A California law that took effect on January 1, 2011 makes it a crime to impersonate someone online. Any person who knowingly and without consent impersonates another actual person through electronic means for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person is guilty of a misdemeanor. “Electronic means” is defined to include opening an e-mail account or social networking profile in another person’s name. A violation of the law occurs only if the impersonation is credible, meaning that another person would reasonably believe that the defendant was the person impersonated.
Two other states have also passed online impersonation laws in recent years. In 2009, Texas (1) made it a felony to use someone else’s persona on a commercial social networking site without permission and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person, and (2) made it a misdemeanor to send an electronic communication in another person’s identity without permission and with the intent to harm or defraud. In 2008, New York amended section 190.25 of its Penal Code to include a misdemeanor offense for impersonating someone else via a website or electronic communication with the intent to obtain a benefit or injure or defraud another person.
Unlike the Texas and New York laws, however, the California law provides for a private right of action. Any person who suffers damage or loss because of the impersonation may bring a civil action for damages and injunctive relief.
The new law is codified at section 528.5 of the California Penal Code. The legislation passed the Senate and Assembly without dissent, and was signed into law on September 25, 2010.