California Penal § 528.5 – Impersonation through Internet or Electronic Means

  1. Introduction

    A person who impersonates another via the internet or other electronic means may be criminally liable for violating Cal. Penal Code § 528.5. The victim of the nonconsensual online publication of private, intimate images may be able to bring criminal charges against their harasser based on Cal. Penal Code § 528.5 if the publication of the images was accomplished by the harasser’s impersonation of the victim using the internet. Prosecution under Cal. Penal Code § 528.5 may be applicable if the harasser did any of the following in order to publish or disseminate the victim’s intimate images: Impersonated the victim and 1) opened an email account, 2) set up a profile on a social network website (i.e. Facebook or MySpace), or 3) published a blog or posted an advertisement online (such as on Craigslist).

  2. Text of the Statute

    “(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any person who knowingly and without consent credibly impersonates another actual person through or on an Internet Web site or by other electronic means for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person is guilty of a public offense punishable pursuant to subdivision (d).

    (b) For purposes of this section, an impersonation is credible if another person would reasonably believe, or did reasonably believe, that the defendant was or is the person who was impersonated.

    (c) For purposes of this section, "electronic means" shall include opening an e-mail account or an account or profile on a social networking Internet Web site in another person's name.

    (d) A violation of subdivision (a) is punishable by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment.

    (e) In addition to any other civil remedy available, a person who suffers damage or loss by reason of a violation of subdivision (a) may bring a civil action against the violator for compensatory damages and injunctive relief or other equitable relief pursuant to paragraphs (1), (2), (4), and (5) of subdivision (e) and subdivision (g) of Section 502.

    (f) This section shall not preclude prosecution under any other law.”1

  3. Cases

    1. People v. Bollaert, No. CD252338 (Cal. Super. Ct. Dec. 10, 2013).

      • Procedural Posture: Complaint filed in San Diego Superior Court on December 10, 2013 alleging that defendant committed one count of conspiracy, two counts of extortion and twenty-eight counts of identity theft related to the operation of ugotposted.com and changemyreputation.com.

      • Law: Cal. Penal Code § 530.5(a); Conspiracy (Cal. Penal Code § 182); Extortion (Cal. Penal Code § 520)

      • Facts: Defendant operated the website ugotposted.com, which posted nude photographs of individuals accompanied by personally identifying information (typically including name, location, age and Facebook profile) without consent. Between December 2, 2012 and September 17, 2013, over ten thousand such photographs were published to ugotposted.com. During this period, defendant received numerous messages from individuals requesting that their information be removed from ugotposted.com and that the postings resulted in continuous harassment and detrimentally affected their professional and familial relationships. Defendant would respond to these requests from an email account tied to the changemyreputation.com domain. Changemyreputation.com was a separate site operated by defendant that would allow individuals to have their photos and personal information removed from ugotposted.com for a fee between $250 and $350.

      • Outcome: Defendant was found guilty on six counts of extortion and twenty-one counts of identity theft and sentenced to eighteen years in prison.

    2. People v. Felix, No. LAA1CA05334-01 (L.A. Super. Ct. filed May 27, 2011).

      • Procedural Posture: First conviction under Cal. Penal Code § 528.5. This case was brought to the attention of the District Attorney’s Office by the Internet Crime Against Children Taskforce.

      • Law: Cal. Penal Code § 528.5(a)

      • Facts: Defendant created 130 Facebook pages and various Craigslist listings impersonating victim, his 16-year old ex-girlfriend, in order to harass her.2 The profiles and listings contained the victim’s contact information, as well as sexually explicit photographs of the victim. Defendant also harassed victim’s mother by calling her cell phone numerous times.

      • Outcome: Defendant pled no contest to two counts of violating Cal. Penal Code § 528.5(a). He was sentenced to one year in jail, which was suspended, five years of probation and 30 days of CalTrans work. The court ordered defendant to stay away from the victim and prohibited him from having internet access during his probation period. Defendant’s sentence is contingent on his enrollment in anger management classes, counseling and sex therapy classes.

  4. Practice Pointers

    Cal. Penal Code § 528.5 also provides for civil liability.

  1. Cal. Penal Code § 528.5 (Deering 2011). 

  2. Facts gathered from Los Angeles City Attorneu Press Release, Office of the City Attorney, "City Attorney's Office Secures First Conviction Under New Internet Impersonation Law" (Oct. 19, 2011) at http://www.atty.lacity.org/stellent/groups/electedofficials/@atty_contributor/documents/contributor_web_content/lacityp_015740.pdf