“The Internet – Your Legal Rights and Responsibilities”

March 14, 2012

Let’s face it – we live in a web-based world. More and more of us are shopping, conducting business online, and using social media to connect both personally and professionally.

Below are some helpful tips, based on the three areas we at the Allegheny County Bar Association hear about most often.

The Internet and your children

It’s a given - your children are going to be online, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, there are things you can do to keep them safe.

Instruct your children:

  • to never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online.
  • to never upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the Internet or an online service to people they do not personally know.
  • to never give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name, or telephone number.
  • to never download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance there could be sexually explicit images.
  • to never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing.
  • that whatever they are told online may or may not be true.

Conducting business online

  • Use extreme caution when revealing any of your personal identification information on the Internet; look for the yellow "lock" symbol in your browser window to ensure the site is secure.
  • Consider using an alternate disposable e-mail account, like Yahoo or Hotmail, for transactions you complete over the Internet. Use this alternate account instead of your personal e-mail account in order to keep your identity more secure.
  • Use encryption technology when possible for transmitting personal information over the Internet (encryption technology scrambles the information you enter and is used by many Internet browsers).
  • Install and keep your virus software up-to-date.
  • Avoid storing personal information on your computer.
  • Never send any personal information (i.e., Social Security number, bank account information) in an e-mail. THEY ARE NOT SAFE.

Identity theft online

Identity theft occurs when someone uses personal information like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number to commit fraud. Identity thieves try to trick you into giving them information by using highly sophisticated e-mails that appear to come from banks, insurance companies, Internet service providers, auction sites, and other kinds of websites. These e-mails, which may even look like real e-mails from the company or its actual website, request your personal information in order to "verify" accounts or "clear up" errors that have occurred.
Legitimate businesses do not ask for Social Security numbers or bank account numbers on the Internet. Do not respond to such e-mails and do not click on any links they contain. If you wish to check with the company, type the address of the website into your own computer or telephone your question.
If you believe someone has used your personal identifying information to obtain credit in your name, you should:

  • file a police report about the events.
  • contact the creditor to request more information and copies of documents about the fraudulent transaction, enclosing a copy of the police report.
  • send the national Consumer Reporting Agencies a copy of the police report and request that they block all reporting about the transaction.

The creditor and the national Consumer Reporting Agencies have a very limited time to respond to your requests (generally 15 days after you send them a police report of identity theft) and may ask for only limited supporting documents before blocking the item. For example, you may be asked to sign a statement under oath (an "affidavit") explaining what happened.

Free speech on the web - what you can and cannot say or post

In most cases a statement about someone or a business that is made on a website is viewed under traditional libel, slander, and defamation standards.

Usually a negative statement of opinion about someone or a business does not give rise to any legal action. Keep in mind that a website cannot be sued for posting the opinions of someone else in an open forum. So if Joe Smith goes on a public forum and says that you are a miserable human being, there is nothing you can do. The statement is too general and is a matter of opinion.

Conversely, if that same person in the same forum says that you are a criminal or a child molester, that IS actionable. It is no longer a matter of opinion or a general statement.

If you have legal questions, you can call the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555.