The Academy Award winner and the Instagram imposter
When the most famous actress in the world calls for your advice, it’s quite a thrill even for a seasoned defamation attorney. Sitting in my Beverly Hills office on a clear autumn day in 2016, the phone rang. On the other end was Alex Fishman, Client AA's (for academy award winner) entertainment lawyer. Alex had been sent to me by one of my former partners. He was in desperate need of help and had no one to turn to for the required expertise except for me. As Alex explained, Client AA had been the victim of an elaborate invasion of privacy scheme through the popular Instagram app. Someone posing as AA's sister connected to AA on Instagram. AA’s account was private and she began to share intimate personal details and photos with the imposter. The jig was up when AA, during a telephone conversation, mentioned to her sister how nice it was to share pictures of their children on Instagram. The sister, puzzled, replied that she did not have an Instagram account. AA went silent, the phone dropped, someone had invaded her life digitally.
Alex expressed doubt that there was any way to find out the identity of the imposter and hold him/her accountable. But I had been doing such work for over a decade on behalf of doctors, dentists and corporate CEO’s. Now it was time to apply my talents for the benefit of the most famous woman on the planet. I informed Alex that in a matter of months, I would be able to identify the perpetrator. AA hired me, I was on the case. Now it was time to deliver results.
I began my mission by drafting and filing a John Doe lawsuit for Internet impersonation on behalf of the sister. AA, a tabloid target, preferred to stay out of the spotlight. Both AA and the sister were my clients as both decided to work together in a way that protected AA from publicity as much as possible. We didn’t want tabloids offering money to the imposter for tawdry details and rumors. We also wanted to protect the anonymity of AA’s children. So, rather than have AA sue for invasion of privacy, we had the sister sue for impersonation. The decision to work the case from the sister’s end proved effective. We flew under the radar and avoided media publicity.
After filing the John Doe lawsuit, I filed an ex parte application for leave from the initial hold on discovery in California. Per statute, in California, no subpoena may be served until a defendant is served in the lawsuit. Trouble is, when you don’t know the defendant’s identity, it’s impossible to serve the defendant to get the subpoena process going. I pioneered the special motion process for early discovery whereby I explain this catch 22 to judges and get permission to serve subpoenas on relevant service providers. In AA’s case, I did so by gaining judicial permission to serve subpoenas on Instagram and any associated Internet service providers.
Instagram responded to my subpoena and provided the server log for the imposter’s account. The server log provided all ip addresses used to access the imposter account. All logins tracked to various ip addresses and isp’s in the Chicago metro area. What was the common thread? I set up a map of Chicago and began sticking pins in each location. A geographical pattern emerged in the northwest suburbs, but what was the connection? This case wouldn’t be easy to crack, we’d have to do some brick and mortar detective work.
I then sent subpoenas for subscriber accounts identified by the Instagram server logs. This included Isp’s like Time Warner and mobile phone providers such as Verizon. The responses we received were shocking in that no two accounts had the same subscriber. We began calling and interviewing the subscribers.
Nobody that we spoke with professed any wrongdoing. However, one common thread did emerge. All were either related or friendly with a young lady named Holly who was obsessed with AA. It quickly became apparent that AA was the imposter.
I contacted Holly and she immediately confessed through a river of tears. I then provided the good news to AA and sister. I had caught the imposter. Now, we had to determine the proper punishment.
Holly was twenty years old and working a job at Target. She was of low financial means. So, it made no sense to pursue the case to trial because any significant recovery would be uncollectible. AA was satisfied that the account had been deleted and required that Holly pay a modest sum of money to AA’s favorite charity. Holly agreed to do so and the case was closed. AA’s digital safety and security had been restored and my reputation for excellence was bolstered further in the Los Angeles legal community.