The Curious Case of Srkj Rife, “Victim”-Turned-Harasser

Let me just preface all of this by saying: The Internet is an utterly crazy place.

As someone who reads a lot about digital citizenship, I’m familiar with many of the shadier things people do on the Internet. One particularly nasty activity is catfishing – that is, using a false digital identity to engage in online relationships – and one especially nefarious subset of catfishers is made up of people who use these scams to defraud others by entering into fake online relationships and then asking victims for money for a variety of made-up reasons. These scams are often run by groups of people abroad, frequently in Nigeria (hence the term “419 scam,” so-called because in the Nigerian Criminal Code, 419 is the number of the article related to fraud).

I’m particularly well-acquainted with this type of for-profit romance scam because I work with Alec Couros, whose photos and name are frequently used by scammers (we’ll get back to him in just a minute). We’ve joked a few times about creating a fake profile to try to catfish the catfishers, but we never actually set one up. So you can imagine my delight, last March, when I received a Facebook friend request from one Nelson Dozzy, who, upon further research, turned out to be a scammer account.

And that’s when I thought, Well hey, this could be fun! Why not catfish the catfisher?

Long story short (and yes, I really need to write a post about the hilarity that ensued), Nelson and I embarked on a whirlwind romance and were quickly “engaged,” but our online courtship came to an ugly end when I refused to send him $2000 to help him get “five million dollars awarded to him by the UN” out of Afghanistan (known as advance-fee fraud). Afterwards, I laughed about it, and then I moved on with my life.

Sadly, while catfishing the catfisher was a fun game for me, it’s not a laughing matter to many others. Obviously, for the victims of these scams, who sometimes lose thousands of dollars in addition to the heartbreak of discovering that their online romance was a lie, catfishing is no joke. But for those whose photos are frequently used by scammer accounts, the experience can quickly become equally nightmarish.

…Which takes me back to my friend Alec Couros. For Alec, dealing with catfishing verges on a full-time job. He literally receives hundreds of reports of profiles using his photos each week. Recently, he even created an information page to provide information for victims, and he’s also started a public Facebook page in an effort to get his profile verified (in hopes that this will make it easier to take down the fake accounts).

Because I co-teach and write frequently with Alec, I’ve gotten a firsthand look at just how exhausting and frustrating this situation is for him. In addition to reporting fake accounts, Alec also frequently has to deal with the victims, who contact him in varying states of distress, confusion, and anger. Despite his efforts to get Facebook to do something about this issue (and not just his efforts – Alan Levine has also been fighting hard to deal with this situation), the social network service has been totally unresponsive. In fact, Alec has had his own account suspended on more than one occasion over suspected fraudulent activity – but if a Facebook employee had taken two minutes to really look at the scammer accounts, it would have been glaringly obvious who the real Alec was.

To his credit, Alec handles all of this with much more grace than I would ever be able to, and he works tirelessly to educate others about the issue through blogging, news interviews, and other venues. But a few days ago, he was contacted by a particularly persistent victim, which he blogged about here (the context is important, so I’d suggest taking a moment to read his post if you haven’t already). After a few accusatory tweets, it seemed like she’d move on, as most of the victims do. But instead, the harassment has not only continued but also escalated.

See, this particular victim (we’ll call her Srkj, the odd pseudonym she uses on Twitter) appears to believe that Alec himself is, in fact, the scammer, and that he has simply fabricated the hundreds of other stories of scammers using his pictures. This is particularly ironic because Alec does a great deal of work in the area of positive digital citizenship – not to mention the fact that between being a full-time professor, giving keynotes around the world, and raising four kids, Alec barely has time to eat or sleep, let alone engage in diabolical scamming operations. Nevertheless, Srkj has made up her mind and launched a bizarre campaign that seems to be aimed at discrediting Alec and tarnishing his reputation:

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Despite Alec’s efforts to explain the situation, Srkj seems intent on sticking to her story, extending her campaign of harassment to Facebook as well. There, she has been sharing his informational blog post and Facebook page on her own wall alongside some disparaging commentary. She also left a comment on Alec’s Facebook page (the comment has since been hidden) attacking him quite viciously; I had originally planned to quote portions of her message to give a sense of the content, but upon re-reading it I found that it was actually too offensive (and, at times, incredibly vulgar) to include.

Given my own interest in digital identity, I’ve been following this saga pretty closely. And the whole thing has started to feel a little strange. So if you’ll bear with me, let me take you on a little journey into the bizarre world of our friend (well, not so much) Srkj.

The first hint of something being amiss was Srkj’s refusal to drop the issue, especially given that, by her own report, she had only been talking to the scammer for a few days. In fact, her interest in Alec seemed to have developed into a strange obsession: as of the date this was posted, a whopping 40 of 49 tweets on her account related to him (and the account dates back to 2013, eliminating the possibility that she created the account specifically to harass him).

The vehemence of the attack continues to be totally unwarranted and devoid of logic. For instance, this morning I noticed that Srkj had posted this tweet:

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Because Alec has blocked her, however, Srkj is not longer able to follow him, meaning that the only way for his face to keep “poping [sic] up” is for her to search for his username specifically while logged out. As well, when Alec sent Srkj a Youtube video showing how scammers use videos to “Skype” with their victims, she claimed that it was a fake video he had created just then in order to defend himself, and she keeps coming back to this argument:

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Frankly, this last tweet just confuses me, because I did check the date and it was posted last August. So unless Alec purchased a Delorean recently…

So, fueled by my own interest in the subject as well as annoyance on Alec’s behalf, I decided to do a little digging. I pride myself on being a bit of a professional cybersleuth, in that I can find just about anything online. But following the breadcrumbs in this mystery is perplexing.

Full disclosure: To be honest, it didn’t take me more than 30 minutes to track down Srkj’s real full name, age, address, list of misdemeanors… (yeah, I’m kinda good at this), and that was just using a regular search engine, not pulling from databases (such as state case files) in a deep web search. But I’m also aware that there is a big difference between doing a little snooping online (who among us hasn’t creeped the odd Facebook page or two?) and actually posting that information; public is not the same as publicized, and I’m not looking to start a cyber vigilantism campaign here. So while every piece of information that I discovered could easily be found by anyone with an Internet connection and some level of digital literacy, I have chosen not to link directly to articles, accounts, or other sites that would reveal the woman’s real name.

In any case, when I began to dig around online, the whole situation just got more and more bizarre. For one thing, while Srkj frequently uses the same photos, she is wildly inconsistent with usernames, going by at least four names that I can find, all linked together by commonalities. Some of this variance can be explained by married vs. maiden names, but not all of it. Try as I might, I absolutely cannot decipher where her consonant-heavy Twitter name comes from. Oddly, Srkj almost appears to have two separate digital identities under two separate names. Two Myspace pages, two Twitter accounts, but the photos and writing style suggest a clear link.

Okay…So Srkj isn’t very concerned about a consolidated digital footprint. So what?

Well, things just kept getting weirder. For one thing, Srkj appears to be well acquainted with the idea of catfishing. She is a member of the Romance Scammers on Facebook group, which is a group where victims work to take down other scammers (somewhat ironically, the group description reads: “how to get rid off [sic] scammers???? we are just more intelligent than them !!!!!!!”). On her Google plus profile, Srkj has posted about catfishing multiple times, including a video of a Nigerian scammer being arrested. All this begs the question of why she didn’t seem to get what was going on with Alec. Given this disconnect, I began to wonder if perhaps her site had actually been taken over by a scammer intent on discrediting Alec in order to make it easier to use his photos. Indeed, the Facebook post below seems to suggest that Srkj had concerns over her account security:

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But then Alec stumbled upon some new information: this post on the Romance Scammers group where Srkj actually admits to having been involved in scamming women herself.

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In case you aren’t keen on wading through that, the first part is the most interesting:

This man is a scammer I dealt with this person for 3 years.He had me send other woman’s money to him in nigeria.He claims he is a business man in nigeria selling land Rover parts.I was victim.And his last victim was candice l Adams he stole 1800 dollars from her sent to me to send back to him in nigeria.I didn’t send it back I kept it. Also a Tania Noell he stole 700.00 from her.I also have several recipts of money I sent to him under various Nigerian names.”

Essentially, Srkj just admitted to knowingly participating in this particular scam, both by sending other women’s money to him and by keeping money that another victim had sent to her. Oddly enough, no one else in the group seems to notice this; instead they are all intent on finding and bringing down the scammer.

And that appears to be a big cornerstone of Srkj’s battle: she is desperate to find the “real” scammer and believes she has zeroed in on him with Alec. This is perhaps quite obvious, but I feel I’d be remiss not to point out two major flaws in her judgment (that is, beyond the important fact that I, and countless others, know Alec well enough to say with certainty that he is not involved in a secret life of catfishing): first, on a very basic level, it just doesn’t make sense for someone involved in a scamming operation to use their own photos. But perhaps more importantly, it’s simply not possible to find the “real” scammer because these fake accounts are not isolated projects; rather, the accounts are most likely part of a large-scale operation with remarkably standardized operating procedures (there are even sites that collect the love letters used over and over by scammers).

But to return to Srkj, I admit that the revelation of her complicity, even participation, in catfishing activities initially seemed odd, given her own history as a victim. But as I dug deeper in my quest to learn more about Srkj, it started to make a bit more sense. The more I looked, the more it became apparent that our “victim” was in fact, well, not such a nice person. Her Facebook page (which appears to be mostly public) includes, among other things, evidence of an intolerance of immigrants (“Well if your not from here anyways start packing”); a link to this article about Obama’s move to penalize states that refuse to accept refugees, accompanied by the message “These refuges ain’t noughting more then born kilkers;” and this family portrait against a Confederate flag backdrop.

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Srkj’s recent past also includes two bizarre shoplifting incidents, in which she attempted to steal various food items from grocery stores: in one incident, her admittedly classy shoplifting included the theft of “lobster tails and shrimp,” while the other somewhat less classy incident involved hiding steaks and hams in her purse.

Identity, digital or otherwise, is a complex and slippery thing, and judging another person harshly without considering the full context is neither fair nor productive. But Srkj’s attack on Alec has become a campaign of slander and harassment, and that’s not fair either.

To be clear, the picture of Srkj painted by her fragmented digital identity suggests that this is a woman who has had a difficult life. There are certainly indications that she is living on a very low income or perhaps social assistance, and her writing indicates a lower level of literacy. As well, mixed in with the hate speech are pictures that depict Srkj as a loving mother who cares a great deal about her family. Identity, digital or otherwise, is a complex and slippery thing, and judging another person harshly without considering the full context is neither fair nor productive. But Srkj’s attack on Alec has become a campaign of slander and harassment, and that’s not fair either.

So why did I write this post? Ultimately, there are a few reasons. For one thing, I simply don’t believe that Srkj’s hateful and untrue messages should go unaddressed. Having dealt with my own share of online harassment, I am compelled to speak up about this, especially since Alec’s own efforts to deal with both this situation and the larger issue of catfishing have been largely unsuccessful. Also, part of my job involves teaching about digital citizenship and digital literacy, and I feel that exploring the complexities of this case – and having more conversations about these topics in general – is important in raising awareness; catfishers prey on those who lack the digital literacy to detect the scam, and so it’s critical that we educate others about this.

But ultimately, this story is much bigger than Alec or Srkj or even the catfishing rings. So I would like to add my voice to Alec’s and Alan’s in calling for social networks to step up in addressing scammer accounts. Certainly, the legal aspects of catfishing are tricky because these scams know no borders, but social networks have the power and ability to crack down on fraudulent accounts – it is simply not a priority to corporations for whom any growth in users (fake or otherwise) is seen as a sign of success. And that lack of interest in preventing what amounts to identity theft is a big problem for all of us, because without efforts from social networking services, the issue will only continue to grow. As Alec posted recently on Facebook:

“For those who haven’t been affected (or more likely don’t yet know that they’ve been affected), it’s difficult to fathom what a time-sucking, anxiety-causing, expletive-saying kind of experience this. Unless we get FB and other social media companies to act, this is the very near-future of our networked lives.”

(Digital) Identity in a World that No Longer Forgets

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

In recent weeks, the topic of digital identity has been at the forefront of our minds. With election campaigns running in both Canada and the United States, we see candidate after candidate’s social media presence being picked apart, with past transgressions dragged into the spotlight for the purposes of public judgement and shaming. The rise of cybervigilantism has led to a rebirth of mob justice: what began with individual situations like the shaming of Justine Sacco has snowballed into entire sites intended to publicize bad online behaviour with the aim of getting people fired. Meanwhile, as the school year kicks into high gear, we are seeing evidence of the growing focus on digital identity among young people, including requests for our interning pre-service teachers to teach lessons about digital citizenship.

All this focus on digital identity raises big questions around the societal expectations about digital identity (i.e. that it’s sanitized and mistake-free) and the strategies that are typically used to meet those expectations. When talking to young people about digital identity, a typical approach is to discuss the importance of deleting negative artefacts and replacing them with a trail of positive artefacts that will outweigh these seemingly inevitable liabilities. Thus, digital identity has, in effect, become about gaming search results by flooding the Internet with the desired, palatable “self” so that this performance of identity overtakes all of the others.

But our current strategies for dealing with the idea of digital identity are far from ideal. From a purely practical perspective, it is basically impossible to erase all “negatives” from a digital footprint: the Internet has the memory of an elephant, in a sense, with cached pages, offline archives, and non-compliant international service providers. What’s more, anyone with Internet access can contribute (positively or negatively) to the story that is told about someone online (and while Europe has successfully lobbied Google for the “right to be forgotten” and to have certain results hidden in search, that system only scratches the surface of the larger problem and initiates other troubling matters). In most instances, our digital footprints remain in the control of our greater society, and particularly large corporations, to be (re)interpreted, (re)appropriated, and potentially misused by any personal or public interest.

And beyond the practical, there are ethical and philosophical concerns as well. For one thing, if we feel the need to perform a “perfect” identity, we risk silencing non-dominant ideas. A pre-service teacher might be hesitant to discuss “touchy” subjects like racism online, fearing future repercussions from principals or parents. A depressed teenager might fear that discussing her mental health will make her seem weak or “crazy” to potential friends or teachers or employers and thus not get the support she needs. If we become mired in the collapsed context of the Internet and worry that our every digital act might someday be scrutinized by someone, somewhere, the scope of what we can “safely” discuss online is incredibly narrow and limited to the mainstream and inoffensive.

And this view of digital identity also has implications for who is able to say what online. If mistakes are potentially so costly, we must consider who has the power and privilege to take the risk of speaking out against the status quo, and how this might contribute to the further marginalization and silencing of non-dominant groups.

In a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness

 Our current strategy for dealing with digital identity isn’t working. And while we might in the future have new laws addressing some of these digital complexities (for instance, new laws are currently being proposed around issues of digital legacy) such solutions will never be perfect, and legislative changes are slow. Perhaps, instead, we might accept that the Internet has changed our world in fundamental ways and recognize that our societal mindset around digital missteps must be adjusted in light of this new reality: perhaps, in a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness, emphasizing the need for informed judgment rather than snap decisions.

So what might that look like? The transition to a more forgiving (digital) world will no doubt be a slow one, but one important step is making an effort to critically examine digital artefacts before rendering judgment. Below, we list some key points to consider when evaluating problematic posts or other content.

Context/audience matters: We often use the “Grandma rule” as a test for appropriateness, but given the collapsed context of the online world, it may not be possible to participate fully in digital spaces if we adhere to this test. We should ask: What is the (digital) context and intended audience for which the artefact has been shared? For instance, was it originally posted on a work-related platform? Dating site? Forum? News article? Social network? Was the communication appropriate for the platform in which it was originally posted?

Intent matters: We should be cognizant of the replicability of digital artefacts, but we should also be sure to consider intent. We should ask: Was the artefact originally shared privately or anonymously? Was the artefact intended for sharing in the first place? How did the artefact come to be shared widely? Was the artefact made public through illegal or unethical means?

History matters: In face to face settings we typically don’t unfriend somebody based on one off-colour remark; rather we judge character based on a lifetime of interactions. We should apply the same rules when assessing a digital footprint: Does the artefact appear to be a one time thing, or is it part of a longer pattern of problematic content/behaviour? Has there been a sincere apology, and is there evidence that the person has learned from the incident? How would we react to the incident in person? Would we forever shame the person or would we resolve the matter through dialogue?

Authorship matters: Generations of children and teenagers have had the luxury of having their childhoods captured only by the occasional photograph, and legal systems are generally set up to expunge most juvenile records. Even this Teenage Bill of Rights from 1945 includes the “right to make mistakes” and the “right to let childhood be forgotten.” We should ask: When was the artefact posted? Are we digging up posts that were made by a child or teenager, or is this a recent event? What level of maturity and professionalism should we have expected from the author at the time of posting?

Empathy matters: Finally, we should remember to exercise empathy and understanding when dealing with digital missteps. We should ask: Does our reaction to the artefact pass the hypocrite test? Have we made similar or equally serious mistakes ourselves but been lucky enough to have them vanish into the (offline) ether? How would we wish our sons, daughters, relatives, or friends to be treated if they made the same mistake? Are the potential consequences of our (collective) reaction reasonable given the size and scope of the incident?

This type of critical examination of online artefacts, taking into consideration intent, context, and circumstance, should certainly be taught and practiced in schools, but it should also be a foundational element of active, critical citizenship as we choose candidates, hire employees, and enter into relationships. As digital worlds signal an end to forgetting, we must decide as a society how we will grapple with digital identities that are formed throughout the lifelong process of maturation and becoming. If we can no longer simply “forgive and forget,” how might we collectively develop a greater sense of digital empathy and understanding?
So what do you think? What key questions might you add to our list? What challenges might this emerging framework provide for digital citizenship in schools and in our greater society? We’d love to hear your thoughts.