Timothy Boostrom is Not Real
How Facebook provides a nurturing home for catfishing scammers
Meet Timothy Boostrom.
Originally from Ayrshire, Scotland, he now lives in Aberdeen, where he works at “General Contractor and Property.” As you can see in his Facebook profile, God is important to Timothy. His stream and photos are full of heartfelt images proclaiming Timothy’s commitment to God’s real love, as well as photos of Timothy in various mountainous locations in Scotland. His posts and photos get regular affirming comments, and he has thanked people for their donations via Facebook.
Look at Timothy out there in the fields of Scotland with the ponies.
Indeed, “God is Love. And Love is Real.” Timothy seems real too.
There’s one small problem.
Do you see that photo of Timothy he uploaded and made his profile picture on July 7 2015?
It’s a photograph of me. It was taken February 23, 2008 and posted to flickr by Reilly Lievers.
I was giving at talk on 50+ Web 2.0 Ways to Tell Story at the 2008 Northern Voice conference in Vancouver. My friend D’Arcy Norman took another photo clearly identifying the person as “Alan Levine” (not Timothy Boostrom).
You might ask Timothy what logo is on the front of the cap “he” is wearing (or maybe the name of the relative he visited where he purchased it) or what is printed on the orange sticker on the back of “his” laptop. Or for that matter, maybe he can tell the story of Dominoe that he told in the presentation where his profile picture was taken.
And that selfie of Timothy with the ponies? It sure looks similar to my own photograph taken November 5, 2008 in Iceland, before “selfie” was even a word.
Timothy’s photo stream in Facebook has many more photos… that are of me, and can be found in my flickr account.
From the top row the photos of “Timothy” are of me hoisting a large chioggia squash in Vermont, me and my friend Tom at a Vancouver coffee shop, me with the hat (the only one I could not find) out on Hardscrabble Road in Strawberry, AZ.
The second row is me with a steer statue in Saskatchewan and me at Stanley beach in Hong Kong. The last one in the third row is at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. And on the bottom is me with my friend Jabiz in Singapore.
Timothy’s semi-plausible appearing Facebook profile, full of his blessings of God and God’s real love, affirmation from connections — is a complete fabrication.
Welcome to the world of catfishing. Named after a 2010 documentary called Catfish, as described in a 2013 Slate article, it refers to “a person who creates a fake online profile in order to fraudulently seduce someone.” These are not pranks, but the work of organized teams dedicated to luring lonely people into online romances, building up the relationship over months. Ultimately in these romance scams, the victim is asked for money, maybe for a plane ticket so their lover can visit or funds to help the catfisher get out of a jam.
But Facebook purports to take identity and authenticity serious. They provide a tool built into everyone’s profile so someone can report them for things like inappropriate behavior or posting illegal material in their timeline.
It should be easy for me to report Timothy as a fake profile in Facebook. There is a report option for “this profile is impersonating someone” and the next one I can click the option for “me”. I would expect there us a place I can provide the evidence I have accumulated, but that is not an option.
Except 8 hours later, this is the message I get back via email:
“We reviewed the profile you reported for pretending to be someone they’re not and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.”
There is no indication of how they actually made this conclusion- the process is completely opaque. And the message is just signed “Facebook” and there is no option to reply or appeal.
Let’s look at those Community Standards.
It seems pretty clear to me that publishing my photos (my personal information) under what is easily seen as a non-authentic name is a red flag. Just try to google a Timothy Boostrom located in Aberdeen Scotland. You cannot find his name associated with his school, with his birth town, and the employer name does not exist anywhere in Scotland.
And Facebook’s help pages states they do not allow accounts that pretend to be me, use my photos, etc:
But do you know what works? Blogging about it. Apparently asking other people to report the account does work. I have been keeping a photo collection on my profile of instances where my photos have been used in fake profiles with links to the real source of the photos.
And sometime later in the night… Timothy Boostrom’s profile vanished from Facebook.
This is not the first time this has happened to me. The same exact process happened 3 weeks earlier, it was someone supposedly named Gary Gloer. One hour after getting his account closed, he opened another by appending a “.1” to his user name. I reported and got that one removed.
A commenter on my blogpost about Timothy reported seeing two profiles using my photos, both of them named “Roddick Henderson.”
Wouldn’t you think a system like Facebook that cares so much about authentic identities might detect something as suspicious as two accounts with the same name but different information and having similar photos? Facebook can already recognize you in photos that do not show your face. They have research projects like DeepFace. Why are they unable to detect when the same photos have been used as profile photos on different accounts? Why are they not checking other accounts for photos that match closed accounts confirmed as fake? I am no expert, but it seems like they have this capability- why are they not using it?
I reported both but decided to get clever. One of the Roddick’s had the same profile picture that Timothy had used, so I in turn made it my profile picture.
Then I sent one of the Roddick’s a friend request. I wondered what he might think upon seeing a familiar photo.
Now I know what “he” (in quotes because it’s likely a “they”) did- he reported me! Look what came in my email:
Yeah, thanks “Facebook.”
So now I have to prove to Facebook that I am me? This happened to my colleague Dean Shareski, who has faced the same situation (you can read the detailed narrative reported to Romance Scam). When I asked, Dean said it took Facebook a week to restore his account.
I am hardly upset about not having a Facebook account. I don’t like or “like” Facebook. I barely use it, and with severe concerns about how Facebook mismanages information and profits from user data, I nuked my account in July 2014. But recent education project required me to have an account to see a students’ group in Facebook.
This is just the narrow tip of a rampant amount of scam activity enabled by Facebook. My colleague Alec Couros has had his photos used for years for catfishing- read his 2013 post on Identity, Love, and Catfishing. Alec gets daily emails from women who have been fooled by online romance scams who created fake persona’s using Alec’s photos. More recently, Alec described a case where the scammers had not only made a fake profile based on his photos, but connected them to more fake profiles using his brother’s and his mother’s photos.
But I guess that wasn’t enough. A family’s set of fake profiles is pretty convincing, but the scammers felt that they needed to go the extra mile to make Alec Gallart even more convincing. The scamers thought it would be great to exploit my father’s death (he passed away in 2013) by including this photo of my children at his burial mound.
And it gets even more devious. Alec told me that the catfishing scammers are able to make Skype calls. They use software that allows them to send downloaded video clips through their computer camera, degrading them as if the connection is bad, so that the victim believes they are having a real conversation.
Because Alec and I both teach online, there are plenty of YouTube videos of us talking in presentations or Google Hangout archives.
Victims are getting cheated out of thousands of dollars in these scams, but worse is the deceit and heartbreak that the catfishers are foisting on them.
It’s not an unknown problem on Facebook. There are communities within Facebook. Apparently in Colorado you can sue someone for catfishing — good luck as most of the operations are taking place overseas.
But what is Facebook’s public stance on this?
Facebook’s system is completely opaque and their reporting tools are broken. There is no report option to say that someone is using your photos in the profile. When I looked to report Timothy Boostrom’s profile this is what happened:
There is no place to provide evidence when reporting. I have ample evidence that I have blogged and added to a Facebook album (now unavailable for the fun reasons below). But they apparently is not interested in facts; they use some methodology kept invisible to the public and victims of abuse of the Facebook platform.
Facebook provides no information on what they do to investigate, and all correspondence one has is with un-identifies Facebook staff. Do they even do what many 7-year-olds know how to do? A reverse image search? If Facebook cares so much about use of images and identity why are they not implementing image match checks across their empire? Shouldn’t it raise a warning when a user creates a profile image that is someone else’s, or used multiple times on different [fake] profiles?
And what happens when I try to be pro-active? Well, the scammers turn the tools on me, and now I have to prove to Facebook that I am me?
I have exhausted what I can do as an individual. The scammers are like the Hydra of Lerna — you cut off the head of one fake profile, and two more pop up.
I sure would like someone who has influence (that’s why I am writing on medium.com, because of all the shakers and such here?) to get inside Facebook and ask them to be accountable and acknowledge this shameful practice that flourishes in their house.
When I was dealing with the fake Gary Gloer profile I wondered what might have happened if they chose maybe a less handsome person’s photos than mine to steal for a fake profile. Would there be any problem investigating this photo?
Three days after submitting my “government-issued IDs” (scans of my US passport and Arizona driver’s licenses with identification numbers blurred), I am still locked out, and no indication at all from Facebook what the heck they are doing with my information.
UPDATE Nov 8, 2015: FWIW Timothy’s profile I came across was at https://www.facebook.com/timothy.boostrom.98 which was removed after the effort described above. A comment on my blog post reported a resurfacing of this same fake account at https://www.facebook.com/timothy.boostrom.101 which she reported. Do you see a pattern? Facebook likely has allowed in maybe 100 fake Timothy Boostroms and will do nothing to stop more.
Meanwhile, I am still locked out of Facebook.
UPDATE Nov 9, 2015: Another message from Facebook asking me yet for another photo to prove my identity, one of me holding up my “government issued ID”.
Here is the chilling sentence” Someone else also provided identification that matches the information on this account. This means someone has forged an ID to pretend to be me (really not too hard in Photoshop, but still).
I find one minuscule redeeming bit in this email- it is the first time that a message from Facebook has a person’s name who is handling it. I would like to see Facebook customer service responses all bear the first name of the person handling it - it makes them more accountable. For the person on the receiving end, in some small way it should humanize it beyond corresponding with someone named “Facebook”.
Update Nov 9, 2015: The same day (November 4) we were finally able to convince Facebook to shut down Timothy’s account at https://www.facebook.com/timothy.boostrom.98 people have told me that he resurfaced at https://www.facebook.com/timothy.boostrom.101 THE SAME DAY.
Now because I remain locked out of Facebook, despite having submitted twice my identification, I can only see this profile from screenshots friends are sending me:
Let me recap- some ****heads make a fake account using my photos to represent themselves, the profile is removed… and within hours is back with the same exact content at a URL with 3 more integers added to the end. AND FACEBOOK CANNOT FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT?????
Please, please, someone out there has a contact inside the fortress of Facebook. Get me in touch with somebody inside. This is wrong. This is ****ed up.
UPDATE: Nov 10, 2015: I am emailing and tweeting contacts who I hope might have some contact inside Facebook, and just publicly fuming on this issue:
And for the first time in many tweets, that @Facebook person responds! Could this be it?
Wow. After everything I have documented here, clearly showing how the reporting system in Facebook is highly flawed, this is the best the “sorry” Facebook can offer? “How to report a fake account”?
I guess Facebook is not following them. My account remains suspended 7 days after being notified that someone reported me for impersonating myself (just writing that makes me giggle). In that time, I have twice submitted pictures of my government-issued ID, the second a photo of me holding said ID, and I have emailed twice to “Ahana” (who’s name was on the notice) asking for followup on this situation.
I still got de nada from Facebook. I wonder how Timothy is doing.
Meanwhile, over on my blog, is another story of a woman who contacted me with images of me as Michael Carlos Hughes, as well as the same image being Ken Karger, Mohammad Parvez, and Scott Douglas. I have to give LinkedIn a small plus because (a) they responded immediately in twitter and (b) I’ve been told all the fake profiles are gone.
UPDATE Nov 12, 2105 Shall I be celebrating? Facebook has unlocked my account with a “We’re sorry for the inconvenience”
In the 10 days since my account was locked, I have twice sent them as requested my government-issued IDs. I have sent 5 emails asking for information or updates about the process. I tweeted 23 times to them. I got boingboing-ed. I got an email from a catfishing target who shared evidence of another Facebook account using numerous photos of me in a fake profile.
What has Facebook done in the last 10 days regarding this situation, and likely countless other similar ones?
Fuck if I know. They remain completely opaque and take no responsibility for providing scammers a fertile ground to ply their craft.
If Facebook expects me to go back to my account jubilantly, they have picked the wrong dog to mess with.
Update May 4, 2016: Like a zombie that Facebook will never kill, Timothy Boostrom is back yet again, with a new fake profile using a photo of me.
Ole “Tim” is getting more sneaky, he is mining the photos of me that friends have taken. Please Facebook, in your infinite technical image recognition prowess, tell me how you can let https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011567198266&fref=ts use my photo fromhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/troutcolor/10650682444/
If you want to give “Tim” a self identification test, ask him to name the lake in the photo and whom he visited on the next stop on this trip.
This is but one reason why I am not going to be like everyone else who shrugs and pours their lives into the vat of Facebook.
UPDATE September 10, 2016: Actually not much to update. I blogged many times in the last year and did a few presentations on catfishing, and pretty much nothing has changed. Fake accounts keep getting created, I get emails from victims.
I’ve resigned that nothing can be done, technically or socially, to stop this. I created a page of resources and quasi-suggestions. The best approach is to become aware, to share awareness, and to be more savvy about people you do not know. It is encouraging that more people seem to know how to reverse image search.
Or better yet, they search. There still Timothy Boostrom’s out there, some of them maybe legit people, but high on the search result is this post.
And that means like last night someone gets curious about a Timothy Boostrom they met on sites like Viber, Meeting2, Coffee and Bagels (the scammers are using dating platforms that likely have even less teeth than toothless Facebook) and when they search… well they land here. This current Timothy is badgering a victim, and after asked about his photos, claims his identify has been stolen.
Victims, do not count on the law to help you. Do not count on platforms to help you. My best recommendations are ignore & do not engage at any costs, or of you are willing… play out the fishing line and waste their time.