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Identity Crisis

What do you do when someone who isn’t you shows up on the internet — and starts finding your friends?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

"Did you start a new Instagram?" asked a friend of mine the other day. (She’s more of an acquaintance, I guess, considering I know her only through this one Slack channel I’m in with a bunch of rude, funny women involved in the online publishing business, zero of whom I’ve ever met in real life.) I had not started a new Instagram account, no, but I figured I knew what the confusion was: There are a lot of Katie Bakers out there in the world, including several in my tiny corner of it; I’m routinely confused with the one who writes for BuzzFeed, as well as the one who is an editor at The Daily Beast.

But that wasn’t it. "@kathleenbakes01 just followed me, and then messaged me," she wrote, "and it’s your pic!" My Instagram handle is @kathleenbakes, and my pic is a few years old; it was taken at my bridal shower, and I’m wearing a pink dress and a necklace I love dearly but haven’t been able to locate in years, possibly even since that day, come to think of it. I logged onto Instagram to look up this @kathleenbakes01 character, and saw that she/he/it was wearing that pink dress and that long-lost necklace; that she/he/it was me.

Instagram gets millions of reports about sketchy accounts, a spokeswoman told me via email, and the company does its best to sort through them all in a timely manner. Many of these are just standard spambots, some are harasser assholes, and another portion are the impostors: the people (or computer scripts) who mimic existing accounts or who purport to be the official online presence of someone who is not actually on the service. (If you are someone sans Instagram who finds out that someone is claiming to be you on the platform, the company asks that you send it a picture of a government ID to prove who you are, an amusingly analog situation to a digital problem.)

Even though I reported the account, and even though a good number of my friends did as well, it didn’t disappear immediately, as I wished it would. I knew the whole thing wasn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, and that my situation was extremely benign; the account wasn’t posting any photos, and after following about 150 people, stopped adding new friends. I guessed it was probably a bot, and not, you know, some troll from my past who was out for revenge. I sent it a message, and it never wrote back. But as long as @kathleenbakes01 was still sitting somewhere out there, I felt a constant unease, knowing that the account could do something nefarious; even if I wasn’t exactly sure what.

Show me any online platform and I will show you people, or "people," pretending to be someone they’re not. There’s a vast spectrum of this: Some folks lie about their ages or spruce up the details of their lives (both things I have definitely done in my stupider teenage years). And there are clowns who mimic sports beat reporter Twitter handles, maybe changing a lowercase letter to an uppercase letter, or B’s to 8’s, with the goal of breaking false trades and generally causing dumb, meaningless havoc. There are the weirdos who straight-up steal and alter other people’s photos to make their own existence seem glamorous or to catfish unsuspecting folks. And then there are the stories that are chilling, in which a stolen identity snowballs into a truly disrupted life.

In 2012, journalist Mat Honan wrote in Wired that "in the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed." His kid’s photos vanished; his Gmail was wiped. It began with a bored hacker named Phobia calling AppleCare, pretending to be Honan, and succeeding; Phobia’s goal, all along, was to take over Honan’s Twitter account, @mat, which he coveted because it was a spare three letters long. Everything else was collateral damage.

And earlier this year Cody Brown, a founder of several technology companies, wrote on Medium about his experience with having $8,000 worth of Bitcoin stolen in an attack that exploited issues with two-factor authentication but was rooted in simple impersonation: The hacker called Verizon pretending to be him, and the whole house of cards tumbled from there.

When CNN’s Jake Tapper reported the other day that various members of the Trump apparatus, including the president’s son, had been duped by some Spoofed Emails 101, it was, on the surface, pretty funny: Who wouldn’t get a laugh out of the Mooch getting aggro with some British dude pretending to be Reince Priebus? But it was also scary. It doesn’t take much at all to fool people into believing you’re someone you’re not, and the ramifications can extend far past some simple social embarrassment or the hassle of dealing with customer service. It’s not exactly a matter of national security, until it is.

It’s unsettling to learn that there’s another you out there, particularly one who is getting all up in the DMs of people whom you barely knew to begin with, inquiring boldly of them: "hey how’s it going." By the time I was hip to @kathleenbakes01, the impostor had gotten about a fifth of the people it followed to immediately follow them back. Browsing the list was like viewing a D-list version of "This Is Your Life."

There was a teacher from high school, and a married couple that I haven’t seen in the better part of a decade with a really cute kid whose photos I always "like" and sometimes even comment upon. ("omg he is a total clone of both of you!!!!!! ") There was a dude I used to totally crush on; a friend’s silly baby; and a popular TV show creator whom I interviewed a few times for an article.

As someone who refuses to create a LinkedIn account because I’m too scared it will spam everyone I’ve ever so much as thought about emailing, this was painful. I wondered if @kathleenbakes01 had inquired "hey how’s it going" of all of them, and worse, if any of them had replied. It was a reminder of the extreme randomness of the people I follow and perform for online.

I’ve existed on the internet since I was in grade school, overusing and discarding pseudonyms like favorite pairs of jeans. (Even my real name, being so common, affords me plenty of cover; for several years I used it while writing "secretly" from my day job, and no1curred enough to figure it out.) Compared with my friends who use the internet like normal, well-adjusted civilians, I’m way more jaded, but also much savvier. I’m accustomed to detecting bullshit, to grokking right off the bat which people are fakers, or pranksters, or hackers. I feel like an intrepid law enforcement official every time I report a Facebook impostor, just doing my part to weed out the baddies and help out society.

The downside, though, is that I still live in the real world, to an extent, and pretty much daily I stumble up against how to tell a story in person based on something funny I read on Slack or Twitter. "My friend was telling me …" seems not quite truthful; "This person I’ve never met but have a sprawling, complicated matrix of inside jokes and references with pointed out that …" seems way TMI. But those people, the ones I can’t quite describe in polite company, are my peers; it’s so dorky to say, but they are my life.

After hours of frantically refreshing @kathleenbakes01 to see if the account was still active, I took the only action I could: I posted a photo of former Mets manager Bobby Valentine sitting in the dugout in a fake mustache after having been thrown out of a game, and informed my followers that an impostor was out there somewhere.

I’m not sure why I felt the need, but it was mostly the fear of the unknown: What if @kathleenbakes01 had moved beyond "hey how’s it going" and was, like, sexting my friend’s baby or my teacher from high school? What if it was lobbing phishing links around like grenades? One friend of mine — a guy I met in the Gawker comments back in the day, and who would go on to officiate my wedding (that one was a hoot to try to explain to my mother) — commented on the post: "Oh shit. Katie Fakes just left a comment with Dave Matthews Band lyrics on one of my posts."

I instantly felt better, more so than I did even when the impostor account was finally, mercifully banned. A faker can ape my bridal shower photo and my name and click through my follower list with the best of them, but they probably won’t replace the essence of the true me — the one who browses Florist Instagram at 4 a.m. and leaves extremely earnest comments like "GORG color palette!!!!!"; or the one who has a coven of besties on Twitter who alert me to Eli Manning’s every last move in case I’ve stepped away from my screen for a second; or who, yes indeed, Dancing-Nancies around the internet leaving a trail of DMB lyrics in my wake. Until @kathleenbakes01 figures out how to do all that — and I have no doubt that someday they will, but not yet — I remain extremely, unmistakably myself.