Last week, a sheriff’s office in South Carolina posted a pretty crazy story to its Facebook page about how Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature had foiled a woman’s attempt to hide her identity from the police.
The story, which was shared thousands of times and got some pick-up in the local media, went like this: A woman driving a white SUV got pulled over for committing a traffic violation. She told the officers she didn’t have her driver’s license, and instead gave them her name and her date of birth. The officers ran the name through their system, didn’t find any flags, so they just sent her off with a ticket for not having her driver’s license.
But then the supposed crazy thing happened: According to the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, one of the officers “was on Facebook when a profile matching the name given to Deputies on the traffic stop popped up on her people she may know. The kicker? The name was for a different person.”
The woman that the officers had pulled over was Amanda Leigh Wall, 31, according to police, but she had given officers her sister’s name and date of birth. When the officers ran Wall’s actual name through their system, they discovered why she’d resorted to familial identity theft: Wall’s driver’s license was suspended.
The sheriff’s office relayed this story via its Facebook page along with Wall’s photo, the hashtags #GirlStopLying and #YouThoughtYouFooledUs, and a call for Wall to turn herself in.
A kind soul flagged this story for me on Twitter, because I’ve reported on how Facebook is able to make inexplicable (and sometimes creepy) connections between ostensible strangers with its “People You May Know” friend recommendation service. This incident seemed particularly inexplicable. It sounded almost unbelievable... and that’s because it is not, in fact, exactly what happened.
I got in touch with the police department whose officer had allegedly spotted Wall’s sister as a ‘person you may know.’ (Confusingly, this was a different agency than the one that posted the story to Facebook. Officers from two agencies had tag-teamed on this traffic stop.) A spokesperson from the Goose Creek County Police Department told me that the story, as relayed by the Berkeley Sheriff’s Office, is “not what happened at all.”
The Goose County officer involved in the stop had a feeling that Wall wasn’t giving the proper identity. So she later looked up the name Wall gave on Facebook, as one does, and discovered a person with a profile photo that didn’t look like the person who had been driving the white SUV. Let’s call this person Aggrieved Sister. The officer had a mutual friend with Aggrieved Sister and got Aggrieved Sister’s number from that person, called her and asked whether she’d recently been pulled over, and if she hadn’t, who might have given officers her name and date of birth.
Aggrieved Sister decided not to take the fall and handed over Wall’s real name. Thanksgiving is going to be really awkward for this clan this year.
“The officer did good investigative work and found out who the person really was,” said the spokesperson by phone.
So a magical and mysterious algorithm did not solve this case; it was just an officer doing some Facebook-stalking and tapping into the powers of the crowd-sourced surveillance machine Mark Zuckerberg birthed onto the world.
A few lessons to take from this story:
- Don’t lie about your identity to police.
- If you do lie to police about who you are, don’t give them the name of someone who actually knows who you are.
- Especially don’t give police your sister’s name. (Unless it’s your twin sister. Then it’s go time baby.)
- And, as always, don’t believe everything you read on Facebook. #YouThoughtYouFooledUs