Are digital kidnappers using your baby's photos?

Over the past couple years, we have seen a growing and disturbing Instagram community called baby role-players. Parents, who post photos of their children on social media sites, are learning these pictures are being stolen and being reposted by others.

These Instagram users steal images of babies and children off websites, blogs and social media sites, give them a new name, and claim them as their own. Since these photos do not belong to the users posting them, what are they using them for?

They are creating a fantasy world around them. Sometimes they create entire fake family story lines. Others playing the game will then interact in the comments of each photo, role-playing as they virtually feed, cuddle, and play and even reprimand these “virtual” children. Some role-players even portray themselves as virtual adoption agencies, where other role-players can request specific babies and toddlers they’d like to adopt. Most are teenagers pretending at being parents but some are more disturbing, with users sexually obsessing over undressed babies or breast-feeding.

Child advocacy groups have petitioned Instagram to delete and ban role-playing accounts. Instagram has said the trend is a violation of their company's policies and if they are notified of a picture that is breaking the rules, they will remove it from their site. It should be noted that while it is illegal to impersonate another person, under most state laws, there’s no law against pretending someone is related to you. Stealing photos is however a copyright infringement and you can contact your attorney to discuss your options.

So, what is the best protection for your private family photos? Before sharing a photo online, you should ensure there aren't any identifying details that could help a stranger locate your child in real life. 

1. Download an app that can watermark your photos such as Iwatermark or MyPix, putting a message on them that identifies your children as yours. This would make it tougher for the role players to pretend your child belonged to them.
2. Never add location tags to your photos, this stops other people from knowing where your child is located. 
3. Before you ever post a picture online, take a look at your privacy settings on every social media site you use. Make sure you've locked it down to the strictest privacy settings possible. Then, when you post, you can often restrict who sees your child's photos to the specific users you want.  Avoid "Tagging" friends and family only spreads the photo to more and more people.
4. Want more security? Utilize photo services like Flickr and Photobucket, which can give you an option to only share photos with people who have been given a private link.
5. And finally, if you're still concerned, skip the posting altogether and just send photos to loved ones via email.

Julie Van Ameyde is the owner of Simply Social Media. She puts her combined knowledge of social media platforms and best practices as a veteran business owner to work for clients in a myriad of vertical markets, including law, medicine, finance, technology, manufacturing, retail and service-based organizations. In addition, she contributes considerable time and energy to civic outreach programs, as well as community and charity groups.