Impersonating someone online with bad intent could be a crime in bill on its way to the Utah House

The bill’s sponsor says online impersonation has resulted in ‘real harm.’

(Elise Amendola, AP file photo) This June 19, 2017, file photo shows a person working on a laptop in North Andover, Mass. A Utah House committee voted in favor of a bill, HB239, that would create penalties for online impersonation with an intent to harm.

The wife of a Utah police officer came under fire online last summer after she appeared to post a Facebook comment expressing support for the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd.

“He took one less black person off the streets!” read the comment, posted on a news article about Floyd’s death. “I support his actions.”

She and her husband immediately began receiving death threats, the woman told a Utah House committee on Thursday. They were both suspended and put on leave from their jobs. People threatened to come to their house “with guns.”

But the woman says she didn’t make the post — someone with a Facebook account impersonating her did. And she urged state lawmakers Thursday to approve a bill that would create criminal penalties for people who use someone’s name or persona online without their consent and with the intent to do harm.

“Both my husband and I are genuinely nice people and have worked our whole lives building our reputation only to have it destroyed within minutes,” she said during tearful testimony. “And we are still having lingering effects. There needs to be stricter laws in place to prevent this from happening to other people. Even though some things have worked out in our favor, we will have the repercussions of what was impersonated and perceived as us for the rest of our lives.”

The Salt Lake Tribune has verified the identity of the woman but chose not to name her because of the social media harassment she has endured in the past.

The Kaysville City Police Department said on Facebook after the comments came to light that it had interviewed both the officer and his wife and that they “strongly denied the allegations and expressed concern that a fake profile may have been created to post the comments.”

The department said in its May post that the FBI had agreed to help investigate the incident with its cyber terrorism unit. The Tribune was not able to obtain an immediate update on the case Thursday afternoon.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield and the sponsor of HB239, said the proposal came out of conversations with constituents who have seen their lives forever changed as a result of online impersonation. Some have lost their jobs or struggled to find a new one.

“In other states, crimes of online impersonation have resulted in death, in suicide,” she said. “This causes real harm.”

Reporting from CNN showed that in 2012 there were as many as 83 million fake or imposter profiles in use on Facebook, she noted.

Lisonbee’s bill, which received unanimous support from the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, would make it a crime for a person to use someone else’s name to create a webpage on a social networking site or another website and to post or send a message with the intent to “harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten any individual.” A first offense could be punishable as a class A misdemeanor, while a subsequent offense could be considered a third degree felony.

Mark Moffat, a criminal defense lawyer, spoke in support of the bill Thursday, noting that he has represented several victims who have been harmed by people conducting online impersonation.

One woman in particular, he said, “has always stood out to me.” She was from a religious minority and a devout family and faced “significant problems” with her family after someone created a fake Facebook page that made it appear she was “engaging in conduct that was wholly anathema to the precepts of her faith.”

“It took her forever to undo the damage that was caused by this online impersonator,” he said. “So there’s clearly a need for this legislation and I am encouraging the committee to support it.”

Ryan Holtan, a prosecutor in the Utah attorney general’s office, also expressed support for the bill, noting that state law is lacking in this area.

One woman who shared her personal experience during the legislative hearing echoed that sentiment as well, noting that she’s been facing online impersonation on and off since 2014. She claims to have a recording of her perpetrator admitting to the impersonation but says police could do nothing to help her.

“The amount of times I was told they couldn’t do anything unless things turned physical is very alarming to me and this is why we need this bill,” she said. “I currently live in a wonderful city with amazing police officers that genuinely want to help and are just as frustrated as I am with how little they can do.”

While her perpetrator has faced no consequences, the woman said she had to quit her business because the imposter was messaging her clients, has lost friendships over messages that were sent out and had to install a security system at her home, though she “still didn’t feel safe.”

As the number of online platforms grow and people live their lives more and more online, Lisonbee urged support for her proposal as a way not only to “hold misusers accountable” but also to “find justice for victims.”

The bill now moves to the full House for further consideration.