WMBF News Investigates 'Digital Kidnapping'

WMBF News Investigates 'Digital Kidnapping'
Published: Nov. 17, 2015 at 7:28 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 19, 2015 at 6:14 AM EST
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MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Imagine discovering your child's picture on a stranger's social media site, or even worse, that person is pretending your son or daughter is their own.

Some call it "digital kidnapping" and in a WMBF Investigates report, anchor Julie Martin looked at some of the extreme cases of this twisted trend, and the bigger issue when it comes to your 'page' and 'privacy.'

Search Instagram for "baby role playing" and a disturbing digital world comes to life.  Pretend games and fantasies played with other people's children, a trend so alarming some are fighting back. They are blacking out those beautiful "stolen" faces with the words "stop" and posting warning messages to unsuspecting parents.  But it goes beyond games.

"I cried that's all I could do, I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Alabama mother, Ashton Hamner expressed. Pictures of Hamner's daughter Lennox were digitally kidnapped from her Facebook account and turned into offensive online "memes," when her healthy 16-month-old was made out to have cancer and mental challenges.  

This is the future and it's not going to change," said Attorney David Smith of Smith Ammons Law in Florence.

Smith said what is happening is absolutely illegal citing; it is copyright infringement and identity theft.   But, prosecuting these so-called "digital kidnappers" is like entering a legal black hole in cyberspace.

"These people are posting anonymously, not using real names, finding them to get the right person that's the problem. So, even if they are committing a true crime, you're kind of stuck," Smith explained.

Even if the situation isn't as extreme or anonymous, you're still stuck.

"I didn't give her permission to use any of them and I've asked her to take them down," Katie Kellar stated.

Katie Kellar of Florence said pictures of her son Cole showed up on a page of a former Facebook friend created to remember the boy's late father.  However, they were personal pictures from Katie's Facebook page and she didn't want them on that other page.

"I feel like I'm left stranded holding my hands like this, I mean how can I get this taken down because who's to say this won't go any further," Kellar voiced.

Kellar showed WMBF News messages where she asked for Cole's pictures to be taken down from the page.

Julie Martin inquired, "You have several of these messages here?" Keller said, "Yes."

WMBF News found the woman who posted those pictures.

Hannah Abbuhl of Timmonsville said, "It's just a couple of pictures that she put on a public page and we were friends."

According to Smith this is not so. He said anytime you take someone else's photo from a social media page and re-post without permission, even if you are in the picture, you are breaking the law.

"They are using the image when they do not have the permission to do so, that is copyright infringement," Smith clarified.

Facebook and Instagram have it in the fine print, buried in the help center under "Image privacy rights."  There is even a form to fill out if you want to get Facebook to remove a photo of your child who is under the age of 13.

Keller said she tried that.

When anchor Julie Martin asked her "What did they say?" Keller replied, "They wouldn't even reply without something automated."

When WMBF News told Hannah Abbuhl what she had done was against the law, she had no idea.

"I'm definitely not wanting to get in a legal matter at my age, I've got my whole life ahead of me so I'll take those pictures down, " Abbuhl said.

Abbuhl did take the pictures down, but internet safety experts say parents can avoid any of these situations by limiting what they share.

Family Online Safety Institute Program Coordinator Augusta Nissly said, "You need to go in and constantly check and update who you allow to see photos of your kids online."

All this "digital" self-defense involves is a proactive click on your privacy settings changing from "public" to "friends" or "family" only.

For additional tips on how to safely navigate the online world with your kids, visit https://www.fosi.org/good-digital-parenting/.

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