Sept. 29, 2009— -- What would you do if someone impersonated you on Facebook, amassed hundreds of friends and then used the site to tarnish your reputation?
An Illinois mother says that's what happened to her teenage son, and the two are striking back with a lawsuit.
In a 20-page document filed with the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., Sept. 23, Laura Cook and her son, a minor identified only as "John Doe," allege that four pranksters created a fake profile page impersonating the plaintiff that included racist and explicitly sexual comments.
The Facebook page, which attracted at least 580 friends, also falsely identified the teen as being homosexual, the lawsuit said.
Charging the four defendants with five separate counts, including defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress, the teen and his mother are asking for an unspecified amount in damages that exceeds $50,000.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Charles Mudd, told ABCNews.com that given the sensitivity and timing of the case, the plaintiffs are not yet ready to speak to the press. But he said they are taking legal action because of the damage the false Facebook page has done to the teen's reputation and, potentially, his future.
"You can imagine the horror of a parent finding a fake Facebook profile purporting to be their child that contains information that could be harmful to their child," he said. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say that the teen, who is an athlete, had to change coaches and academic advisers as a result of the fake profile.
Mudd said the family learned this summer from an acquaintance that a false profile that included the teen's picture and cell phone number had been created on the social networking site Facebook.
According to the lawsuit, in the "personal information" section of the bogus profile, the defendants had posted "obamas cool, but hes black sooo…"
The lawsuit also said some of the sexual statements "described the Plaintiff as enjoying and/or engaging in sexual acts" and "as being homosexual and engaging in sexual acts with other males."
Mudd declined to elaborate but said the profile had been active for four weeks before the mother and son worked with Facebook to shut it down.
Fraudsters Can Be Tracked Through IP Addresses
When asked how the teen and his mother knew the four defendants were behind the fake profile, Mudd wouldn't provide details but said, "We know those four were involved.
"Upon learning the identities of these four individuals, my client felt betrayed," he said. "It was not something that my client expected."
If served with a subpoena or contacted by law enforcement, Facebook can disclose IP (Internet protocol) addresses, which are the unique numbers assigned to each computer and can be used to track fraudsters. But Mudd said that IP addresses had not yet been subpoenaed.
Though he said he feels confident that Illinois law would find that the defendants' statements were defamatory and that privacy interests were involved, he said laws surrounding cyber-bullying could be enhanced.
"I would say that they could be strengthened," Mudd said. "I think it would be helpful to have a specific statute providing either criminal or providing a civil remedy for this type of conduct."
He added that parental awareness of cyber-bullying and online privacy issues needs to increase.
Pointing to an uptick in the number of such online privacy cases, other cyber harassment experts agree .
"We've seen a number of [civil] cases being brought recently when cyber harassment occurs," said Parry Aftab, the executive director of WiredSafety.org, an Internet safety resource. Aftab said she said she was aware of approximately 100 similar cases across the country in the past year.
In the U.K., the parents of a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide after being bullied on Facebook spoke out earlier this month about the pressures of modern social networking sites.
"I expect to see a lot of more of this," Aftab said. "It's not a surprise, and it's sad that it happens as often as it does."
"A lot of people don't know what to do and most lawyers don't know how to do it."
As for the defendants, she said, assuming they are found guilty, "The kids who did this are in some serious liability here -- and it's money liability."
Facebook Working With Online Safety Experts to Improve Practices
Facebook, which is working with Aftab's group to establish practices to protect kids online, said it has a dedicated team that works with law enforcement on privacy and fraud issues.
"Facebook has always been based on a real name culture. This leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for our users," a spokesman said in a statement.
It's a violation of the site's policies to use a fake name or pretend to be someone you're not. Throughout the site, the spokesman said, there are links and contact forms that let Facebook members and non-members file complaints.
Although the time it takes for the team to respond depends on the complaint, he said reports of nudity, pornography and harassing personal messages are the highest priority complaints and receive a response within 24 hours.
The spokesman couldn't comment on the case involving Laura Cook and her son. But he said that in similar cases, Facebook's investigations team would be responsible for taking the complaint, working with the member to determine whether an account is real or fake and then shutting down false accounts.
But though Aftab and others familiar with cyber harassment applaud Facebook for its efforts to monitor and crack down on cyber abuse and fraud, they point out that, legally, Web sites have no obligation to be so vigilant.
"If Facebook did not want to, it would not have to take this down. Facebook elected to take this down," said Michael Fertik, the CEO of ReputationDefender, an online reputation management and privacy company. "But there are plenty of sites that would not behave so responsibly."
Noting that the law provides no incentive for Web sites to remove comments that could be considered defamatory, he asked, "Why are sites obligated to take down photos that someone else owns but not a defamatory site that can ruin a kids' life forever?
Defenders of the legal landscape maintain that changing the law could stifle open discussion and free speech. But others argue that the laws should hold Web sites more accountable for the content they host.
"Facebook did the right thing, but as a society it is yet another example where we just dodged the bullet," Fertik said.