Today, many businesses turn to social media as a cost-effective form of advertising. "Social selling," or the process of developing relationships as part of the sales process, is crucial to the success of many small and medium-sized businesses and startups.

This process often takes place via social networks such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Think of the ads that show you which people in your network "like" the product being advertised--that's social selling.

A 2019 report from The Manifest noted that the top advertising mediums small businesses plan to spend more on are social media (56 percent) and other online options like Google search and banner ads (41 percent). These offer more targeting opportunities than traditional mediums.

Unfortunately, social selling comes with one major threat: identity theft. Last April, the FBI's annual cybercrimes report showed losses from internet crimes are up 91 percent, with cybercrimes costing Americans more than $2.7 billion in 2018.

When someone steals your identity to entice your family and friends to buy something, real consequences can follow. Take the case (highlighted by the BBC) of Martin Lewis, founder of the Money Saving Expert website, who sued Facebook over his name and photo being used on fake Facebook ads in 2018 to promote unrelated products. Lewis's reputation, goodwill and social capital were all being exploited against his wishes to influence his friends and family to buy something he had nothing to do with. At law, the bad hombre's action was likely "passing off," which is akin to but not the same as copyright infringement. Lewis couldn't sue the scam artist, so he sued Facebook, alleging that in running the scam ads the company was negligent. 

Facebook settled with Lewis by agreeing to take action to address these forms of fraud. On July 16, Facebook launched a live scam-busting service. The program and the nonprofit it supports aims to assist 20,000 victims of online fraud in the first year, according to the BBC. The pilot program is currently only operating in the U.K., but there are a few things you can do on your own to spot potential identity thieves before they do serious damage.

How to Spot Identity Theft

Ironically, there are many online tools you can use to protect your own good name and that of your business. Here are three tools that I use regularly.

  1. Google Alerts. These are "set and forget" Google searches. You simply upload the terms you want to keep apprised of and the frequency with which you wish to be notified, and Google does the rest. I have one for "Sean Wise" and a separate one for each of my startup investments. Every morning, I can see what those terms are doing and where they are appearing. This keeps me up to date on my portfolio and on how my identity is being used.
  2. Google Reverse Image Search. You can upload any image and Google will tell you where that image appears across the internet. This is the perfect way to find out, for example, if someone is posing as you on dating sites. If I upload a headshot or promotional photo that was used on my book tour, Google Reverse Image Search will show me where that image appears--and I can see if it's been hijacked.
  3. The Wayback Machine. This service captures a snapshot of the internet daily. It then allows you to figuratively travel back in time to see what the internet looked like on that day. It's very helpful if you've identified offending material on a site that has since been removed, and you want to show a history of bad behavior to the owner of the platform. 

Most websites and digital communities have explicit terms and conditions that stipulate that false identity (a.k.a. fraud) is not allowed. Therefore, any person using your picture without permission has broken said company's terms and conditions. This gives the company the right to take down material.

You must inform the social media company of the issue and provide reasonable evidence of the fraud. Fraud happens so often (unfortunately) that most companies also publish a procedure on how to deal with it. 

According to Facebook's Help Center, the best way to report abusive content or spam on is by using the "Find Support or Report" link that appears near the content itself. To report a business you purchased something from on Facebook, you can also fill out this form.