This post first appeared on VICE UK.
"Ellie! Chia! I didn't know you were here!"
We're on the Malia strip during the summer of 2010. My friend and I stare blankly back at the boy in front of us, certain we've never met him before.
"Why are you being weird?" he says. "Are you going to pretend you don't know me?"
This isn't your average case of making a new best friend the night before, then totally forgetting about it when the sun's come up and the fish bowl has moved from your stomach to the floor. It also isn't the first time this has happened to us.
"Who do you think we are?" we ask the aggressive young man.
"Ellie Rose and Chia Colarossi," he replies.
My friend and I look at each other and sigh. These aren't our real surnames; they are the names of two fake online profiles that have used our photos—as well as photos of our friends—on every social media site from MySpace to Twitter for the past eight years.
You've seen Catfish. You know how alarming it would be to discover that your new cyber-girlfriend is actually a 42-year-old man living in his mom's basement. But have you ever thought about how odd it must feel to own the face being used by that man? Probably not, no, because you have no reason to. But trust me, it's equally distressing.
Over the years, my friends and I have met a number of young men who've spent a substantial amount of time chatting to fake me—or fake versions of one of my friends—online. They often demand we show some form of ID to prove our surnames aren't "Colarossi," or "Rose," or "Morrison," and each time they're left disappointed. The boy from Malia had been speaking to "Chia" every night on the phone for two months. He believed he was in love with her. I couldn't help but feel for him—though I did find it odd his suspicions hadn't been raised by the fact this cyber charlatan apparently had a family emergency to attend to literally every time they were due to meet.
In fairness, the lie is so vast and all-encompassing that I too would believe the profiles were real if I didn't know for a fact that my friend's surname is not Colarossi. There are over 60 fake profiles, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the odd dating site. Nearly everyone I've befriended through my adolescence has a profile. Every photo we upload is re-posted to Facebook by our respective fake accounts; every job we start is updated on our profiles; every tweet is repeated. It's so believable that I've genuinely considered whether or not there's a parallel group of everyone I know (with slightly different second names) living somewhere in Halifax.
Unsurprisingly, this has all started to become more of a burden than just a funny thing to talk about at house parties. We've whipped out our driving licenses to one too many angry guys who refuse to believe we're not who they think we are, and things hit an all time low recently when a guy approached my friend Chia in her college dorm, believing he was there to meet "Chia Colarossi." How the desktop PI behind the profiles knew where Chia lived is a mystery, and a terrifying one at that—not least because she's now inviting strangers to visit.
Mind you, Chia Colarossi seems to be the ringleader of the bogus brigade, so perhaps more time and effort is spent on her profile than the rest of ours. Fake Chia has tweeted 36,000 times. Let me put that into perspective—that's a tweet an hour for more than four years. Using some sort of bizarre reverse psychology, fake Chia sometimes even messages real Chia asking, "Why are you pretending to be me?"
The whole situation is utter fucking madness, and really, really confusing.
I've spent years purging my Facebook friend list, becoming suspicious of anyone who could be behind the accounts and driving myself to madness wishing I knew who it was. In an act of desperation a few years ago, I messaged the fake Facebook account of my friend Charlotte, asking why the profiles had been set up, and explaining that I was becoming concerned about the very creepy scenario we'd found ourselves in.
This is the response I received (confusingly, I'd changed my name to "Ellie Rose" on Facebook at the time, but ignore that):
"Charlotte Jean" later told me: "I don't have very many friends at all—I never have had, to be honest. It sounds absurd, but it just makes me feel a little bit better about myself. Nobody talks to me when I'm being myself."
Of course, this made me feel terrible—I imagined this distraught girl spending her days torn up about the double life she leads, and I wanted to help her escape. She promised that she would take my advice: to stop updating the profiles and to speak to a councillor, and to message me if she wanted to speak about it again in the future.
Ten minutes later, I was blocked and "Charlotte Jean" was cracking on as usual. I think she spited me for this confrontation in the fake-profile world, as "Ellie Rose" soon fell out with the gang and moved up to Scotland, according to an ask.fm page I stumbled across.
Following this encounter, one of the profiles also messaged my friend Georgina saying the following:
Hey, basically I just wanted to let you know that I am really sorry for the fake accounts I have made of you and your friends on fb/twitter. It has taken me a while but I've finally realised how sick and fucked up it is. I guess I just enjoyed living your lives a bit more than my own. I really am truly sorry and just wanted to make you aware that as of now I promise they are all going to be permanently deleted, it just isn't right of me to carry this on at all and I thought it would be the right thing to do for me to apologise to you and your friends. If you wanna reply to me being abusive and what not then I completely understand.
Despite her pledge, all the profiles remain very much active.
Dr. Claire Casey, 48, is a consultant psychiatrist at Harley Street Clinic who specializes in cyber addictions. I described my position to her and relayed what our impostor had told myself and Georgina.
"The fact that she is solitary and almost obsessive about it, even though she knows it's a completely ridiculous thing to do, suggests she has mild autistic spectrum disorder, and that's probably what's fueling this," said Casey. "It's going to be incredibly difficult to stop her; I can't see her changing over time unless she gets help.
"You can't force someone to go and see a psychiatrist unless they're a danger to themselves or the general public, so unless she's made direct threats or been violent, there's little you can do. I think this is going to run and run and run. She probably doesn't have friends or a boyfriend or anyone to talk to—creating these fake profiles allows her to be daring, clever, attractive, and witty, and she can pretend to be something she can't be in real life."
The effort poured into the maintenance of these profiles is commendable, but clearly unhealthy. If Casey's assessment is correct, of course I sympathize with this girl, but fabricating an entire world that you can retreat into seems a damaging way to deal with the rigmarole of reality. Short of hiring someone to sift through photo metadata or track down IP addresses—which I'm not even that sure would get us anywhere—there's no way for us to find out who's responsible, or to help pry her out of the well she's trapped herself in.
On a more personal level, my friends and I have no idea who this girl is speaking to or what she's saying to them. On the occasions that any of us have been approached by people thinking we're somebody we're not, the situation has been resolved pretty amicably—but I have no way of knowing how the next person is going to react, and I'd rather not be forced to find out.
I'm tired of suspiciously eyeing profiles of the girls I went to primary school with, imagining them sitting in the dark, in front of a computer screen, surrounded by thousands of photos of our faces. Eight years is a long time, and I'd quite like it to stop.
Facebook's policy on impersonation advises you to report any accounts pretending to be you. Twitter's impersonation policy states: "Impersonation is a violation of the Twitter rules. Twitter accounts portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner may be permanently suspended under the Twitter Impersonation Policy."
The rules in both cases are in our favor, and we've tried to have the Facebook and Twitter accounts removed on multiple occasions, but whenever they're deleted another one pops up a few weeks later.
Legally, using the photos is not a breach of copyright, but it's certainly a breach of privacy. Problem is, the police presumably have much more pressing things to do than uncover the identity of whoever's copying and pasting some pictures into a Facebook profile.
Fake me, if you're reading this, please take the advice I offered you before: Talk to someone about what you're doing. There are root causes to address, and the most effective way to do that is to share your feelings with someone you trust, or somebody who's trained to offer proper advice. These fake profiles are a crutch. Drop the crutch and I'd wager you'll eventually be able to walk easier than you have for the past eight years.
For now, I'll continue to spend far too much of my time trawling through social media, trying to work out who keeps stealing my face.
Follow Ellie Flynn on Twitter.