Danica Patterson used to love sharing photos of her 4-year-old daughter on social media. Until she got a tip that they were being used by a total stranger.
CBS Dallas Fort-Worth reports that someone posted her daughter’s photos on his Facebook page, claiming she was his child, looked just like him, and would break some hearts one day. Her daughter was a victim of digital kidnapping, in which a stranger steals photos of a kid online and claims them as his or her own.
Digital Kidnapping Is a Real
In the past few years, digital kidnapping has become a small but growing trend on social media. Often, it comes in forms like “baby role play,” in which people create new fictional lives for children they see online. Sometimes these role players grab random photos online, and other times they take from acquaintances. It’s not always illegal, either—but there are ways to protect yourself.
If you want to delve into the world of “baby role play,” just fire up Instagram and enter a few hashtags. Communities have formed around hashtags like #babyrp, #adoptionrp, and #orphanrp. There are more than 55,000 photos tagged with #babyrp, many of which feature cute photos of other people’s kids. Some include “likes,” like “toys, dresses, mashed potatoes, rice, mommy time, Mommy’s milk,” and others feature cries for adoption, like “I really want a family, or a parent.”
What’s a concerned parent to do? Before sharing a photo online, experts say you should ensure there aren’t any identifying details that could help a stranger locate your child in real life. Gary Davis, Intel Security’s chief consumer safety evangelist, adds that parents should download an app that can watermark your photos, putting a message on them that identifies your children as yours. “That would demotivate somebody from trying to use them,” he says, because it would be tougher to pretend the child belonged to them. Then, when you post, never add location tags to your photos, because that can tip people off to where your child is. And if you’re posting a photo that includes another child, always get permission from his or her parents first.
Before you ever post a picture online, take a look at your privacy settings on every social media site you use. Make sure you’ve locked it down to the strictest privacy settings possible. Then, when you post, you can often restrict who sees your child’s photos to the specific users you want. “Tagging” friends and family only spreads the photo to more and more people, so try to avoid that if you can.
Parents who want more security can also turn to photo services like Flickr and Photobucket, which can give you an option to only share photos with people who have a private link. And if you’re still concerned, skip the posting altogether and just send photos to loved ones via email.