25 Investigates: Thousands of Mass. IDs stolen to lobby for more expensive internet

BOSTON -- Thousands of Massachusetts residents have had their identities stolen and used to lobby the government to support new rules that could make the internet more expensive – a flood of fake comments one expert said is intended to drown out the very real public opposition.

Many of the victims – including a 13-year-old North Shore boy, a Lexington realtor, a marketing professional from Jamaica Plain and the wife of U.S. Congressman Michael Capuano – were all unaware someone had used their names and addresses to urge the Federal Communications Commission to get rid of so-called net neutrality protections until 25 Investigates contacted them.

“I would never have done this and I'm really angry that someone would use my name,” said Barbara Capuano, wife of U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Somerville.

Capuano said she never wrote the online comment to the FCC, stating the current internet system is “threatening innovation” and calling for the “roll back” of net neutrality protections.

And there’s reason to be concerned that Capuano’s identity wasn’t the only one hijacked.

>>RELATED: Has someone used your name? Enter your name and search here

The same fake comment submitted under Capuano’s name was sent to the FCC more than 1.2 million times over three weeks during summer – including more than 14,000 times by people supposedly from Massachusetts.

25 Investigates went to dozens of addresses in Massachusetts to try to track down the people behind these form letters against net neutrality, but couldn’t find a single real person who actually submitted those comments.

“I have never had a single constituent tell me that it was a good idea to get rid of net neutrality,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano, who sent a letter to the FCC on Monday demanding an investigation into the identity theft of his wife and other Massachusetts residents.

>>READ MORE: Rep. Capuano's full letter to the FCC

Recent polls show only a small number of people – 18 percent – actually oppose net neutrality, yet the FCC is expected to vote to do away with those protections on Thursday.

Net neutrality rules currently in place prevent internet providers from slowing down or blocking access to certain websites, videos, social media, email or any other service online.

Without current net neutrality rules, critics say internet service could become more like cable television – costing you more money to access certain websites.

A 25 Investigates review of FCC comments from Massachusetts on net neutrality also found:

  • Some comments were registered to fake addresses. The house number on a Belmont residential street used to submit a comment did not exist at all and another address was a parking lot in Worcester.
  • Other comments came from people who didn't exist. At one Peabody address used to petition the FCC, a man told 25 Investigates he had lived at the home for 45 years and no one by a name used to submit a comment for that address had ever lived there.
  • 25 Investigates also found fake comments registered to Sherlock Holmes, a university that does not exist in Boston and even a Budweiser distribution facility in Medford.

Susan Elsbree, a marketing professional from Jamaica Plain, said she would have never wrote the comment sent to the FCC in July under her name and address.

“My integrity and what I believe in -- they've taken that away from me and misrepresented it,” said Elsbree.

The wording of her fake comment stating current internet rules are “damaging the American economy” was nearly identical to almost a million other comments calling for the FCC to roll back regulations on internet service providers.

In all, the FCC has received more than 23 million comments – including 470,000 from people purporting to be from Massachusetts – so far, this year, but it’s unclear how many of those comments are actually from real people.

And that may be the point.

The flood of fake comments is creating confusion and drowning out the very real public opposition to nixing current internet regulation rules, according to Boston University Professor Michelle Amazeen, who has studied the phenomenon of fake news.

“It’s creating confusion, is what it’s doing,” said Michelle Amazeen, an assistant professor at Boston University who has researched the effects of fake news. “They’re making it seem like there is not consensus – that there is division when there actually is public consensus.”

But 25 Investigates found not all comments from form letters are fake – especially those in support of net neutrality.

Lynn resident Esther Mawhinney said she submitted a comment this month from an online form letter in support of net neutrality after she followed a link from an advocacy group she supports.

Her form letter comment reads, in part, “If the FCC passes their current order, every Internet user and business in this country will be unprotected from abuse by Internet providers, and the consequences will be dire.”

Mawhinney said she wanted the FCC to know she objects to the proposal to remove internet protections.

“It's very hard to be a voice of one in a sea of thousands, but you do what you can,” she said.

Mawhinney isn’t the only one concerned.

Other government watchdogs, including the New York Attorney General and the Pew Research Center, have sounded the alarm about millions of fake FCC comments.

Last month, the Pew Research Center released a study showing mere than half of 23 million net neutrality comments submitted to the FCC since April are fake. 

The New York Attorney General has launched an investigation into the fake comments, but so far, the FCC has refused to provide any information.

>>READ MORE: FCC letter to the New York Attorney General

A spokesman for the FCC insisted the proposal to get rid of net neutrality “does not rely on or cite to any of the fake comments mentioned or reported.”