When Portland chef Harding Lee Smith appeared to send a Twitter message to Zapoteca restaurant calling the eatery “disgusting,” “gross” and other things that can’t be printed here, the restaurant’s owners had reason to be puzzled.

And so did Smith.

Turns out, Smith wasn’t the one tweeting from the @HardingLeeSmith account or posting on a similar Facebook page set up under his name.

Both accounts, created in late August, featured Smith’s photo, which had been lifted from other websites. The photo used on the Facebook account was taken without permission from a copyrighted MaineToday Media website.

The only indication the accounts were fake came from the tenor of the posts, which insulted local and national chefs, including Rachael Ray, Mario Batali and Giada De Laurentiis, as well as Zapoteca, and which made potentially libelous statements about Smith’s work habits and personal life.

“It’s very disturbing that it can happen and there’s very little you can do about it,” Smith said.

In recent years, social media impersonators have gone after celebrities, politicians, professional athletes, college presidents and corporations. Average people who lack social media accounts have also been targeted by criminals, who use the false accounts to contact a person’s real family and friends and ask for money.

“You’re more likely to see this in a bigger city,” said Rich Brooks, a social media expert and owner of Portland-based Flyte New Media. He hasn’t heard of any similar incidents in Maine.

Gillian Britt, who heads gBritt PR in Portland and handles public relations for Smith’s The Front Room, The Grill Room and The Corner Room restaurants, learned about the fake accounts before Smith did. She immediately checked to see what steps she could take to get the accounts removed.

“You have to respond as swiftly and persuasively as possible,” said Ann Ewing, who heads Ewing Communications in Buxton and specializes in crisis communication. “The thing about social media is someone reads it and then tells five friends, and those five friends may never read it, but now they have a negative image in their minds. Things on these sites can be blown out of proportion really quickly.”

Britt found Twitter to be more responsive than Facebook in dealing with the false accounts. The site has an easy-to-find impersonation policy prohibiting the creation of fake accounts.

Twitter does carve out an exception for “parody, commentary, or fan accounts.” To qualify as a parody account, the username can’t be the exact name of the person being parodied and the account name should include a “distinguishing word, such as ‘not,’ ‘fake,’ or ‘fan.’ “

“Twitter got back to me right away and said, ‘We need to confirm who you are,’ ” Britt said. “So we faxed his passport (to Twitter). In a couple days, they’d closed down the account.”

Facebook has a less clearly defined policy on impersonation, although the site does say it prohibits fake profiles. Britt alerted Facebook, but never heard back from the site. The Facebook page was eventually taken down, but it’s unclear whether Facebook or the impersonator removed it.

“In the meantime, we looked to see who was following the Twitter account,” Britt said. “I let people who were following it know it was a fake account and asked them if they could stop following it.”

Likewise, Britt contacted people she knew who were friends of the fake Facebook page.

Though he did field phone calls from friends and acquaintances asking about the sites, Smith said, “I don’t think it’s been overly damaging. Most people with a brain would realize there’s no way that could be me.”

Smith was the subject of a lawsuit filed in early 2010 by former employees who alleged wage and hour violations. A series of related protests outside The Front Room culminated in a now-infamous incident on Jan. 17, 2010, in which a supporter of Smith’s sprayed six protesters and a police officer with fox urine. According to attorney Donald Fontaine, who represented the plaintiffs, the lawsuit has been settled.

Ewing said if Smith were her client, she would advise him to explain the situation using as many channels as possible, including an email to his contacts list and a news release to food writers.

Kevin Melega, a social media and public relations specialist at Burgess Advertising & Marketing in Portland, said, “People on social media do like transparency. When something like this happens, it’s important to acknowledge it and move on.”

Had Smith already taken ownership of his name on Facebook and Twitter and, as Melega recommends, placed “his brand in a positive light,” it would have been more difficult for someone to impersonate him, but not impossible.

“We did talk about setting up an official account,” Britt said, “but he didn’t want to.”

Instead, Smith protected his name and the names of his eateries as intellectual property and is exploring legal options.

The identity of the person who set up the accounts in Smith’s name remains a mystery.

“I wish we’d know who has done this,” Britt said. “But I don’t think we’ll ever know because (social media sites) don’t provide that information.”

Attorney Stephen Wilson, a partner at Preti Flaherty who specializes in entertainment law and intellectual property, declined to comment on this specific incident. However, he said, a variety of laws can be used to pursue such a case, including statutes governing fraud, deceptive practices, defamation, trade libel, right to privacy and identify theft.

“There are many, many laws, so you have to look at the facts of a specific case,” Wilson said. “Some may apply on the civil side and some may be criminal. There are many laws, but people are finding newer ways and creative ways to act inappropriately.

“The short answer is there very well may be more than one type of claim for situations that involve misuse of social media.”

Brooks believes people with an oversized persona may be more vulnerable to such anonymous slander campaigns.

“If you have a personality that’s bigger than life and you’ve ruffled feathers, you may be a bigger target for this and the posts are more likely to be believable,” Brooks said.

He offered what he says is the simplest way to protect yourself from social media impersonators. “Bottom line: Be a good citizen.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila