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Imitation Is The Creepiest Form of Flattery

UK lifestyle blogger Forever AmberWhen it comes to being copied online, I seriously thought I’d seen it all.

The person who posted my photo on a ‘show us your face’ forum thread, then claimed it had been a “social experiment” when she was called out on it. The male “author” who used my face as his avatar on a female-only writers’ site, to encourage the women there to contact him privately. The blogger who used a photo of me in her ‘About’ section. The person whose LinkedIn profile picture was actually me. Countless, countless times where my outfit shots have been used by eBay sellers, online boutiques and random Instagram users. Hell, I once even came across a photo of my DOG being used as someone’s Facebook cover photo: true story.

So, I know what it’s like to have my photos – and writing –  appropriated by other people, is what I’m saying: and, like I say, I really thought I’d seen it all.

A few weeks ago, though, a reader got in touch to tell me they’d come across someone using my photos on Flickr.

Now, I’ll be honest: at first, I didn’t even want to look at the account – not because I didn’t care, but because I just didn’t have TIME to care. The thing is, having stolen photos – and sometimes even entire profiles or websites – removed from the internet isn’t a difficult process (Especially not when you’ve had to do it as often as I have), but it can be pretty time-consuming, especially when the Internet impostor has appropriated a large amount of photos. If I were to challenge every single person who used my photos without permission, I’d literally do nothing else – just having them removed from eBay, say, would be a full-time job.

I obviously don’t have that kind of time – I don’t think anyone does – so, for the most part, I just try not to look. (And, for the record, I have never gone searching for this kind of thing: every single time I’ve become aware of someone “impersonating” me online, for want of a better word, it’s been because someone else has seen it and told me about it…) Because I know that if I look, I’ll get annoyed. And if I get annoyed, I’ll feel like I have to do something about it, and, the next thing I know, I’ll have lost several hours to signing up to some network or other that I don’t want to be a member of, just so I can report yet another Impostor Amber. And rinse and repeat.

This time, though, curiosity got the better of me.

This time I looked.

And here’s what I found:

Julie Ward: impersonating bloggers on Flickr

Julie Ward, a 30 year old trans woman, from the Midwest. Except, that isn’t actually true, is it?  No, with the exception of the second photo from the left, these are all photos of me, taken from this blog: and, if you scroll down the page, you’ll find many, many more of them.

Now, so far, this isn’t all that unusual when it comes to copyright theft and this blog. I’ve seen worse, let’s put it that way. (And when I say, “I’ve seen worse,” I mean, “I’ve literally seen people replicate the entire blog – words, pictures, logo, adverts, the lot. More than once.) What made this one different, however, was the image captions Julie had added:

crazy internet impostor

what to do when someone steals your identity online

what to do when someone steals your identity online

what to do when someone steals your identity online

So, Julie hasn’t just posted my photos on Flickr because she liked them”, and wanted to use them as “inspiration” or whatever: she’s actually trying to pretend they’re photos of her – and, even more strangely, she’s pretending to be a model, who’s being paid to wear the clothes shown in them. My clothes, that is. Not only that, but she’s constructed this entire imaginary life based around my photos: the shoes she’s wearing belong to her girlfriend, she says; one pair were really uncomfortable; she really enjoyed having her makeup done professionally for this “shoot”; people stopped to watch this other one taking place – and so on, and so forth. Each photo comes with a totally made-up scenario to accompany it – and then a bunch of comments from people who obviously believe that every word is true, and that they’re commenting on the life of Julie, the aspiring model from the Midwest, when it’s actually just me.

Some of the captions are unintentionally hilarious:

hilariously stupid photo caption

Like, sure, Julie, OF COURSE you were running late for work, and your girlfriend just happened to be standing in the middle of the road with a camera to snap this totally candid, not-at-all staged photo of “you”. SURE, HON.

Others, meanwhile, are just creepy:

Copyright infringement online

I know this one probably seems pretty unremarkable compared to some of the others, but the fact that I actually DID wear this outfit to my parents’ place for Christmas tells me that she’s not just stealing my photos: it’s almost like she’s trying to steal my LIFE. And that’s just straight-up creepy, no?

And not just MY life, of course:  if you look at the account, you’ll see that Julie has also been posting photos of other redheads, presumably thinking no one will notice that the photos aren’t all of the same person. Because redheads all look the same, right? The one girl who isn’t me in the first photo, for instance, she claims is a photo of her when she was younger, while other photos are allegedly her girlfriend, or her wearing a wig. Most disturbingly, there are a couple of photos of what appear to be quite young girls, who Julie claim are her before she transitioned, and who presumably aren’t aware that their image is being appropriated in this way.

Of course, I know some of you are going to find all of this fairly innocuous, really, and wonder why I’m even bothering to write this post. When I’ve talked about online copying in the past, after all, the most common response has been the old, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” chestnut, along with comments about how I should “just be flattered” by it, because “At least she obviously likes my outfits”. And, I mean, yeah, sure: “flattered” is certainly one reaction you could have to the news that someone is trying to pretend to be you on the internet, I guess. It certainly wasn’t my FIRST reaction, though, or even my second or third, come to think of it: and, because of that, I’m always quite surprised when I’m told that I should be OK with people repeatedly stealing from me, or even impersonating me, just because they say I am pretty. Because that makes it all FINE, doesn’t it?  Like, OK, sure, 924 people now think I’m “Julie Ward,” but I’m just supposed to be all, “OMG, HUN, DO U RLY THINK I LOOK LIKE A MODEL?!?!”

The fact is, though, imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but, when it happens to you, it doesn’t feel remotely flattering. Actually, it feels pretty creepy and sad, really: and, as annoyed as I am by it, I also feel genuinely sorry for this person, who must have some real issues in life if she feels she needs to invent this entire imaginary life, using someone else’s face in the process.

Or rather, I FELT sorry for her. My sympathy did take a bit of a hit, it has to be said, when “Julie” deleted all of the comments I left asking her to please remove my images, blocked me from commenting again, and then followed the Flickr account I’d used to comment. I didn’t feel quite so sorry for her after that, really. I mean, I’d hoped that if she genuinely was just some poor, misguided soul who’d made a mistake, then she’d do the decent thing, and take down the photos, when she realised she’d been caught. Instead, she basically just flipped me the bird – or the online equivalent – and made it crystal clear that she is totally unrepentant about being caught imitating another person, and intended to keep on doing it.

That, of course, left me with no option but to report the stolen images to Flickr – who, needless to say, had removed them all within 24 hours, just as I’d known they would. So, good news for me, obviously, but not so much for all of the other women whose photos are still being used by Julie Ward. This photo, for instance, is Jess from Elegantly Dressed and Stylish , and I had a bit of a chuckle when I came across this one, which Julie’s imaginary girlfriend snapped of her “on the way to work”:

stolen Amy Pond photo

“Doppleganger Amy Pond Dr Who!” says someone in the comments. And, well, that’s because this IS Amy Pond from Dr Who, obviously. Or apparently NOT obviously, because it seems that none of Julie’s 900+ followers ever thought to question this photo – or, indeed, to wonder why Julie’s hair was shoulder length one day, and then waist-length the next, say. Or why her face kept changing.

(This seems like a good time for me to bring up my all-time favourite story of that one time I was mowing the lawn at the front of our old house, and one of our neighbours appeared with her small daughter. “Sorry to bother you,” she said, “But would you mind having a quick chat to my daughter? It’s just that she’s absolutely convinced that you’re Amy Pond, and we’ve told her you’re not, but she won’t stop talking about it, and now she’s told all her friends that Amy Pond lives in her street.” Now THAT was flattering. (And also helped explain why I kept spotting a small group of children outside my house…) Like, really, REALLY flattering: because, the fact is, I’m under absolutely no illusion that I look anything like Karen Gillian – or, for that matter, anything like Nicole Kidman, or Julianne Moore, or any of the other famous redheads I’m often compared to, and who every other redhead I know is ALSO constantly compared to. It’s just that people really do seem to think that all redheads look alike – I think all they see is the hair colour, and their brain fills the rest in for them, which I guess is why Julie Ward thought she’d be able to fool people with all these different photos…)

But I digress. The owner of this Flickr account – who probably ISN’T called Julie Ward, let’s be honest – is continuing to claim that these photos are all of her, and will no doubt continue to do so: in fact, now that she knows she won’t be able to keep mining my blog for photos, my guess is that she’ll find some other unsuspecting redhead, and start pretending to be her instead. As I said, it’s incredibly sad that someone feels the need to do this at all, but, to be completely honest, I’m more worried about the 900-odd people she’s continuing to reel in with this imaginary persona of hers. Many of those followers have been commenting frequently on her /my photos, over a period of many months: from the familiar way they address her in their comments, my guess is that they’ve built up some kind of online friendship with her, and, when I looked through her comments last night, I saw a few from people saying they’d sent “Julie” photos of themselves, and were waiting to hear if she’d received them. And that’s honestly kind of horrifying to me, really, because who knows who Julie is REALLY ? She could be anyone at all: all we know is that she’s certainly NOT the person she’s been pretending to be for the last five months, and who her followers seem to trust enough to want to share their private information with her.

So I find the whole thing quite disturbing – not just from my own point of view as one of the people being copied, but from the point of view of all of those people who’ve invested time and effort in something that wasn’t actually real, and whose community she has wormed her way into under totally false pretences. It might seem like a small thing, really, but wouldn’t you like to know if someone you’d built up a relationship of sorts with had been lying to you the whole time? I know I would: which is why I was surprised that Flickr chose to simply remove my photos, rather than suspending the entire account. I know both Twitter and Facebook have impersonation policies allowing them to permanently suspend users they find to be pretending to be someone they’re not – Flickr, however, seem to take it less seriously, which is unfortunate for the people who will continue to be taken in by this account.

Flickr might not be willing to let those people know they’ve been duped, though, but I can  – not by contacting them directly, obviously* (Because, hey, let’s not make this any weirder than it already is, huh?), but by writing this post, so that anyone who happens to Google the name “Julie Ward” and “Flickr” will be able to find out the truth, and maybe be a little less trusting next time. There are a lot of good people on the internet, but there are also a lot of Julie Wards (And it seems to be my particular misfortune to encounter every single one of them, doesn’t it?), so, if nothing else, I hope this post will provide a bit of insight into the darker side of the internet, of blogging/social media, and, well, of people in general, really.

And, with that, I’m off to take part in a very important modelling shoot, after which I will no doubt buy the clothes provided, and wear them to work, while my girlfriend snaps candid photos of me to post on Flickr. No, OK, I’m joking, I’m not: I’m actually a 62-year-old Welsh bloke called Clive. I like darts, tropical fish-keeping, and stealing photos of random women on the internet.

Well, you never know, do you?

(*I did actually contact the blogger I recognised from Julie’s Flickr account, to let her know her photos were being appropriated, and would totally contact the other women too, if I knew who they were. So, if you do recognise any of them, feel free to let me know…)

A WORD FROM MY SPONSORS

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19 Comments
  • Belinda
    January 22, 2019

    Omg Amber, this fair woke me up I knew that people steal photos but never an identity or the pictures that you post of various holidays etc (which I must add are fantastic) I have seen your website and got some ideas from it but to actually steal your stuff that both you and Terry work so hard for is a disgrace. I have on occasion used Prexels when I need a certain type of photo but to steal them the way those you described have is a definite No No. I wish you luck and for the record envy is a terrible thing, on the plus side, athough it’s wrong others are looking at your website and thinking ‘How I wish I was that girl’ Hope this message finds you, Terry and Max well x

  • Alice
    January 22, 2019

    It’s weird and sad. A bit like blogs where people claim to have cancer, and get friends and sympathy on that basis. I can only guess she “needs” admirers?

  • OMG Amber I’m just offended that Julie Ward hasn’t stolen any of my photos (being someone with long red hair)!!!!! #kidding 😉

    Seriously though – it IS creepy, and it IS sad… as you say, just weird and awful for the people she/he is duping. Classic catfish case. I’m glad Flickr took down the pictures but not very pleased that they’ve not suspended the account. I’ve had my pictures used in all sorts of ways: dating sites, websites (one splashed their watermark all over my photos) and now I’m waiting on a complaint to M&S who used my picture on a marketing email without my permission. The stupid lot not only failed to credit me or ask me but also used a picture of me wearing head-to-toe JAEGER. Like you I only know about these things when others tell me about it…

    Great post, Welsh Clive!!

    Catherine x

    • Amber
      January 22, 2019

      Haha, I wouldn’t worry, Catherine, I’m sure you’re on her list 😉 I’m so shocked at M&S, though – I mean, it’s obviously bad when anyone pulls a stunt like that, but I’d really have expected better of such an established brand!

  • Jill stylishatsixty
    January 22, 2019

    Oh dear! How creepy. This certainly must have spooked you, I know I have found it so upsetting for you as I read through it. Hope it all gets sorted soon.

  • Maria
    January 22, 2019

    People who say you should be flattered don’t work as a blogger, evidently: it’s not just a matter of stealing photos, it’s a matter of stealing the result of hours and hours and hours of hard work to have the photos taken, edited, the posts written etc. They didn’t just steal a couple of photos from ig or whatever, so I can understand why that’s upsetting (and creepy, let’s be honest).

  • Brenda
    January 22, 2019

    I follow a woman on Instagram who is known for her fabulous sewing skills. She makes beautiful clothing for herself and her small daughter. Someone completely copied her account, including the photos of her child and posted them as their own. I think she had to spend a bit of time reporting and having the imposter taken down. People like that are just creepy. If only they would put their energy into more positive pursuits, the world would be a better place.

  • Myra
    January 22, 2019

    Totally creep. You have no idea what their motivation or goal is when stealing your images. They add insult to injury by adding text. Glad you get them taken down.

  • Tasha
    January 22, 2019

    Crazy how people actually do this!! What is the point? Just to gain followers? Does it out you off sharing photos of Max on your blog/socials?

  • Steph
    January 22, 2019

    Ugh, you should find it flattering? That’s basically along the same lines of saying it’s flattering to receive unsolicited dick pics or your plumber looking up your number to ask you out. It’s not flattering, it’s an invasion of your privacy and you have the right to feel violated, end of! I don’t think people mean to belittle you when they say it, I think it’s just one of those things people say without thinking it through, but we really should stop minimising behaviour like that. Whatever reasons they had for doing it, it isn’t ok and we shouldn’t pretend it is just because you have an enviable wardrobe and collection of photos – you’ve worked your butt off to build what you have so you shouldn’t have to put up with people trying to cash in for free!

  • Mary Katherine
    January 22, 2019

    What a mess! I confess I’m relatively new to Instagram and still a bit naive. Imagine how flattered I was to receive a Follow request from Ewan McGregor! I know, I know, but it slipped through the radar early in the process. Until he started sending me messages after liking all my posts. I know he’s recently divorced, but that he’d pick ME, a short, middle-aged lady from Kentucky, to flirt with! So I snapped that off, of course, but I can’t imagine having someone appropriate your entire blog/livelihood/identity – yeesh! Thanks to you and Catherine, Not Dressed As Lamb, for some good cautionary tales about social media security today. Stay safe out there, ladies…

  • Stacey
    January 23, 2019

    Wow. I really had no idea some people would go to such lengths to do something like this, especially when it is not out of the realm of possibility they’ll get caught and called out. I can definitely understand why you wouldn’t feel flattered in such cases. I wonder if she’s stolen the name too. One of my best friends from elementary school is Julie Ward but its not her! I know, there are lots of other Julie Wards in the world but still a bit strange reading a post about my friend that’s not actually my friend. 🙂

  • Lori Lawson
    January 23, 2019

    Amber,
    I’ve been reading your blog for several years. I recognized every single one of the photos you showed that were stolen. I am so very sorry you had to go through this again. And yes, it’s absolutely creepy. Even though you don’t need the affirmation, I think you’re lovely and your style is impeccable. But what I like most about your blog is your writing! It’s so unlike anyone else’s. Again, I’m so very sorry you’ve had to go through this.

  • Jenna
    January 23, 2019

    Okay, what happened was total crap. But on a lighter note, as a redhead, I just laughed so hard about being compared to Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and other redheads despite looking nothing like them. I lived in Boston and traveled many times to NYC in college and people constantly thought I was either Cynthia Nixon or her daughter (this was at the height of Sex and the City and did she even have an adult daughter at the time?)…bc I had chin length red hair. Sometimes I couldn’t even convince people I wasn’t, because they said they understood I needed to protect my privacy! Ha!

  • Katie Writes Stuff
    January 23, 2019

    I once had a photo of scissors sitting on fabric stolen from my blog and used in an online article published by a national newspaper. SCISSORS. Seriously. But at least it was a simple case of intellectual property theft and not impersonation. The internet is a wonderful and ridiculous place all at once.

  • Arctictringel
    January 23, 2019

    My guess is some of those comments are ‘Julie’ herself or some other person she’s got onboard to the fake account, to make it seem more real. It happens way more than I’d thought, people make two or three or more accounts to comment the fake account to boost it up. Like someone ‘knows’ them and have pictures of them etc. Creepy creepy creepy.

  • Linda Libra Loca
    January 23, 2019

    That is beyond creepy and one of the reasons my husband and I decided never to share pictures of our kids online. Image theft is so easy, and you´ll never know what your pictures are used for!

    Anne|Linda, Libra, Loca

  • Vanessa
    January 24, 2019

    Imitation is flattery when someone sees the way you put an outfit together and then buys said outfit and photographs themselves. It is not stealing your photos and pretending they are of someone else. What this person has done is not only creepy, but very deceitful.

  • Jane J.
    May 9, 2019

    I honestly never took much care about intellectual property but stealing identity is something insidious.

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