Last term, on a study abroad trip to Shanghai, junior Maddie Kiehl encountered a notorious internet creep that has been targeting students. Kiehl accepted a friend request, noting the amount of common connections and the mention of Lawrence University in the account bio. Kiehl says that the account began messaging her “super inappropriate things,” which led her to determine that the account was fake. Later, she discovered that this account had been posing as a Lawrence student in order to message many other students as well.
As technology becomes a more prominent part of daily life, it is easy to view an interaction through a screen as equivalent to an interaction in person. We have learned to view the faces and information we see on Facebook and other medias as truth and forget how easy it is to make a fake account. It is important to do a quick background check on those we encounter before we form a connection. As demonstrated by Kiehl’s situation, it may not be enough to check for a relationship to Lawrence or mutual friendships. Try to determine if you truly know the person who sent the friend request and evaluate the possible reasons why they sent the request. Ask around to the mutual friends of the requestor, find out their connection and determine if they are someone you would like to know as well.
There are also ways to prevent these situations from occurring before the request is sent. Kiehl’s advice is to adjust your privacy settings. When these situations do occur, she also suggests reporting the accounts so that they can be removed before any others are taken victim. “It happens all the time and the only way to beat that is to know what’s happening” says Kiehl. “We need to help each other out.”
Unfortunately, not all these encounters stay digital. Sometimes, these internet creeps walk onto campus and try to interact with students or even pass as students. Last year, it was discovered that someone who had been hanging out with a group of students and going to meals and events with them was actually a stranger. He sat in dorm lounges to build friendships with students, talking about professors and coursework as if he were a student. He started all this with an online profile, which he used to convince someone to give him building access. It is easy to see how situations like this could lead to students in danger. If someone you think may be posing as a student talks about coming to campus for any reason, we advise you to alert Campus Safety.
These stories have unfortunate implications for the way we interact online. They challenge our conceptions of digital friendship. They pose questions about the way we represent ourselves online. When anyone can appear as anyone, how can we believe the faces we see? It is simpler to assume the best and much easier not to check and vet everyone you come across. Maybe we need to come to terms with needing to do more work to stay safe online.