Stolen Profile Photos, Can You Protect Yours?

Stolen Profile Photos, Can You Protect Yours?

Profile Pictures Being Stolen
Profile Pictures Being Stolen (shutterstock – bought and paid for!)


If you Google “Profile Photo Stolen” or “Stolen Facebook Photos”  you might be very surprised to see some really shocking stories of ordinary people who have had their online images “stolen” and used for purposes they didn’t intend.  This Sunday the Brisbane Times reported on a story about a man who found out his profile photo was in the top search results on Google Images for the search term “Profile Photo” and not only that, he found out  that the picture of his face was being used for fake profiles, on resume’s, dating sites and more.

This type of image theft has been going on for a while online, but with the popularity of social media it has escalated.

No one knows how many online photos are stolen, but there are probably millions stolen every year. If you do find out that an image of you, or a family member has been stolen, it is incredibly lucky that you have discovered it, due to the amount of images that exist on the internet, it really would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

If you do find out that a photo that belongs to you, or is of a member of your family, is being used by someone else, getting the photo taken down from the various places it has been posted online, might be impossible, depending on how much it has been shared or used.

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What would someone want with someone else profile picture?

The most common use is that the image “thief” wants to use a believable or attractive photo to give credence to a profile to scam other users in some way. Twitter had a huge problem with this in the early days, (they are getting better at deleting them but there are still millions of fake Twitter accounts) with scammers creating hundreds of fake accounts to “follow” and popularise accounts. Users who wanted to look very popular on Twitter could buy thousands of Fake “Bot” (Robot)  followers for as little as five dollars. These “Bot” accounts often used photos that were simply “stolen” from other accounts, google image search, flickr, or Facebook. Fake accounts are also used spread spam, viruses and used to hack. Twitter isn’t the only platform with this issue, Facebook and Instagram also have a big problem with fake accounts, which probably really took off with the original “My Space”

In the case of the man reported in the Brisbane Times, his profile was also used on a dating app. There are thousands upon thousands of fake accounts on dating apps that use “stolen” photos to make those profiles appear more “normal” and attractive.

It Get’s Worse…

In the worst case scenario your photo or your daughters photo could be used on a pornography site, either as is, or photoshopped. There have been some horrendous cases where girls have had their image used in advertising for pornography, and the ability to have the photos taken down is an impossible task.

Even worse still is having your child’s photo stolen, and used for “role playing” , advertising or for ridicule. In one scenario babies photos were being stolen and added to a Facebook group that was set up as an “Ugly Baby” group.


The person that took the photo owns the photo. You do waive some rights to use of your photo if you upload your photo to Facebook, Instagram or other photo sharing websites. These social media apps, can use your photos in advertising for example, it’s a good idea to understand the Terms And Conditions of these platforms if you are concerned about how they might user your posts or images.

Even if the photo is of your family member but it was taken by another person who uploaded the photo, the person that held the camera is the one who owns the copyright. Case in point the Monkey Selfie, where the monkey was proven to own the photo, not the photographer who owned the camera the monkey took a selfie with.

What Can You Do?

  1. There have been some suggestions that you could or should watermark your photos to prevent them being used, watermarking means putting your name or a signature across them to make them unusable, but watermarks can be removed by anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Photoshop. It certainly makes it a bit more of a deterrent, but in practical terms most people won’t go to the trouble, unless they are a professional photographer.
  2. There are plugins you can install on websites/blogs to prevent “right clicking” and downloading photos, but being able to “screen shot” (take a photo of a computer screen via a keystroke) prevents that from being an effective deterrent. It only discourages people who are looking for high resolution photos.
  3. You could upload only small low resolution photos, and that might also act as a deterrent.
  4. You can also run any photo through Google image search to see where it shows up on the internet. However, if the photo is protected or used inside an app on a profile (like Instagram) with privacy settings set up, Google won’t find it. Only publicly viewable photos will be found. I do know that some users of online dating use Google Image Search to check if an account is real or fake.
  5. Set your social media accounts to the most private settings, but be aware friends can “share” or steal your photos as happened to this family.

The Solution:

There is only one….

Don’t upload any photo to the internet you couldn’t live with having stolen. And before you say, “Oh well, what I don’t know can’t hurt me”, think of how you would feel if your child’s image was discovered photoshopped nude and used on a pornographic or pedophile website, and yes that is happening.

It may be one in a thousand chance that your or your family members image is stolen, but don’t make it easy for the thieves. Be careful about what you share, how often you share, and consider archiving your images and posts on your social media and photo sharing accounts after a time.

More about posting photos of your children on Facebook




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  • Don J

    As a professional multimedia designer and developer for over 18 years, I would argue that not “anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop” can effectively remove a watermark, if that watermark is correctly placed and suitably complicated. And even to those with the skills to do so, that amount of cloning and image manipulation is incredibly time-consuming.

    • Key words “if that watermark is correctly placed and suitably complicated” Don most aren’t and therefor easy to crop out. And putting watermarks on, is also a pain for most ordinary folks. Speaking as a designer with over 30 years experience…..