Joining a star's clique now seems to be just a click away.
On social networking sites like MySpace, users can become "friends" with Paris Hilton, Jenna Jameson, Hilary Duff, Madonna and "America's Next Top Model” winner Adrianne Curry, just to name a few (click on the links to check out their pages).
These profiles are real. But be warned: your new celebrity friend may be a faux. Any Fred or Frannie can feign stardom on the Web, and sometimes even the most cyber-savvy surfers will fall for it.
Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Donald Trump, for example, have more than 30 poser profiles, while media magnets like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton have hundreds.
“There are a lot of problems with predators who pretend to be celebrities,” said Parry Aftab, executive director of wiredsafety.org, a site that provides help, safety information and education to Internet and mobile device users.
“Anybody can pretend to be anybody they want and set up a profile. MySpacers need to recognize that they are often being conned. This is illegal.”
Despite the fact that it is virtually impossible to completely pull the plug on all pseudo profiles, the big names themselves are working on the problem.
Pop star Nick Lachey isn’t happy that “What’s Left of Him” is multiple personalities. So the singer is currently working with wiredsaftey.org to establish a program that will involve putting a stamp of certification on genuine celebrity profiles across the Web world.
Montel Williams was also shocked to discover three people claiming to be "Montel Williams" on MySpace.
“This can be very damaging to one’s career,” Aftab said. “As a father, Montel was very upset with how he was depicted on one of the pages. Another fraud page was so clever and so accurate that even he was surprised. Sometimes it can be very hard it decipher what is real and what is not.”
Unfortunately for many famous people targeted in these socializing scams, their Internet imitators can bring about real-life repercussions.
San Francisco public TV host Josh Kornbluth was the prey of a pretend profile that contained offensive sexual content discreetly laced throughout.
Last June, managers at his employer, KQED, received anonymous e-mails from people who said they saw the profile and demanded that Kornbluth be fired.
Clearly, a nasty fraud site can hurt a star. But if you think that there’s no harm in setting up a site that simulates a celeb in a supportive and non-defamatory way, think again.
“Just in getting hits on your space by pretending to be someone famous, you are benefiting commercially and that’s illegal,” said Aftab. “By all means set up a fan site, but don’t pretend to actually be somebody you are not.”
So what spurs 'Net users to set up these bogus bios?
“Some fans do it out of flattery, not realizing what they’re doing is wrong,” said Sydney, Australia-based media and communications specialist Stephanie Woods. “Others want to satisfy their alter egos or experience what it may be like to lead a ‘better’ life. As for the defamatory profiles, that usually stems for somebody who wants to vent their dislike of a particular person."
That said, an increasing number of real celebrities are setting up in cyberspace.
“It’s a way of reaching your fan base on an interpersonal level," said Louise Kellman, a 24-year-old San Francisco-based PR consultant and self-confessed MySpace junkie. “Celebrities are allowing people to get a sense of what goes on when the cameras aren’t rolling. Fans really identify with that.”
And when it comes to developing a drove of devotees, social networking sites seem to be working.
“People from all ages, from all walks of life are hooked on this phenomenon and it’s rising rapidly,” said Kellman. “So it’s obvious why more and more celebs are jumping on the bandwagon. It provides them with an extra opportunity for self-promotion, the chance to stay in touch with their fanbase and of course encourages their 'community' to participate in buying merchandise, downloading their music or going to watch their movie. Best of all, it doesn’t cost a thing to set up.”
But how can ordinary fans separate the stars from the imposters?
“It’s safest to always assume it’s a fake,” said Jordan McAuley, founder of contactanycelebrity.com. “Genuine profiles should always have official management contact details so you can verify [their] validity with them.”
Aftab also advises social networkers to steer clear of anyone claiming to be a star or a close celeb pal, and says celebrities' publicity reps are undergoing specialized training in how to handle these hiccups (while MySpace officials don’t scout around for fake pages, if they receive a complaint from the victim of a falsified profile, they will immediately remove the page).
But despite the sea of scammers surfing the 'Net, if you understand what is real, the revolution of MySpace and other social networking sites can closely connect you with your idols and bring about a whole new family of friends.
"It’s bridging the gap between the fans and the famous," Kellman said.