When Photos of Your Children are Used in an Internet Hoax

BlogHer Original Post

Imagine discovering pictures of your children on someone else's blog or Facebook page; the pictures you took of your kids at their birthday party or the swimming pool or dressed up in crazy outfits now being used to create a fake life for a stranger as they claim your children as their own.  And now imagine the pictures being used in a scam that raised $1200 in several hours, garnering 6500 Facebook likes, that devastated thousands when they discovered that the whole thing was a hoax?

Tertia Loebenberg Albertyn of So Close doesn't have to imagine it: it happened to her a few weeks ago.

May 14th's post begins:

It has just come to my attention that once again someone has taken photos of my children and used it as their own.  I feel sick. 

Speaking to Tertia via email, she let us know how she found out that her twins -- Kate and Adam -- were being renamed Lily and Jade and reused in the fictional life of Dana Dirr.

It was so eerie. It was 8am in the morning my time, around midnight in the USA and the story had obviously just gone viral overseas. Within 30 minutes I got six separate emails from people telling me that my children's photos were being used by someone else. I was sitting at my desk (at home), just about to do some work before taking Max to play school. As I clicked on first link my heart sank, and then there was just more and more and more. 

The viral story was the life and death of Dana Dirr, a story that was several years in the making, constructed out of dozens of fictional accounts online.  By this point, most of the Internet pages are only accessible via cached form, having been taken offline once the hoax was revealed. The main fictional accounts were for Dana and JS Dirr, a couple with ten children (with an eleventh on the way), one of whom was a son named Eli who was experiencing childhood cancer.  "Dana" connected with other mothers blogging about their children’s experiences with childhood cancer, and the family actively kept people updated for several years about their son's struggle with cancer via their CaringBridge page and MySpace.

People were riveted by the story of "Warrior Eli," and made donations to major cancer organizations such as Alex's Lemonade Stand in his name or purchased Warrior Eli bracelets to wear to show support.  And then, on Mother's Day weekend, fictional Dana Dirr was killed in a car accident and it was announced on Facebook.  The story went viral, and that's when people started noticing that the photos of their eleven children were taken from blogs and Flickr accounts.  The young adult who was constructing the hoax immediately took her accounts offline, but it left both her followers and the people she used reeling.

How do you know whom to trust over the Internet?

This wasn't the first time Tertia had to deal with people stealing her childrens' images.  She explained via email:

When I saw the first one or two images my heart dropped, I thought 'oh no, not again!' The twins images had been stolen about three years ago by a woman in the UK who pretended they were hers. As I read more and found more and more images (there are over 50 stolen images), I got annoyed. Especially when I found one of my son in hospital. But when I read about the fundraising efforts and all the outpouring of love and sympathy for the little boy who had cancer, I got angry. Really angry. Because stealing my kids images and pretending that my kids belong to someone else is one thing, but playing on the emotions of thousands of people is totally unacceptable. That made me furious. Childhood cancer is my biggest fear. To trivialize it in that way, to use it as a hoax sickened me. I wanted to stop that straight away.

So what does one do when they discover their child's image is being used on the Internet?  Having been through this more than once, Tertia advises:

Stay calm. Report the person who is stealing your images to the host of that website (either Facebook or blogger or whatever).  You will find that hosts take action very quickly and take the site down. When my photos were stolen the first time, I confronted the person who did it and she publicly admitted her wrong doing, apologized and took her website down. This Eli Warrior hoax is way more elaborate. However every single Facebook page and blog have been taken down now. I reported them all.

How do you avoid this happening to you? The only way to totally avoid it is to never post any picture of your kids anywhere ever on the Internet. I don't want to live like that. My life, my work, my hobby are all on the Internet. I am not going to let one or two trolls rule my life. I supposed you could watermark all your photos if you wanted to prevent people from pretending the pictures were of their kids.

To be honest, other people were more upset about my children's images been stolen than I was. I was annoyed, but I wasn't upset. I am fully aware that if I or anyone else takes the risk of putting pictures of my children on the Internet, then we face the risk of those images been stolen. After being a blogger for many years, I am fully aware that the Internet is a scary place made up of some really crazy people. I either shut every thing down (Facebook / Twitter / blog etc), or I realize that being on the Internet involves risk. No, I don't like my children's photos being stolen, but I see it more as an annoyance than a tragedy or a big scary thing. What is a tragedy is people creating hoaxes about little boys having cancer. That pisses me off and scares me. Someone pretending that the photo of my son with a birthday crown on his head is their son? Doesn't freak me out as much. 

Have you ever had your pictures stolen and used by someone else?  Does the Warrior Eli story make you think twice about posting your childrens' pictures online?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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