Internet Trolls, Beware! 'Bounty Hunter' Can Expose You

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He has been called a bounty hunter for the digital era, and for good reason.

After Michael Roberts' own name was smeared across the Internet by an online antagonist, crushing his successful business and threatening personal relationships, Roberts made it his mission to help other victims of online defamation rout out the anonymous Internet trolls trying to upend their lives.

The Australian native launched a Las Vegas-based company called Rexxfield, dedicated to digital forensic analysis and online reputation defense. (Nevada was chosen as the home base because its state laws are more favorable for those suing for libel damages.)

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Since starting the firm in 2008, Roberts said he has helped more than 150 people unmask their online attackers. His firm boasts an 80 to 90 percent success rate for positively identifying anonymous Internet posters. He recently launched the non-profit FreespeechV3.org, a pro bono arm of his company, to give victims of online defamation even more support.

By the time people contact him, they've been branded whores, child abusers, liars and other vicious epithets on the Internet. They're spirits are so deflated, some consider ending their lives, he said.

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"You can hear it in the voice of the people when they first contact you," he said. "And once the problem is solved they're like a different person."

Billionaires, Royalty Among Those Looking to Expose Anonymous Online Harassers

Roberts counts billionaires and royalty among his clientele and two of the most recent high-profile cases involving unmasking anonymous posters were ones in which he was involved.

A couple of weeks ago, one of his pro bono clients, Carla Franklin, succeeded in obtaining a court order from a New York judge instructing Google to identify people who posted defamatory content about her on YouTube.

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Another pro bono client, Vogue cover model Liskula Cohen, made headlines last summer when she successfully sued Google to uncover the name of an anonymous blogger who slandered her online.

But how does this modern-day bounty hunter track down his prey?

Roberts said it often starts with the Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is the unique number assigned to any device connected to the Internet.

IP Address Is 'Smoking Gun,' Online Investigator Says

"That's the smoking gun that inexorably links the offensive posting to the address – not the person, of course, but the address," he said.

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When someone goes online and posts a comment on a website or writes a blog post, an IP address connects the computer he or she is using to a physical address. That IP address is logged both by the Internet Service Provider and by the website hosting the content.

It's the key piece of information that can pierce the so-called veil of anonymity online, but Roberts said that there's one problem: It's perishable information.

"The moment somebody posts their smear or their diatribe, the clock starts ticking," he said.

In most states, the statute of limitations for Internet libel for civil relief is one year, he said, although a few states extend the limit to two or three years.

And, he added, ISPs, search engines and other websites regularly purge their systems of IP address logs.

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