Can You Go to Jail for Impersonating Someone Online?
In today’s digital era, online impersonation is a rapidly growing cybercrime that involves the misuse of another individual's online identity. It can range from creating fake social media profiles to sending business emails purporting to be from the CEO of a company.
In California, internet crimes like online impersonation can have dire criminal penalties, making it all the more important for defendants to understand the penalties for online impersonation and related internet crimes. Keep reading to learn what online impersonation entails, the common forms online impersonation can take, and the potential consequences of a criminal conviction.
What Is Online Impersonation?
Under California Penal Code § 528.5, online impersonation is an internet crime that involves the act of assuming another person’s identity online with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, threaten, or deceive others.
4 Elements to Convict Someone of Online Impersonation
As with any criminal proceeding, the prosecution must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. To convict someone of online impersonation, four key elements must be established:
- Credible impersonation – The defendant must have credibly impersonated another person. This means that another individual would reasonably believe, or did reasonably believe, that the impersonator was the person they were pretending to be.
- Impersonation through digital or electronic means – The impersonation must have occurred through an Internet website or other electronic means. This could include social media platforms, email, chat rooms, or any other digital communication channel.
- Intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, threaten, or deceive – The impersonation must have been done with the intent to harm, intimidate, threaten, or defraud another person. This means that the impersonator must have intended to cause some sort of damage or distress to the person they were impersonating or to others.
- Actual harm or damage – There must be evidence of actual harm caused by the impersonation. This could include emotional distress, reputational damage, financial loss, or any other harm.
What Does Online Impersonation Look Like?
Online impersonation can take various forms so long as it involves using someone else’s online identity for personal gain—whether their motivations are financial, sexual, reputational, or emotional in nature. Online impersonation can manifest in various ways, such as:
- Creating fake social media accounts – Often, online impersonation offenders create false profiles on social media platforms using someone else's name and/or image.
- Engaging in online correspondence under someone else's name – This entails online communications, such as email, Slack, or direct messages, using an identity that isn’t yours.
- Posting or sharing content under another person’s identity – While creating fake profiles is one common way to commit online impersonation, it isn’t required for this act to result in serious damage for both parties. Posting or sharing content using another person’s name or online presence can lead to criminal penalties in court.
- Creating a website or other public forum for/as someone else – An impersonator may decide to create an entire website under another person's name to discredit or otherwise harm their reputation.
- Contacting others under someone else’s name – In some cases, offenders may reach out to other people online while pretending to be someone else.
- Hacking another person’s account or online profiles – Some impersonators will hack into other people’s online accounts, gaining unauthorized access to inflict harm.
Is Online Impersonation a Felony in California?
Online impersonation is considered a “wobbler" offense in California, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case. The decision of whether to charge wobbler offenses as felonies or misdemeanors is typically hinged on various factors and is largely at the discretion of the prosecution.
Common factors that can result in a wobbler offense being charged as a felony include:
- Prior convictions – A person with prior convictions, especially for similar offenses, is more likely to be charged with a felony for a wobbler offense. The court may view repeat offenders as more deserving of harsher punishment.
- Severity – The more serious the crime, the greater likelihood of felony charges. For instance, if a wobbler offense resulted in serious bodily injury or death to a victim, it's much more likely to be charged as a felony than a misdemeanor.
- Aggravating factors – Such factors entail a range of circumstances that can make the crime more severe, such as the use of a weapon, committing the crime against a vulnerable individual (like a child or elderly person), or causing significant financial loss.
- Prosecutorial discretion – The prosecutor’s judgment can play a significant role in "wobbler" offenses. They may consider factors like the strength of the evidence, the defendant's willingness to cooperate, and the resources available for prosecution when making a final decision.
Penalties for Online Impersonation
When charged as a misdemeanor offense, an online impersonation conviction can result in the following criminal penalties:
- Up to 1 year in jail and/or a maximum fine of $10,000.
If charged as a felony, a conviction can result in the following penalties:
- Up to 3 years of imprisonment and up to $10,000 in fines.
Remember, it’s imperative to consult with a skilled criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible after being charged with any crime, as a strong defense is nonnegotiable to avoid life-altering criminal repercussions in criminal courts.
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