By Becki Melchione
“Someone is using photos of your babies and claiming that they’re hers. I thought that you should know,” the comment on my blog stated, “she did the same thing to me.” I clicked on the embedded link to Facebook and someone named Melany Lucia. Right there, on my screen, were my daughters whisked away, “Ready for a trip to Rhode Island,” according to her caption. Sitting at the table in our Baltimore apartment, I stared at my photo of my daughters on her timeline. Who would do such a thing? Who was this woman? Why would she steal a photo of someone else’s children and post them as her own?
I had kept a blog of my twins’ first months for all of our long-distance friends and family to see. I thought I was being careful, not including full names or location information. From this way of sharing our first moments with our newborns, Melany had stolen four photographs of Olivia and Madison. The images themselves were no different than what any other parent of twins would take, two swaddled babes sleeping, two bright faces side by side smiling, two sitting in their double stroller.
As a new and exhausted mom, I was just getting used to the amount of attention twins attract. To say people notice twins is an understatement. Grandma-types smile and coo, teenage girls squeal “how cute,” and middle-aged fathers flash a knowing smile, almost every time I leave my home with my sky-eyed babies. Maybe because twins are unusual. Maybe because people desire the type of bond they have, one that begins months before their entrance into the world and lasts a lifetime. Or maybe because stories still abound about twins speaking in their own language and having a telepathic connection to each other.
I’m not sure what the attraction is. At first, I thought that the curiosity and adoration that Olivia and Maddy inspire was harmless fun. But there have been incidents that put me on guard. Some people run up, camera stuck out like a weapon and take a shot. The first time it happened was at a big bash that our apartment building throws at the beginning of summer. A young guy appeared out of nowhere, snapped a couple of photos, and took off before we could even react. “What was that?” I turned to my husband Luc.
“Probably just someone taking publicity pics,” he responded. That the photographer hadn’t asked permission was odd, but I shrugged it off at the time. It’s not like he tried to touch them.
A few weeks later, at an art festival downtown, a complete stranger who looked to be a little drunk or high, walked up to me, Luc, and our daughters in their our double stroller.
“Can I hold one?” she slurred.
“What?” Luc blurted, like he hadn’t heard correctly.
“Can I hold…”
Once he processed what she was asking, Luc responded with an emphatic, “No.”
“Why not? You got two. You can watch me the whole time,” she reached out to grab Maddy’s hand.
“NO,” Luc repeated louder, moving to stand between the stroller and the woman.
“I’ll sit right on the curb there,” she persisted.
“How many times do I have to say ‘NO’?” he said loud enough for passersby to turn and look.
We walked away quickly, not looking back. “You know, you have to be very careful with the girls. Don’t let them out of your sight for a second. Someone might want to steal them,” Luc worried, anxious about the intentions of strangers. Over-dramatic as usual, I thought. He hadn’t seen as many of the smiles, winks and good wishes that the girls inspired in complete strangers as I had.
Then someone cyber-stole our girls.
Melany had posted, between risqué selfies of a pretty woman in black bras and tight white tank tops, curled blonde hair and caked on make-up, photos of a three or four year old girl, my twins, and a couple of disturbing images of a newborn with a breathing tube and what seemed like too many wires attached to her. I raced through reading the first screen. Relationship status: Single. Lives in New Bedford, MA. No employment information. Born on January 1, 1990. Who the hell would post this? Who would believe that she had the time with four children under four? Not a real mother, not like this. She must be crazy.
A noise from the twins’ bedroom ripped my attention from the computer screen. If I didn’t get Olivia before her moans turned to cries, she’d wake Maddy too. I shut my laptop, tiptoed into their room, and saw my Olivia’s wide eyes through the crib rails. I scooped her up and held her a bit too close.
The minute both Olivia and Maddy were safe in their cribs for the night, I returned to the demented world of Melany Lucia. She claimed all four children were hers, that the last was born premature and remained in the hospital. Between visits to the hospital, she said that she was taking day trips to the beach and going out dancing.
One entry turned my anger into fury. “Ella is dead. I don’t know what to do,” she wrote under another photo of my daughters. My body grew hot, my hands shaking, my chest constricting. I clicked the picture to see the responses, six likes and a couple of comments, all by men of various ages and races. “So sorry for your loss,” some idiot in a baseball cap wrote. “Luc, come see this! Someone stole Olivia and Maddy’s photos and is posting them as her own kids. And look, she killed Maddy!” He read the page, made a quick judgment, “She’s obviously disturbed, but it’s just a picture. Don’t worry about it,” and walked away.
But I couldn’t let it go. At that moment, all I needed to do for the safety of my daughters was to get to the bottom of this, of who she was and what her intentions were. I combed through all of her posts. Her account was less than a year old. All of her friends were men. She posted about being single, going out, having trouble paying her rent, taking “her” kids to the doctor and hospital what seemed like way too often. “PM me” she’d written a few times to men who commented on her posts about needing money. That’s it! She must be trying to get money out of them, I figured, somewhat relieved that her intentions weren’t worse.
Stories of kidnapping, sexual and physical abuse milled about the foggy anger in my head. They didn’t come into focus though, because for me, those thoughts were impossible to even consider. One thought beaconed in my mind: I didn’t want my daughters’ photos there. Who knew where it might lead? Into the hands and mind of a pedophile?
Facebook recommends reporting any offensive images as well as contacting the poster directly. I reported the images, but none of the four options — It’s annoying or not interesting; I’m in this photo and I don’t like it; I don’t think it should be on Facebook; It’s spam — accurately described my problem. There wasn’t a button for “Someone stole these photos of my child” or even “Someone is posting my photos as their own” and no place for notes to explain why a picture of a couple of babies was offensive. Furious at the woman, at Facebook and at the whole internet for making this too easy, I messaged her: “REMOVE THE PHOTOS OF MY DAUGHTERS IMMEDIATELY!”
Her response? She blocked me so I could no longer see her page. Feeling helpless, I turned to my Moms of Multiples’ (MOMs) Facebook group and asked for advice. One mom suggested shaming her in the comments; another mom suggested having as many people as possible flag the children’s images. So I declared war, enlisting troops, over thirty moms from my MOMS group, to report the photos of my daughters. It was really all I could do when she stole my family and my only recourse was waiting for Facebook to do something about it. If not for the real life Olivia and Madison needing me, I would have spent countless late night hours tracing her digital trail, planning my revenge.
After two days of changing my passwords and increasing my privacy settings on every social media account I had, in between feedings and diaper changes and play time, Facebook notified me that it removed the photos I reported. After posting this update and asking for confirmation, my army of moms reported that Facebook also deleted all of the other photos of cyber-stolen children from the grip of this woman. Although the whole episode took place over a few days, the powerlessness of the situation permeated every second of every one of those sixty-six hours.
With the rescue of my daughters’ photos confirmed, I didn’t feel the relief I expected. In its place was an awareness of a vulnerability that I’m still unable to fully comprehend and a glimpse into the level of vigilance that I will need to keep my children safe. Social media has made it easier for my in-laws in California to see my daughters’ first day of school and friends from London to Buenos Aires to hear their singing, but its downside is exposure to the unknown. I like to think that I’m building the foundation of a loving and trusting mother-child relationship that will help protect them from the harm others may want to cause them. But in cyber-space, I am out of my league. There, I already failed when photos meant for loved ones were hijacked and I unwittingly aided in my daughters’ cyber-kidnapping.
Last time I checked with my husband’s login, Melany Lucia’s Facebook account no longer existed. Maybe whoever Melany was simply created a new account with a different name. She might still be using my daughters’ photos.
Author’s note: When this happened, almost two years ago, no one I spoke with had even heard of baby role play, or cyber-kidnapping, as I called it. Now I’m thankful that awareness is being raised as a result of a handful of stories that have cast light on this dark part of the Internet.
Becki Melchione is a writer living in the Philadelphia area with her husband and twin daughters. Although they’re only toddlers, Becki’s mom instinct tells her that neither will be allowed a Facebook, Instagram or any other social media account until they’re in college.