The information age has made identity theft more commonplace than ever before.
Digital Dream Space
Much as I enjoy reading about movies, tales from behind the scenes of film journalism usually put me to sleep. But an experience I had the other night was simply too odd not to share. So if you're bored by the life of a journalist and would prefer only to read the end result, believe me, I feel your pain. Just bear with me on this one.
On Wednesday night, I attended an all-media screening of "Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1" at the Loews Lincoln Square on 68th and Broadway. Most of the screenings I attend take place in private screening rooms, but large commercial releases usually play to a majority of media outlets in these regular venues a few days before opening to the public. Studios tend to mix the media attendance with some non-professional audiences to help build word of mouth, often hoping that the reaction of "normal" audiences might somehow sway egghead critics from slamming movies with crowdpleaser potential. "Twilight" is a good example: Not every critic may respond warmly to the franchise, but its ardent teen defenders are pretty much guaranteed to shriek at every Robert Pattinson cutaway no matter how shitty the movie. (It turns out that "Breaking Dawn" isn't shitty at all, but that's a different issue that you can read about here.)
Summit went into overdrive with its all-media "Breaking Dawn" screening--in fact, they cloned it. By the time I arrived at the theater for the 8pm screening, the 7pm screening had started long ago, and a third screening was scheduled to begin later on. Anticipation for the movie was noticeable even in the lobby. That's exactly why I find all-media screenings problematic: They represent an attempt to establish standards for a film before journalists can react. I just want to see the damn thing.
As it turns out for "Breaking Dawn," I just wanted to see damn thing so bad that--as Summit did for the movie--I cloned myself. At least, it certainly seemed that way when I checked in for the 8pm. "Oh, he's already here," a publicist told me when I gave her my name. "He's watching the 7pm now."
"That's not possible," I told her. "I'm here." I hesitated, stumbled. "I'm me, here, now," I said. "Do you want to see my driver's license?"
I got a quizzical look and a Blackberry shoved in my face. "Is this you?" she asked.
I looked at the screen and the email displayed on it. Everything checked out: A message from someone whose named was listed "Eric Kohn" with a pithy one-sentence RSVP to the 7pm. Did I miss something?
"That's not my email address," I said. I felt a strange heat rising in my face. The sender was labeled "Erickohnfilm@gmail.com," an address I had never seen before.
Now it was her turn to hesitate. "Um, could it be someone else with your name?"
I'm not the first person to recognize that many people out there share my name. In the age of Facebook, we've all discovered our doppelganger clubs. I'm well aware of the conservative public affairs consultant named Eric Kohn based in Chicago, and a couple of others I've found online, none of whom live in New York. Or work in journalism, much less the niche world of film journalism.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning...he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
I explained this to the publicist, asserted that someone must have impersonated me to gain access to the screening, and insisted they pull said person out of the 7pm in progress. They had seating assignments. I knew the guy was in the building.
She denied me, refused to interrupt the movie, handed me my ticket to the 8pm screening and tried to attend to other matters. I'm not usually crazy about giving hell to publicists unless I'm denied access I need to do my job, but this was one unique situation. Nevertheless, I couldn't find a way to persuade her or anyone else at the theater working on the film that we needed to rally together and take this impostor down. It was a lost cause.
I watched the movie, went home, and immediately sent a mass email to all the reps for both studio and smaller-scale releases listed in my address book. Some of these people I know and see on a regular basis, which makes it unlikely that any of them had signed Fake Me into any screenings without at least dropping me a line about it later. But a lot of studios have big staffs and revolving doors, so I needed them to know that a con artist was in their midst. It wasn't just my problem. It was our problem.
Having taken care of that, I drafted an email to Erickohnfilm@gmail.com. The subject read, "From the real Eric Kohn":
Hi there--I wanted to let you know that I attended tonight's 8pm
TWILIGHT screening at 68th Street and was informed that someone with
my name had already checked into the 7pm screening. I was shown the
email RSVP from this address, so please be aware that I will be
alerting the appropriate industry contacts about this situation. If
indeed you are using my name to gain access to press screenings under
false pretenses, I consider this an act of identity theft and plan to
treat it as such.
The next morning, I received an email from a publicist at Disney (whom I'd never met) informing me that Fake Eric had submitted an RSVP to the New York premiere of "War Horse." She forwarded me the email:
I write for moving pictures magazine and I'm in NYC for a while working and was wondering if I could please come to the 12/4 Ziegfeld showing of war horse
Thank you in advance if at all possible
Temporarily ignoring the uncharacteristic disregard for capitalization, I briefly (very, very briefly) wondered if there was any chance that I actually could have sent this email. I now felt like I was in some kind of twisted Kafkaesque parable where I had woken up and lost my identity. Since I used to freelance for Moving Pictures, this RSVP almost looked legit. Either someone had done their homework, or a rift in the space-time-continuum had opened up a portal for another Me to wander into this world and continue on as usual. Or something.
Turns out it wasn't nearly as complex as either possibility. Later that day, I received an email from Erickohnfilm@gmail.com himself:
I never said I was Eric from indiewire.com or even worked for indiewire.didnt even know there was an Eric Kohn from indiewire. Not trying to identity theft u or gain access to press screenings. Was just seeing twilight. Sorry for the mixup. Won't happen again.
I immediately wrote him back:
I find that hard to believe since a publicist from Disney forwarded me
your RSVP to WAR HORSE, where you identify yourself as a contributor
to Moving Pictures magazine, a publication I used to write for. I
think you need to be more upfront with me about what you're doing
A few minutes later, he responded:
Yes truthfully i wanted to get into twilight and war horse. my friend found the name in that magazine. Said the person was in la so would not be in nyc so i should use that name. Seriously that was it. Again,sorry for that.My apologies.Wont happen again.Was stupid of me and didnt mean to cause you any problem last night.Will be deleting this account and it wont happen again.
In the last few years, I've learned a lot about the ramifications of working in a public forum. Say something smarmy or mildly narcissistic and people will call you on it. Get a fact wrong and people will call you on it. Take a controversial stance or make a dumb comment and you'll immediately spawn a couple of enemies, whose disdain for you won't fade no matter how badly you think they've misjudged your character. I'd rather ignore the slander than waste time arguing against it.
You can talk shit about me. Just don't try to become
In today's environment, identity theft has become a greater threat than ever before. Fake twitter accounts run rampant, sometimes as a form as high parody and other times as a sneakier and morally questionable means of tainting someone's reputation. In this case, some smartass thought he could pull a con job by simply tracking down a couple of email addresses and using the name of a person he figured would never know the difference.
He was wrong, of course, and anyone who has considered trying something similar should realize that they're wrong, too. In the information age, the ease with which someone can slip into a professional setting involves simply pushing the right buttons. For a long time, the media world was an elitist environment with an internal logic that only insiders understood. Despite some upsides to this democratization, now that anyone can manipulate their way into the fold, all information is suspect. Fake Me was an especially gratuitous example.
About an hour after I emailed Erickohn@gmail.com, I received a voicemail from a mysterious number. A deep voice sounded troubled:
Hey, Eric. This is Da--this is the guy who had the problem with "Twilight." Really sorry about that, dude…very sorry. It was just "Twilight" and "War Horse." It won't happen again. It was stupid. The account has been deleted. Again, really sorry, dude. Hope it didn't cause any inconvenience. Take care.
I don't feel sorry for Fake Me. His invention left me rattled, more aware than ever that media has turned into a dangerously malleable thing. But that doesn't mean I didn't feel a little sorry for his supremely idiotic behavior. A good friend put it right when I played the message back. "Wow," she said. "Your impostor sounds kind of like a nice guy."
You know what they say about appearances.