era when America was a frontier waiting to be discovered. With the passing of centuries, this “Wild West” spirit has since dissolved into the annals of history.

Yet, there remain new worlds to discover, new territory to explore, new stakes to claim. Remember when the internet exploded in popularity in the 1990s? Prospectors in that era were quick to claim (i.e., register) what they thought would be popular URLs. The acronym “URL” stands for “Uniform Resource Locator.” It’s also called the “domain name” or “web address.”

Some of these prospectors actually had good ideas and the intent to capitalize on them. Others, on the other hand, became “cybersquatters.” Like the term “squatter,” which means to occupy an abandoned property, cybersquatters register a domain name – usually of a famous person or company – then either attempt to sell that name back to the target or use the name to mislead the target’s audience. While there are laws against cybersquatting, the ability to enforce them varies. Bruce Springsteen famously lost his case in 2001, while Spike Lee, Madonna, and Donald Trump have been more successful.

Cybersquatting is a form of identity theft. For celebrities, whose names are trademarked, enforcing the anticybersquatting laws is possible. For those of us whose names are not trademarked, well, we have to be more proactive. For those of us with common names, where misidentification is a risk, the job is even tougher. Even those of us without common names (like me) are at risk. Believe it or not, someone once tried to hijack my identity on Twitter. I have no idea why they thought my “celebrity” would help them sell whatever they were selling. In a moment, I’ll tell you what I did to fix this little problem.

First, let’s identify the generic solution to the issue of malicious intent. The risk of identity theft increases as you work your way up the career ladder. It increases by several magnitudes if your career requires you to have national exposure. The best way to eliminate cybersquatting is to “claim your name” before anyone else does. This means not only registering your full name as your own domain name, but creating accounts with your full name in popular social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as in heavily used generic email sites like Gmail.

I’m sure those of you with very common names have already discovered someone else has already claimed your name first. That’s where your middle name comes in handy. Short of that, you’re forced to append a number so it would appear something like this: “@JohnSmith2931” in Twitter; or “JohnSmith2931@gmail.com” in Gmail. By claiming your name this way, you make it more difficult for someone to steal your identity. But not impossible. In my case with Twitter, I had already claimed the name “@ChrisCarosa” (“@ChristopherCarosa” being two characters over the maximum for a Twitter handle). Still, someone swooped in and hijacked my account by duplicating it, right down to the profile picture! I was mad. I contacted Twitter, who quickly removed the offending account. I also requested they “verify” my account, but they said they don’t take requests anymore. So I just slapped “Real” in front of my name. Oh well…

Now, on to the more challenging obstacle: preventing misidentification. One day I was doing a book signing in Buffalo, when a man about my age comes up to me. He tells me, “My high school English teacher read about your book signing and called me to congratulate me for writing the book.” The man was a distant cousin whom I hadn’t seen since we were kids. His name is also “Christopher Carosa.”

My first cousin (whose name is nowhere close to mine) relayed a more eerie story. He works for a fairly famous advertising company on the west coast. He and a coworker were at a conference in San Francisco. They quickly noticed the minute people read his coworker’s name they turned away. My cousin took someone aside and asked what was going on. It turned out the coworker’s name was the same name as a convicted pedophile in the area. A quick internet search of the coworkers name proved all the top listings were about the convict. Worse, there were no pictures, only the name.

My cousin’s coworker wasn’t active in social media. Still, even if he were, if he just registered his name that might not have been enough. Wherever possible, include your picture as part of your register. You can upload your picture into your social media profiles. For your website, make sure the most visible pages (including the home page) contain your pictures. Pictures help those searching your name distinguish you (JohnSmith2931) from JohnSmith2932.

Finally, about that search listing… There’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to improving search rankings. Ideally, if you’re interested in improving your career prospects, you want listings containing good stories about you to pop up first when people search for you. Providing advice here is well beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say, use common sense: At the very least, avoiding posting compromising pictures of yourself on social media accounts (and discourage your friends from doing the same).  Better yet, start writing a blog on your newly minted web-site. Focus on what how you want people to see you. If you want to be known as an expert in a particular field, write about that particular field.

But, first and foremost, stake your claim for that name of yours. It’s worth more than gold.

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