The hijacking of Paul Lingham’s Facebook account

Erin Gallagher
Jan 30, 2018 · 5 min read

A hacker hijacked a dead man’s Facebook account and won’t give it back.

Paul Lingham worked at Claridge’s in London and then later as a chauffeur. He passed away in 2010 at age 36 and since then his family took comfort in visiting his Facebook wall, leaving messages on his birthday and looking at his old photos. He died before Facebook began memorializing the profiles of deceased persons. His family never had any issues so they never requested to memorialize his account. Then Paul’s account got hacked.

Here’s what Paul Lingham’s profile looked like right after the takeover in October 2017:

The Lingham family were understandably very upset when they realized Paul’s account had been hijacked by a stranger. The hacker changed the name and birthday on Paul’s account and then he started sending out friend requests to Paul’s friends and family.

It got worse. The hacker started tagging Paul’s family members, posting on their timelines and taunting them from their dead brother’s account.

Paul’s sister Shona tried contacting Facebook for help. She submitted Paul’s death certificate to Facebook but was told since the information on the death certificate doesn’t match the details on Paul’s account (because the hacker changed it!) they were unable to memorialize the profile.

I didn’t really know what I could do so I sent a friend request to the imposter on Paul Lingham’s Facebook account. Several weeks after I sent the request, he added me. I sent him a message and surprisingly he answered.

He changed his location to Sudan since this conversation and I have no idea if he’s telling the truth, but here’s what he told me via Facebook messenger.

He told me he lives in Egypt but a translator told me the language on the profile doesn’t seem like Egyptian Arabic and he may be a non-native Arabic speaker.

Attempts to resolve the issue via Facebook’s reporting system have all failed as badly as my 2am hacker negotiating skills. The imposter still has control of Paul Lingham’s account and the Lingham family have given up on using the available reporting channels. Here are the most recent messages between Shona Lingham and Facebook support from January 9, 2018:

Charlie Warzel from Buzzfeed did an extensive investigation into the online market for fake Facebook profiles.

“There must be millions [of accounts for sale],” one Facebook account seller based in Europe speculated to BuzzFeed News regarding the size of the fake accounts market. “I go to these big marketplaces and see they have several thousand [profiles] in stock at all times. I couldn’t say if it was tens of millions or hundreds of millions but Facebook deletes some and people keep making them. Always.” Similarly, when asked how many fake accounts I could purchase from them at one time, the seller told me, “I could send 5,000 accounts right away.”

The fact that there is a cottage industry selling fake Facebook accounts doesn’t square with Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress in April 2018 when he claimed, “you’re not allowed to have a fake account on Facebook.”

Paul Lingham’s brother-in-law is a personal friend of mine so I’ve watched his family struggle for months trying to regain control of this account. Paul’s profile still has old pictures and messages from family and friends that the hacker has not deleted. The Lingham’s saved screenshots of everything, but it’s not the same as being able to visit Paul’s profile and remember him.

UPDATE June 16, 2018: I’m happy to update that the Lingham family was finally able to memorialize Paul’s Facebook account after months of struggling with Facebook’s help center. Unfortunately his photos are missing but at least this hacker is no longer harassing them.

Screenshot June 16, 2018

The second part of this blog originally contained information about a website called fbaccs that sells aged Facebook profiles. I have removed that information after receiving an email from the website owner who thought my post was unfairly linking them to hackers.

My intention in including information from this website was to demonstrate that a market exists for old accounts, but I did not intend to imply that fbaccs is in any way associated with hackers and would like to make that correction.

The website owner told me that all of the profiles they sell were registered by them personally 7–8 years ago (when it was a lot easier to create fake Facebook accounts). They also told me their fake accounts are only sold for marketing purposes.

The owner of fbaccs was outraged that a hacker would steal the Facebook profile of a deceased person and harass their family. They even offered to give one of their own aged Facebook profiles to the hacker in exchange for Paul’s account in order to return his profile back to his family.

Normally I would not oblige such a request to alter a blog but I was genuinely surprised at the sincerity of the email I received and the offer to help remedy the situation. I guess I assumed anyone who sells fake social media accounts for a living must be a nefarious person but I think I was wrong. There are people who legitimately make a living by selling fake social media accounts, perhaps they are supporting a family, and it’s hard to blame them when ultimately it’s Facebook’s fault for allowing exploitation of their platform.

The original version of this post has been archived in the wayback machine for reference.

Erin Gallagher

Written by

Multimedia artist, writer and translator. Digital news junkie, agitprop collector.

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