Is LinkedIn creating phantom profiles for 12 year olds?

Young teens and tweens aren't supposed to have LinkedIn accounts, but they do -- thanks in large part to LinkedIn's aggressive email policies. Update: LinkedIn responds.

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LinkedIn offers a great many services, some of them useful, some of them marginal, and some borderline spammy. But when I got an email from a reader worried that the business social network had created a profile for her young granddaughter, it appeared LinkedIn had sunk to a new low.

Beth A. is a recruiter on the east coast who relies heavily on LinkedIn for her work. One day she logged into her account to find a familiar name under the People You May Know column on the right side of her screen: Her 12-year-old granddaughter. (To protect the girl’s privacy, I’ll just call her Cecelia.)

So Beth asked her granddaughter, who revealed that two weeks ago she had received multiple emails welcoming her to LinkedIn and urging her to connect with others.

Beth was aghast. Cecelia had no recollection of ever having been on LinkedIn, let alone creating a profile. How, Beth wondered, could this have happened? Did someone else create the profile for her daughter? Was LinkedIn buying email addresses in bulk and creating ghost profiles to boost its subscriber numbers?

She tried calling LinkedIn customer support, but couldn’t reach a human. When she emailed customer support, she got nowhere. So she turned to me.

Did LinkedIn really create a phantom account for a 12 year old girl? Yes, it turns out, it did – though LinkedIn had some help from Cecelia and her friends.

The experiment

I asked Beth for copies of all the emails LinkedIn had sent Cecelia, as well as those she had sent to LinkedIn support. Sure enough, Cecelia had a live LinkedIn profile, though it was skeletal – no photo, no details, just the name, her country, and the fact she had one connection.

I had a pretty good idea of how this may have happened, so I decided to conduct an experiment to test my hypothesis. First, I created a Gmail account for a fictional person (“The Danger”) and added it to my Outlook address book. I then logged into my own LinkedIn account and uploaded those contacts.

LinkedIn showed me a list of six of those contacts, urging me to invite them to join the network. They were all selected by default.

Note The Danger in slot number five. I de-selected all but that account, and clicked Add to Network. Almost immediately, an email arrived in my test Gmail account. It looked like this:

I clicked the “Confirm that you know Dan” button. That launched a Web page containing a pre-filled in registration form for joining LinkedIn. All I had to do was supply a password and click “Join Dan’s Network” and I was in.

That bought me to another Web form where I was prompted for my location, job history, education, and so on – some of which, the form noted, was “required” if I wanted to create an account. I quit out of that screen without adding any info.

So had I signed up for LinkedIn, or not? Turns out I had. This is what my new test profile now looked like:

I also received an email from Linkedin welcoming me to the service and prompting me to finish my profile.

What really happened

It turns out that a family friend of Beth’s (I’ll call her Joan) had recently unloaded her contacts to LinkedIn. Among them was the email address of the 12-year-old. Shortly thereafter Cecelia received an email from LinkedIn asking her to confirm that she knew Joan. As many 12-year-olds might, she answered honestly by clicking the button.

She apparently supplied a password to LinkedIn, did nothing further, and then forgot about it. Beth was able to log in to her granddaughter’s account using one of the 12-year-old’s usual passwords, confirming that Cecelia did in fact create enough of an account to have a phantom profile and to be pelted with emails from the service.

So is LinkedIn to blame for this? Yes, at least partially. As I’ve noted elsewhere, LinkedIn is very aggressive about prompting users to upload their address books – one of the big reasons why it managed to grow from less than 20 million members in 2007 to more than to more than 200 million earlier this year.

And it’s not just haranguing new users. I’ve had a LinkedIn account for at least five years, and I’d estimate that it still nags me to upload my address books every third or fourth time I log in.

LinkedIn then compounds the problem by selecting people to invite by default. It’s essentially forcing you to opt out of spamming your friends. The odds are strong that, of the millions of LinkedIn users who have uploaded their address books to the service and clicked through the default settings, some have invited minors to the service.

LinkedIn’s rules are very clear: If you’re under age 18, you’re not supposed to have an account.

At the same time, however, LinkedIn does not ask anyone to supply their date of birth at sign up, nor do they require any form of age verification whatsoever. (To be fair, no other social network I'm aware of requires age verification for signups.)

Remember, Cecelia did not receive an email from LinkedIn saying "Click here to create your new LinkedIn account (and oh, by the way, you need to be at least 18 years old)." She received an email asking her to confirm information submitted by an adult acquaintance, and then was prompted to create an account in order to do so. To my mind, that's deliberate deception. I'd bet money some data wonk at LinkedIn discovered that click through rates shot up when they used the phrase "confirm" instead of "join."

So are there other 12 year olds (or younger) with phantom LinkedIn profiles? Almost certainly.

Help yourself

The worst part may be how little help Beth got with her problem. At first, LinkedIn's customer service thought she was talking about her own profile, despite being pretty clear she was talking about her granddaughter. When Beth tried the phone option, the only number where she could leave a callback number on voice mail was the media line, reserved for journalists like yours truly. She was on the verge of taking legal action when she emailed me. I pointed her to links where she could log in and delete the account.

Customer support did finally escalate her complaint to its Trust & Safety team. Their response was a doozy:

In other words, an adult can't delete the account; the 12 year old who's not supposed to be using LinkedIn in the first place is the one who has to do it. Nice.

Nearly all of my interactions with Beth happened over the three-day holiday weekend, so I’ve had no opportunity to get LinkedIn’s side of the story. But if they respond, I will update it here.

Update: LinkedIn has responded via email, lodging a strong objection to my premise that the business social network has created 'phantom profiles' of users. Per spokesperson Julie Inouye: "LinkedIn does not create phantom profiles nor creates profiles for members without their implicit action." She added that she would try to get someone from LinkedIn's customer support team to try to help the 12 year old close her account. As a result, I've changed the headline of this story, which originally read "Why is LinkedIn creating phantom profiles for 12 year olds?"

Starting September 12, LinkedIn will be lowering the minimum age for the service to 14 years old, and requiring age verification for users under 18.

Got a question about social media or privacy?TY4NS blogger Dan Tynanmay have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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