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'A company bought my Facebook data and made a matrimonial profile'

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on: 13 November 2015, 0:59 IST

Having an unusual name is a double-edged sword. On the one hand is the lifelong angst of having to spell it out, explain its origin and correct people's pronunciation.

On the other though is uniqueness and the certainty that a Google search for your own name will not reveal 4,63,67845 results in 0.52 seconds.

Which is why it was a rather startling surprise when the first place my name popped up on a Google search was on a matrimonial website.

Except this wasn't my namesake. It was me.

Profile BMG55636 on the totally unheard of Bride-n-Groom Matrimonials was mine. I had been listed as a potential bride. With name and basic details stolen right off my social media.

Since they'd picked the basics from Facebook, they had my name and age right. The rest was rather creative fiction writing, such as the fact that I was loaded with property.

The profile picture was conspicuously empty because my display picture on social is invariably a cat, and it's unlikely that a feline - even a particularly rich one - would have caught a prospective groom's fancy.

The disturbing world of identity theft

I was part amused, part outraged. I was also worried.

The number of internet users in India has grown from 7 million in 2001 to an estimated 300 million by the close of this year. However, controls and regulations aimed at protecting the privacy of individuals are conspicuously absent.

We're constantly sharing information online - and fraudsters are making use of the chasm in regulations to misuse confidential data. It's not surprising, then, that India ranks fifth on the index of global cybercrime.

Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama, one of India's most clued-in internet commentators, warns of the dangers of posting personal data online.

"We're all susceptible to identity theft. Even on a platform like Facebook, we need to be cautious about how much or what we share. There are no figures available to indicate the extent of the fraud, and I'm not suggesting paranoia, but we need to educate ourselves of the dangers."

Rahul Narayan is a lawyer who specialises in IT cases and he's often bemused by how freely we share information online that we wouldn't unthinkingly do in real life.

"We need to be vigilant about what we post online, especially personal details, photos, financial details."

Individually, these details may not seem like much. Together, they can add up to a fairly coherent picture of your life, and put you at risk.

That risk is very real.

According to a 2013 Norton Report, "India appears to be the ransomware capital of the Asia Pacific, accounting for 11% of the victims of this form of virtual extortion. In addition, India also accounts for 11% of the world's identity theft incidents and 9% of phishing attacks."

Information science expert Dr P Arunachalam in his research paper Economic Impact of Identity Theft in India: Lessons from Western Countries calls identity theft "the crime of the century".

And I am now part of this statistic.

Minutes after I had discovered that I had been relaunched in the marriage market, I looked up and called the helpdesk of the website.

The number was unreachable. Another quick search revealed the website was owned by a Ranju Makan, with a registered office at an obscure address in Delhi.

The next day I called again. This time I spoke to an 'executive' Rohan and threatened to file a police complaint. He was dismissive.

A fake profile simply didn't seem a big enough deal to him; so blase was he, he even refused to connect me with the owner or take my profile off the site. During our heated exchange his annoyance got the better of him and he said "We buy Facebook data."

That revelation was a fresh trigger: part relief, part horror.

Relief that they hadn't just summarily 'stolen' my information off my page. Horror that this kind of identity theft had been institutionalised to this degree.

According to Rahul Narayan, "financial or social fraud, such as posting of a fake profile online, can be reported under Section 43 of the IT Act."

But that's hardly a deterrent. For one, if your name is more common than mine, you're likely to go through life unaware if your identity is being used elsewhere - unless you make an active practice of googling yourself for an hour or two daily.

Second, filing a case is the least effective way to do anything in India, given the state of our courts and timelines involved.

I chose to stick with hounding the hell out of the site. Two days later, I received a reply to my email from Rohan. No apology for the violation of my privacy and the outright lie that the post had been, but they did concede the fight and pull the profile off the site.

I heaved a sigh of relief.

And then the next day it happened again. I did a search to confirm the profile was off the site, but it continued to show up on matrimonial links on Google searches.

That was when my other half, who had been giving the episode only passing attention till then, stepped in. He phoned Rohan to say he would be paying the company headquarters a visit, along with the cops.

The profile was off the web within minutes. This time seemingly for good.

It turned out okay for me - some nuisance value and a few laughs once the episode was over.

But as we start to take more of our lives online - listing our addresses and family members, bank details and photographs, location and love interest - we leave a trail that can come back to haunt us in multitudes of ways.

First published: 13 November 2015, 0:59 IST
Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

Bats for the four-legged, can't stand most on two. Forced to venture into the world of homo sapiens to manage uninterrupted companionship of 16 cats, 2 dogs and counting... Can read books and paint pots and pay bills by being journalist.