NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Tapping profile information from Facebook, an online site disparaged the good name of some 73 million people – including children – while holding their reputations for ransom, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Such character attacking blackmail operations are becoming more common as Internet privacy becomes a thing of the past.
The FTC has charged Napster co-founder John Fanning of Jerk.com with manufacturing harmful personal profiles, labeling people a "Jerk" or "not a Jerk," then charging victims $30 to remove the derogatory remarks.
Visitors to the site had been misled into believing that the profiles were created by other Jerk.com users, when in fact the personal information had been lifted from Facebook. Those scammed by the scurrilous remarks were told that by purchasing a premium membership they could modify their profile and remove the offensive slander. In fact, while the fees were processed, no profile changes were allowed.
The FTC is seeking an order barring the defendants' deceptive practices, prohibiting them from using the personal information they improperly obtained, and requiring them to delete the information.
"In today's interconnected world, people are especially concerned about their reputation online, and this deceptive scheme was a brazen attempt to exploit those concerns," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The FTC says the objectionable bios frequently appeared in search engine results and consumers often believed that someone they knew had created the disparaging profiles. Instead, the service registered numerous websites with Facebook and then allegedly used application programming interfaces (APIs) to download the names and photos of millions of Facebook users, which they in turn used to create nearly all the Jerk.com profiles.
Users could vote on whether a person was a "Jerk" or not as well as add comments. The FTC says such comments included, "Omg I hate this kid he's such a loser," and, "Nobody in their right mind would love you ... not even your parents love [you]."
Photos included on the website, some of which were marked as "private" on Facebook, included intimate family moments, including children bathing and a mother nursing her child. The FTC says an estimated 2.7 to 6.8 million Jerk profiles contained a photo of a child who appeared to be under the age of 10.
Anyone who tried to delete his profile, however, found the following message:
No one's profile is ever removed because Jerk is based on free open internet, searching databases and it's not possible to remove things from the Internet. You can however use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people who you are in contact with. There are also additional paid premium features that are available.
Nonmembers could not dispute site information or profiles. The site charged consumers $25 to submit a contact form to its "customer service department," which purportedly rarely, if ever, responded. The company even ignored requests from law enforcement to remove pictures.
--Written by Hal M. Bundrick and Eric Reed for MainStreet