A Colorado woman got the shock of her life when she learned last month that a woman apparently lifted photos of her from Facebook and used them to lure men on several online dating sites.
The episode has turned her life upside down, but she's facing the hard reality that online impersonation isn't necessarily a crime.
"I was completely devastated," the woman, 24, said on condition of anonymity. "I thought this couldn't be true because I have no enemies. I don't know anyone who has any vengeance against me and then I [thought], who could it be? Who would do something like this?"
The young woman, called "Stacy" by Denver's local ABC affiliate, asked to withhold her name from publication out of fear that, for six months, her name, photo and life details were used by someone masquerading as her -- and sending explicit messages from her -- online.
"The fact of the matter is not only is my reputation at stake, but I really have to be careful now when I go out and about because I don't know how many men she spoke with," she said. "I'm a really outgoing person. ... But I think now I'm extremely guarded. I'll go on with my life because that's the only thing I can do at this point, but I can't really trust anyone."
Fluke Circumstance Leads to Impersonator
Stacy said she learned by fluke circumstance that her identity had been pirated.
Her mother met a man last month who apparently had been having an online relationship with the fake Stacy. He realized he'd been defrauded when he saw her photo on her mother's mantle.
With a bit of sleuthing, Stacy said, she and her mother discovered that the fraudster impersonated her on the dating sites Plenty of Fish, Sugar Daddies and Dallas Singles, as well as on Facebook. She also opened a Yahoo e-mail account in Stacy's name, Stacy said.
Stacy said the woman changed her age from 24 to 33 and said she lived in Dallas, but was clearly familiar with information she had disclosed about herself on her personal blog and Facebook profile.
Impersonator Apologetic, Tearful, Police Report Said
"That's kind of the scariest part," she said. "I don't even know what this woman looks like. ... I know bits and pieces but this woman knows my whole life."
One of the key things she does know, however, is the woman's name: Charlene Aguilar, 44, of Aurora, Colo. With the help of a police detective, Stacy and her mother were able to track down Aguilar through the e-mail address she registered with Sugar Daddies.
Aguilar did not respond to requests for comment but, according to a Denver Police Department report, the woman admitted to police that she impersonated Stacy on Plenty of Fish and Sugar Daddies. She denied using Stacy's photographs on other sites.
The photos have since been taken down.
Aguilar said she did not know Stacy and "only used her photographs because she is pretty," according to the report.
The report also said that Aguilar cried during the interview, said she didn't think using someone else's photographs was illegal and was apologetic.
For Stacy, however, apologies aren't enough.
District Attorney's Office: Impersonator's Behavior Did Not Meet Level of Criminal Statute
"Right now, I'm just so angry," Stacy said. "I envision this woman copying and pasting my photos and using them at her own free will and I'm angry and I just want to inconvenience her the way she's inconvenienced me. She has a family. ... She should know better."
Despite the distress the situation has injected into Stacy's life, the District Attorney's office in Denver told her that it would not prosecute the case.
Lynn Kimbrough, a spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office, said officials reviewed the case and considered a variety of statutes it might have violated, including criminal impersonation, identity theft, computer crime, charity, fraud, stalking and even pimping and prostitution.
But none of the criminal statutes fit the details of this particular case, she said.
"The bottom line is the behavior -- what was done and the intent behind it -- did not rise to the level of a criminal statute that we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt," she said.
There is a criminal impersonation statute, Kimbrough said, but to violate it requires proof that the suspect attempted to "unlawfully gain a benefit for herself or another or injure or defraud another."
Financial Assets Usually Involved in Criminal Impersonation Cases
Officials would have to establish that Aguilar tried to extract or interfere with something of value (cash, credit, property or a service), and "I don't believe that finding a persona on an Internet dating website would qualify as a thing of value," she said.
Since hearing of the District Attorney's decision, Stacy said, she has retained a lawyer and intends to sue Aguilar in civil court, likely for libel, slander, defamation and invasion of privacy.
"Girls need to be aware that this kind of thing does happen and they do have to be cautious," Stacy said. "It's not just that kids are sending hateful messages in middle school. ... It gets much bigger than that."
While social networking sites, blogs and other kids of new media make it easier than ever to network and keep up with friends, she said, people should be aware that identity theft is always a risk.
Stacy may not the have the option to resolve her case in a criminal court, but a bill that unanimously passed California's Senate and Assembly last month could make malicious online impersonation a crime in that state.
Calif. Legislature Passes 'E-Personation' Bill
The criminal "e-personation" bill would make it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone online with the intention of "harming, intimidating, threatening or defrauding." It would be punishable with up to $1,000 in fines or one year in prison, or both.
The current impersonation law was written in 1872 and doesn't adequately address the technology-enabled abuses of today, according to a statement on California State Sen. Joe Simitian's website.
The new legislation would extend the existing impersonation law to online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and other social media sites.
Some free speech advocates, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have contested the bill, arguing that it would undermine online activism that relies on impersonation.
"If signed by the governor, the new law would make it a crime to impersonate someone online in order to 'harm' that person," foundation attorney Corynne McSherry wrote on the group's website. "In other words, it could be illegal to create a Facebook or Twitter account with someone else's name, and then use that account to embarrass that person (including a corporate person like British Petroleum or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or a public official)."
"Here's the problem: temporarily 'impersonating' corporations and public officials has become an important and powerful form of political activism, especially online."
Law Needs to Keep Up With Technology
But others disagree, saying that the law includes exceptions for parody and similar kinds of speech.
"It's not that controversial. And the reason it's not controversial is it because it basically says the same stuff that's been illegal for a long time is now also illegal online," said Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation Defender, a company that helps people manage their online reputations, and author of the book "Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier."
He said the Internet has enabled new kinds of fraud and the law needs to mature with the technology.
"The law is starting to recognize and starting to catch up with this stuff," he said, "but it's still behind, it's still not ready."