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Misusing Password for Facebook Is Identity Theft

A juvenile who gains unauthorized access to another’s Facebook page, alters the Facebook profile, and posts obscene messages on two friends’ walls commits criminal identity theft.

A California appellate court upheld a juvenile court’s determination that the juvenile was guilty under the state’s criminal identity theft statute.  The law makes it a crime when a person “willfully obtains personal identifying information” and “uses that information for any unlawful purpose.”

The juvenile contended that he could not be found guilty because he obtained a password for the victim’s e-mail account from an unsolicited text message.  He argued that because the information was not solicited by him, he did not “willfully obtain” any personal identifying information.  He also contended that the information was not used for an unlawful purpose.

The court noted that the juvenile used the password for the e-mail account to gain access to the victim’s Facebook account. In turn, he altered the profile of the victim on her Facebook page and posted obscene messages on her friends’ walls using her name.  The juvenile contended that while he may have libeled the victim, the use of the personally identifiable information was not for an unlawful purpose.

The appellate court disagreed with the juvenile.  “While the text message itself was unsolicited, no evidence suggests appellant was forced to remember the password or otherwise keep a record of it so that he could use it later, as he admitted to doing.  On the record before us, we conclude that appellant willfully obtained the password information from the text message, knowing that he was continuing to possess the password, intending to do so, and was a free agent when securing the password for his future use,” the appellate court wrote.

As to using the information for an unlawful purpose, the appellate court found that posting obscene and libelous materials on the Facebook page and walls of Facebook friends was an “unlawful purpose” under the statute.  The court said “unlawful conduct” includes intentional torts such as libel.  “Here, appellant wrote sexually explicit and vulgar comments on the victims’ friends’ walls, accessible by the victims’ friends and acquaintances, and purportedly as her.  Appellant clearly exposed the victim to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy with his actions.”  Thus, the actions were sufficient for finding that the juvenile violated the personal identity statute.

People v. Rolando S., California Court of Appeals, 5th District No. F061153, Issued July 21, 2011.