It’s a warning for us all, really. 

What happened to Debbie Gwen Riley — and is still happening, in fact — haunted me all weekend, and it should haunt you, as well. 

Facebook account taken over by a ruthless stranger. Passwords changed. Recovery methods usurped. Financial applications altered and personal connections manipulated. 

It only gets worse from there. 

For more than a week now, it’s been ineffable fear and frustration for Riley as the phantom imposter badgers her friends and associates for money, besmirching her good reputation at every turn. There’s the looming threat of even more substantial damage, financial, personal and who knows what else, as the usurper reaches deeper and deeper into Riley’s personal affairs. 

It’s the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” for the internet age, and just like it was in that fine novel, Riley’s pleas for help have fallen on mostly deaf ears. The most unsettling thing of all in this sordid affair is that there seems to be no one in the whole wide world who is able or willing to extricate Riley from this ongoing nightmare. 


No police officer is coming over to her house to take down a report. The Attorney General will not put his best man on the case. Why would they? This isn’t a neat and obvious case like a stolen truck, burgled home or purse snatched off a shoulder. Hell, it’s not even clear what they would call this type of crime. And anyway, it’s not very likely there’s a culprit two towns over to be prosecuted. The culprit, in reality, could be anywhere in the world. Literally anywhere. As far as anybody knows, Riley was targeted randomly by some putz living in Nairobi. Or Moscow. Or Singapore, Marrakesh, Berlin or North Korea.  

Who knows? Throw a dart at a map and take a guess. The internet is as big as the planet; bigger in many ways. And the schemers, scammers and scoundrels who have found ways to take advantage of the nebulous nature of the net tend to be crafty and creative. They hide behind VPNs, rendering their whereabouts all but unknowable. Their souls may be rotten but they’re resourceful little imps and they know means of evasions the greatest villains of the past couldn’t even dream about. 

And anyway, it’s Facebook — try to report criminal behavior on Facebook and you’re apt to get a lot of eye rolls. It’s social media, for God’s sake, the land of Anything Goes. You can’t expect a cop, a state detective or some 9-to-5 computer nerd from Best Buy to come out for something that happened on Facebook.  

Riley did turn to her local police department, where she was advised to notify the Federal Trade Commission. Riley did that, too, but good luck getting somebody from THAT bureaucracy to snap to attention over something that happened on Facebook. 

She scoured the Maine Attorney General website in search of resources. She called this number and that number and got nothing but recorded messages and no return calls.  

On one end she has found mostly indifference, incompetence or a kind of shoulder-shrugging “there’s nothing we can do” kind of dismissal. On the other end, she’s found the very epitome of apathy: the cold, misunderstanding non-help that is Facebook’s artificially intelligent support bots, those products of our brave new world who prove themselves over and over to be more maddening than useful. 


Facebook support, as it turns out, did not understand at all what Riley was so desperately trying to tell them. 

In one automatic response to her pleas, Facebook support advised her that they would not take down Riley’s profile because the profile “doesn’t go against our Community Standards.” 

Facebook will take action, in other words, if someone posts the wrong meme or uses a particular swear word, but hijack somebody’s account and dump havoc upon their lives? Not a problem. You’re good to go. Thank you for writing and please be sure to visit the Marketplace on your way out.

Facebook bots politely notified her when new phone numbers were added to her profile, when PayPal details were changed and when passwords were updated no matter how many times Riley wrote them to declare “That’s not me! That’s not me!” As far as Facebook was concerned, the genuine Debbie Gwen Riley had become a non-person while the hacker was the real deal. 

It didn’t matter how many frantic notes Riley sent them. It didn’t matter how many different phone numbers she tried to call. There was absolutely nobody from Facebook with a human soul to help her out of this quagmire. Her identity was in the hands of a diabolical stranger, but that particular issue isn’t covered in the support FAQ, so tough luck, lady.

For the rest of us, Riley’s problem is an extreme example of familiar frustration. How many times have you tried reaching someone at the bank, at the power company or at the office of your internet provider only to hear yourself saying “Boy. It’s so hard to get a live person on the phone these days.” 


Now imagine that feeling when it’s been going on for a solid week and still someone is out there running wild on the World Wide Web pretending to be you. 

“I was almost dreading going to church Sunday,” Riley said, “because I was paranoid someone would tell me they sent money. I haven’t been able to sleep.” 

Who can blame her? The imposter pretending to be Riley is as clever as a hungry rat. He or she says just enough, in chats with Riley’s friends and associates, to sound convincing. He or she can use details from Riley’s profile to make herself appear legitimate. 

“They are such good liars,” Riley said, “and so convincing.” 

And here some of you will sniff, all lofty like, and say: “This is why I’m always very careful to create really hard passwords and I don’t list my phone number anywhere. I’m not going to fall for any scam, nossir. Not me.” 

Nossir, not you. You’d never share your password or send money to a stranger on the internet. 


But Riley didn’t do any of those things, either. When it happened, she thought she was helping a friend from a Facebook group to sort out an issue with her phone. All she needed to do was send a short code via text to help a friend overcome technical difficulties. 

Too bad that friend had also been hacked and then, like that, the scam was underway. After a week of desperate measures, all Riley has to show for her efforts are rage, fear and frustration with a dash of shame to go with it. 

“Nobody really wants to admit they were hacked, scammed, bamboozled or what not,” Riley said, “but I think it’s important for people to know they are not alone — that it can happen to anybody.” 

She’s not wrong. The more dependent on social media we all become, the more vulnerable we are. Our entire lives are out there in the ether these days and one wrong move can spell catastrophe.  

The internet age has presented us all with a whole new set of dangers and the takeover of Riley’s account was not an isolated incident. 

Since I wrote a story about this messy affair, I’ve heard from several others who have suffered through similar experiences. Some of them were able to get their accounts back, mainly through a lot of luck. One woman Riley heard from had her Facebook account hijacked and NEVER got it back, which is just a dismal notion from front to back. 

In the final assessment, Riley would be much better off if someone had broken into her house or crawled beneath her SUV to swipe the catalytic converters. There wouldn’t be much the police could do about it, but at least she’d get to fill out a report and talk to a real live police officer about the offense. 

With her Facebook account gone — and years worth of photos, videos, conversations and memories gone with it — Riley’s got no recourse but to scream her frustration into the wind and hope that the hacker will show a little mercy after a while and set her free. 

But eight days into the sad affair now, Riley has found mercy to be in short supply.

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