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Legal Matters: Online impersonation a gray area legally

Anyone who has ever been stalked can tell you it is a terrifying experience, whether the stalker harasses the victim in person, online or both. But some stalkers are now using the Internet to enlist others to do their dirty work.

Online impersonators have used photos, names and addresses of their victims for sexual solicitations, frightening the victims when "clients" arrive expecting sex. Another impersonator lured Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o into an online relationship with a "girlfriend" who did not exist. Others have posted phony Facebook profiles such as one using actor Jonathan Jackson's identity to urge fans to donate to a fake charity.

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Stalking, including cyber stalking, is a crime under Maryland law. The cyber stalking statute makes it a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and/or a $500 fine to send electronic communications to another person "with the intent to harass, alarm or annoy the other."

But in online impersonation, the stalker is usually not sending electronic communications to his victim. He is pretending to be the victim and using her name, address and possibly photos to enlist others to harass, alarm or annoy her. Maryland does not have a law specifying that it is illegal to impersonate another person online.

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The damage that online impersonation can do came to national attention with the 2006 suicide of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who entered an online relationship with someone she thought was a boy named Josh Evans. Meier committed suicide after "Josh" posted a message that the world would be better off without her. "Josh" was actually a teenage girl and her mother. At the time, Missouri, where Meier lived, had no laws against online harassment, although the state has since expanded child stalking and harassment laws to include social media.

In 2012, a Prince George's County woman was impersonated on Craigslist by someone who used her photo and address in advertisements soliciting sex. After a stranger appeared at her door and insisted she had invited him over for sex during an instant message chat, she went online and found numerous sexual ads she believes were placed by her ex-husband.

Nine states have or are considering laws prohibiting online impersonation with the intent to harm, threaten, intimidate or defraud another person. In New York and California, online impersonation is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and/or up to one year in jail. In Texas, it is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

California and Washington state laws allow victims to file civil suits to recover damages or loss suffered as a result of online impersonation.

Could a Maryland victim successfully sue someone who posts defamatory false information about her online? Possibly. The Court of Appeals has defined a defamatory statement as one that "tends to expose a person to public scorn, hatred, contempt or ridicule, thereby discouraging others in the community from having a good opinion of, or from associating or dealing with, that person."

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