KSU student learns dangers of social media

Kent State student Allyssa Griffiths is raising awareness about online saftey and dangers that are often overlooked. Griffiths was stalked online for five years, receiving no help when she approached police with her situation. Photo by Brian Smith.

Brian Smith

Kent State student Allyssa Griffiths is raising awareness about online saftey and dangers that are often overlooked. Griffiths was stalked online for five years, receiving no help when she approached police with her situation. Photo by Brian Smith.

Rachel Sluss

While studying for finals during her freshman year, Allyssa Griffiths temporarily shifted her focus from the books to her Twitter account. When she clicked on a hashtag embedded in one of her own Tweets, she noticed a different account had posted the same Tweet.

The account appeared to have the same profile picture as Griffiths, but the username was different — “Lauren Ashley Cook.”

“At first, I thought it was a bug or something,” Griffiths, now a junior communications major, said. “I thought it was an error with Twitter.”

But hundreds of her Tweets were copied to the strange account, which included a link to a Facebook page that also used Griffiths’ photos and information. Griffiths decided to Google the name “Lauren Ashley Cook.”

She began to unravel a web of social media sites and blogs that involved not only her but her close friends as well. The realization hit Griffiths: Someone was stalking her online, creating fake accounts and websites that mimicked much of her life in often grotesque ways.

“I found so many websites,” Griffiths said. “I mean there were Facebooks, Twitters, Tumblrs, Xangas, Blogs, Google Plus accounts and websites that I had never even heard of.”

On the fake Facebook, “Cook” used Griffiths and her friends’ pictures and information but swapped their names and changed captions, making the sites less recognizable. Duplicated conversations between Griffiths and her friends filled the fake profiles making them appear active and original.

Some of the fake websites she found were active since 2007, Griffiths’ freshman year of high school.

“All the blogs were so detailed and in-depth, very emotionally driven and not emotionally stable at all. She would take my pictures and put them into the weirdest context that had nothing to do with the picture at all,” Griffiths said.

“Cook” posted an old picture of Griffiths and one of her male friends accompanied by a fake caption that describes what it is like to miss a dead loved one. The caption identifies the young man in the photo as her dead brother.

Among all the negativity, Griffiths noticed one of Cook’s followers named Mike. He always replied to Cook with positive, uplifting messages.

Griffiths contacted Mike through Facebook and explained that she was the person in Cook’s pictures. At first, he was reluctant to believe this year long love affair with “Cook” was fake.

Mike eventually gave Griffiths the cellphone number he contacted Cook with.

“I was surprised to find the number was already in my phone as a contact,” Griffiths said. “The contact name was ‘creep.’”

Griffiths recalls the phone number contacting her closely after high school graduation. The number sent her a photo of a naked man. “Cook” had been stalking her for the past five years.

She and a friend went to the Medina Police Department together, equipped with the phone number and a long list of websites. Griffiths said she told the police that someone had been stalking her.

“The police told us there was nothing they could do because the person was not threatening me or using my name,” Griffiths said. “They said without these two things, it’s legal to do this.”

Jackie Ingersoll, Medina Police Department’s Records Clerk, said Griffiths expressed concern about a stranger using her pictures and personal information on websites and a strange number that sent her a pornographic image.

According to the police report, the officer advised Griffiths to delete the accounts and contact other online places to try to cancel any other accounts. They also suggested she contact her cell phone provider to have the strange number blocked and to stay off social media.

Philip Rosenthal, a computer forensic investigator and internet safety expert, said Griffiths’ complaints should have been taken more seriously. Because the stalker had so many websites, he or she would be easy to track down.

“With that much information out there, that person is definitely leaving a huge footprint,” Rosenthal said. “The local DA could have been assigned to it to find out where the stuff was coming from. You just have to work backwards.”

Rosenthal, who has assisted the FBI, U.S. Secret Service and Israel National Police, said investigators could track information like IP addresses and user addresses to pinpoint the stalker. Because “Cook” supposedly used a pay-as-you-go phone, he added, that phone number could be a useful tracking device.

“If these phones are refreshed, people often buy more time with a credit card,” Rosenthal said. “Somebody has that information.”

Griffiths pondered how the stalker got access to her personal information in the first place. After talking with the police, she and her friends sifted through all their Facebook friends and found a profile named “Lisa Jones” that was not only Facebook friends with them but also with hundreds of people from their high school as well.

“We all had privacy settings, but we let this person on Facebook, and she never updated or anything so when you added her, you never saw her again,” Griffiths said.

Rosenthal says these cases are all too common.

“People don’t think of using the Internet and social media like they should,” Rosenthal said. “They think of it as some sort of black magic, but it’s simply a microcosm of the physical world, but for some reason we think we’re so safe sitting behind that screen at home that we totally let down our guard.”

Griffiths said she started a Facebook page dedicated to stalking awareness–a place she can educate others.

“I don’t feel like a victim,” Griffiths said. “I want to own up to my mistakes and share my story to raise awareness. There should be further education about social media. When I was 14, I didn’t understand the big picture.”

Contact Rachel Sluss at [email protected].