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Impersonating Someone Online Could Soon Be a Crime

Social media helps Chicagoan Angie Rodriguez to manage a tanning salon and a music group.

It has also hurt the 32-year-old, who was the victim of online impersonation when someone pretended to be her on Twitter.

“The lady [that was pretending to be me] made a fake Twitter account. She posted a picture of me and everything. Then she just started saying some crazy things,” Rodriguez said. “Ultimately, she was really trying to make me look bad. Sadly a lot of people actually believed it was me.”

Rodriguez‘s situation happens every day to thousands of people in Illinois, according to State Sen. Ira I. Silverstein (D-8th District).

Silverstein recently introduced SB51, an amendment to the Harassing and Obscene Communications Act ,which would make it easier for law enforcement to crack down on online impersonators.

Current law states that it is illegal to use electronics (such as cell phones and the Internet) to harm or harass someone. Silverstein wants to amend the bill so that impersonating someone using an electronic device will also be illegal.

“It should have been illegal a long time ago,” said Angie Rodriguez, who has also been impersonated on both MySpace and Facebook by three people.

Rodriguez never contacted police because she said she felt nothing could be done in her situation.

“People get [impersonated] online all the time. I mean, right now they have no repercussions so they are just going to keep doing it,” she said.

If the law had existed, Rodriguez would have been able to take legal action against the impersonators to prevent it from happening again.

“Unfortunately, people are using the Internet for bad things like impersonating, intimidating or threatening people. The Internet is sometimes free, so we have to try to prevent these types of activities that lead to identity theft and those sorts of things,” said Silverstein, who introduced the bill in January and brought it before the Senate’s Criminal Law committee on March 2nd.

A similar bill, SB141, is being sponsored by California lawmaker Sen. Joseph Simitian (D-11th district). The bill was introduced as a response to the rising issue of cyber bullying.

Groups like technology freedom coalition Electronic Frontier Foundation have expressed concern that the California legislation infringed on the right to freedom of speech. Despite their concerns, the law passed and took effect Jan. 1st of this year. The law makes online impersonation a standard misdemeanor, causing violators to pay $1,000 or spend up to one year in jail. Similar bills were also passed in New York, Texas and Hawaii.

Like California, if SB51 is passed in Illinois, a violation will be a Class A misdemeanor (up to one year in jail and/or fine up to $2,500) for first offenders, and a Class 4 felony (between one and three years in jail and/or $25,000) for second or subsequent offenders.

Jail time and a fine are not the only repercussions violators could face if the bill passes in Illinois.

While Internet service providers are not held responsible for what consumers do while using their services, some providers in Illinois work with legislatures and law enforcement to help control the issue.

Frontier Communications is one of the largest internet service providers in Illinois.

“If any of our customers are using their IP service with us to harass other people, we have a policy that prohibits that. If anybody is in violation of that policy, we’ve gone so far as to disconnect service to those individuals,” said Lynne Monaco, the director of corporate safety and security for Frontier Communications.

At the Criminal Law committee meeting, State Sen. John J. Millner (R-28th District) expressed concern about teenagers playing video games and pretending to be other people. He said he is worried that teenagers will be arrested and charged because of the bill Silverstein is proposing.

“These games now are Internet-based, where kids act out different scenarios and pretend to be other people killing each other. They play people all over the world,” Millner said. “You get some very aggressive prosecuting attorneys or police officers who say, ’Aha! We’ve got them now.’ People are going to slip through the cracks and get charged. That’s what we don’t want.”

Silverstein said he will change the bill to exclude playing online video games and will bring it before the committee on March 16th.

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