Faking identity with permission: could I regret it?
July 12, 2012 2:11 PM   Subscribe

In the US of A, what's the legality of pretending to be someone else? With their permission, over the phone, to health insurance companies and the like. I'm a personal assistant fresh out of college, and I'd like to know how my self-absorbed and well-respected boss could possibly screw me over later.

I'm a personal assistant to a person who is a professor at a top Ivy League school. They regularly and explicitly ask me to call companies pretending to be them. I was griping to friends about the difficulty of sorting out this person's health insurance issues, and they warned me that what I'm doing could be illegal in some way. Usually I go the soft route and say "I'm calling on behalf of X" and then when the person on the other end says "Okay, could you spell your name for me, X?" I don't correct them as to my identity. Sometimes I do simply claim to be X (especially for the health insurance company), which is what my boss has specifically asked me to do.

Is this illegal? I googled, but turned up nothing relevant. My boss is not 100% pleased with me, and their penchant for twisting words and claiming I said things that I demonstrably did not is making me very nervous. I think the chances of this coming back to haunt me are slim, but I'm getting paranoid. Preemptively asking them to authorize me would make them very angry, especially as I pretend to be them for a number of companies. Since taking the "better safe than sorry" route could further ruin our working relationship, I'd love to have something concrete to fall back on if I need to insist that I will only be me.

Is it possible that I could get in trouble? If my boss mentions this when speaking to future, prospective employers, could I regret it?
posted by Baethan to Law & Government (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
No! This is as common as dirt.

You have this guy's express permission to call these people on his behalf, he's instructed you to do so.

I'd be looking for new job, if only for my own mental health on this. But if you're asked to call on Professor so and so'd behalf, it's fine.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:15 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is common as dirt and I pretty much refuse to do it. It has cost me, I'm sure, but I refuse to be on that legal hook. I also refuse to sign my bosses' names.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:21 PM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh dear. I hadn't even thought about all the check-signing I do. I'm screwed!
posted by Baethan at 2:27 PM on July 12, 2012

Loooongtime personal assistant here. No idea of the legalities, but I've done it thousands of times. It's basically the only way to be a kick-ass assistant.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:27 PM on July 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Apologies for babysitting the post: I'm glad to hear it's common, but am also genuinely curious about the legality of pretending to be someone else, and where I can read about that.
posted by Baethan at 2:35 PM on July 12, 2012

You have your boss's explicit permission to take care of insurance issues on their behalf. You're not forging checks, you're just taking care of what needs to get taken care of. I can't see how you'd be in any legal trouble at all.

In my experience, insurance companies don't much care who they're talking to as long as you have all the information they need to verify an account (SSN, mother's maiden name, etc.) -- I think mine even has an option on the menu for "third parties" calling on behalf of other people.

Then again, your particular job doesn't sound like that much fun.
posted by mgar at 2:36 PM on July 12, 2012

I (a man) have been impersonating my wife for credit card companies and the like since before we were married (about ten years). Only once -- one single time -- did the person on the other end question whether my middle name was really "Elizabeth."

Personal assistants do this for their bosses all the time, especially on college campuses.
posted by gerryblog at 2:43 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're not forging checks, you're just taking care of what needs to get taken care of. I can't see how you'd be in any legal trouble at all.

He should have his bank give you check signing privileges. That's what I do.

I have heard of enough bosses throwing their assistants under the bus when some lawsuit comes up that I will not forge anything.

Blahlala is right though- forging things is the best way to be a kick-ass assistant. I made the personal calculation that being kick-ass was not justification enough to be bare-assed.

This is one of the reasons I never ended up at the top of any heaps.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:02 PM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also, even if your boss is awesome as hell, he may not be the legal problem. If he's a one man office and he dies, his heirs will come after you for god knows what. If he's an exec at a big company, he ends up fired and his bosses or replacement will come after you for god knows what.

At best you had better have this permission in writing, preferably multiple times. Emails are great for this, and they don't have to come from him. You can say, "I did as you asked and pretended to be you when I called XYZ Insurance Co and they told me that your policy..."

Then make sure to never delete your emails.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:04 PM on July 12, 2012 [9 favorites]

Is your boss not pleased with you because you passed yourself off as them on the phone to an insurance company? Or are you just generally garden variety worried about your job status and your boss' level of professionalism?

In my opinion, your boss would have to be extremely vindictive, like to the point of mental instability, to attempt to use this against you in a damaging way. Especially if you did this on his/her explicit instructions. I'm pretty sure if it came to legal action, the fact that your boss asked you to do this would probably come to light and prevent it being considered fraud.

It's possible that your boss could use this against you in terms of providing references or spreading around gossip about you. Then again, if things aren't going well at your job, you don't want to use your boss as a reference, anyway. Even if things are maybe going sort of OK, if your boss is a loose canon, maybe better not to open yourself up to toxic shit.

As others have said, it's pretty much accepted that this is how it works. It's kind of hard for your boss to bad-mouth you by saying, "and she signed my name on checks! She made phone calls on my behalf and has all my personal info!" if you're acting in a personal assistant capacity. That's all stuff that comes with the territory of having a personal assistant. You would not have been hired if your boss didn't trust you to do these things in a responsible manner.
posted by Sara C. at 3:15 PM on July 12, 2012

Er, I've been an executive assistant for ten years and I've never pretended to be anybody. This is not something you have to do in order to be a successful assistant.
posted by something something at 3:35 PM on July 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

AFAIK, you can call yourself anything you like as long as you're not doing it to commit fraud. And as long as you're not getting some kind of personal benefit from this (other than the work itself), there's not really any evidence of fraud. So don't call up his bank pretending to be him and ask them to transfer $10,000 into your bank account and you're fine.

Tell your boss that you're getting mildly concerned about this. You know it's not terribly rational, but could he please write you a memo you can keep on file authorizing you to do whatever it is you're doing.
posted by wierdo at 4:47 PM on July 12, 2012

The word you are looking for is "pretexting" and it is, in certain contexts, illegal. Here's the FTC's description of those contexts:
There Ought to Be a Law — There Is

Under federal law — the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act — it’s illegal for anyone to:
  • use false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or documents to get customer information from a financial institution or directly from a customer of a financial institution.
  • use forged, counterfeit, lost, or stolen documents to get customer information from a financial institution or directly from a customer of a financial institution.
  • ask another person to get someone else’s customer information using false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or using false, fictitious or fraudulent documents or forged, counterfeit, lost, or stolen documents.
The Federal Trade Commission Act also generally prohibits pretexting for sensitive consumer information.
Now, you say you have the professor's permission, so that's good...but you also say you are worried the professor might claim not to have given you permission, and that's bad. Of course, the pretexting provisions in Gramm-Leach-Bliley are only about financial information, but there are individual states that have similar laws about pretexting for, for instance, telecommunications information (so, getting call records).

I would tread very lightly here, if I were you. IANYL, TINLA.
posted by devinemissk at 5:41 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

And, damn it, I forgot that there IS a federal law about telephone record pretexting.

Tread. Lightly.
posted by devinemissk at 5:43 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you continue to do this, keep a log religiously. Include Boss' request, names, dates, times, who was called, outcomes, etc. Keep the book with you. I also like the idea of emailing your Boss with detailed updates concerning what you did, etc.
posted by quince at 5:45 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

When signing cheques for others behalf, I tend to just put "pp" before the name.
Per Procurationem, is that not in use any more?
posted by lundman at 6:32 PM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've worked in this exact type of work relationship:

A. It seems impossible to walk away, it isn't. You should. You might not realize this for a while, but it's not normal to be scared of your boss.

B. If I'm guessing correctly, you probably have all their passwords, account information and details. Why would they turn you in? You could ruin their lives. You could take out every dollar they have and flee to Mexico! You're so good at "being" them, you did it professionally!

C. Probably illegal. Probably no one will care. Boss will not mention this to future, prospective employers,
posted by thebrokenmuse at 6:54 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I doubt the boss will ever renege on the permission, as it were, but what I'd worry about is a scenario where either he decides to play games with someone over a contract you signed his name to ("well as a matter of fact you can't hold me to that because my assistant Baethan actually signed it") or the like. While his intention would not be to throw you under the bus, it might find you caught in the crosshairs, at least to the extent of winding up testifying in some messy civil matter or another.

Things like calls to insurance companies I wouldn't worry about. Signing checks using his name seems like it could lead to a problem sooner or later. If he got sideways with you, he could dispute whether things you signed checks for were to his benefit. At the very least, your reputation could be damaged. I'd do his paperwork, balance his checkbook, etc., and then bring bills to him for signature. He's so busy he can't sign his own checks? Give me a break.

One of these days. by the way, assuming you do not do this job forever, some assistant he has doing this will take him to the cleaners.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:00 PM on July 12, 2012

Best answer: Welcome to the wonderful world of agency!

Agency is the legal concept of one person being authorized to act on behalf of another. There are two kinds of authority here, "actual authority," i.e., whether the principal has actually authorized the agent to act, and "apparent authority," i.e., whether third-parties may reasonably believe that the agent has actual authority.

Agency is the subject of many statutes and precedents, because it's such an important yet such a messy concept. I'm involved in a rather contentious lawsuit with agency as one of the most important issues, so yeah, this stuff is kind of a big deal.

This really doesn't strike me as "pretexting." You aren't your boss, but you are acting with his authority. So even if there's no apparent authority, i.e., the person on the other end of the line doesn't believe you, there is actual authority, because your boss has asked you to do this stuff.

Still, you need a formal legal opinion here. It sounds like there's some stuff here that's normal but some stuff that might not be, and the fact that your boss seems a bit... twitchy... is discomfiting. I'd head over to the university's legal department. You can probably get a confidential opinion out of them, and possibly even some assurances from the university about protecting you.
posted by valkyryn at 5:50 AM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

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