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I-Team Exclusive: Family Discovers Their Photo Is On Advertisements Around The World

By Charlotte Huffman

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Picture this - you snap a photo of your family and post it online. Next thing you know is your photo has been hijacked and companies around the world are using it without your permission.

That's exactly what a Chester County family says happened to them.

"We had photos online and never thought anything like this would happen," Kristen Thomas told Eyewitness News on Tuesday.

Thomas first learned about the problem when she was made aware that her family's photo was on a David Kessler's campaign ad that was mailed to voters.

Thomas did not know Kessler, a candidate for state representative in Pennsylvania's 130th district and says she did not give him permission to use her family photo.

Kessler told Eyewitness News that his printer got the photo from the free stock photo website

Thomas says she and the photographer never submitted the photo to the website or gave it permission to use the photo.

Instead, she believes stole the 2009 photo from her blog.

But the photo on Kessler's campaign ad was just the tip of the iceberg.

The Thomas family's photo has become the face of advertisements selling a laundry list of products such as; Microsoft apps, Egyptian sunscreen, Italian pet tracking devices, cameras, infertility drugs and tons of holiday cards.

"Who knew we were in the sunscreen and infertility business!" Bryan Thomas said jokingly.

The I-Team found the family's photo on more than 30 websites in countries including Turkey, Brazil, Iran, Portugal, Chile, Slovakia and Romania.

"A lot of the sites are in different languages. I don't know what we're selling!" said Kristin Thomas.

A quick search on for "smiling family" turns up the Thomas' photo.

The site does not post any terms and conditions or restrictions and the site does not mention that it has any rights to the photos.

"It is the type of website that we as attorneys look at and say - it has no business operating," said Mark McCreary with Philadelphia-based firm, Fox Rothschild LLP.

McCreary specializes in data and privacy issues and says now that the photo has gone viral there is not a lot the Thomas family can do.

McCreary warns that anyone who uses a photo like the Thomas family's photo without the proper rights from the photo's owner could face legal consequences especially if the photo is used for-profit and commercial purposes.

What's the best way to prevent your photos from being taken without your permission?

"I'll tell you what I tell my eleven-year-old daughter - don't put your photos online. As soon as you go public with them, whether though Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, they are publicly available and you lose all control of those photos," said McCreary.

If you choose to forego McCreary's warning and post your photos online, he offered the following tips for protecting yourself:


  • Do not share your photos publicly when posting them online.  Social media sites generally allow you to make photos private. But remember, restricting a photo's visibility does not fully protect your photo.


  • "If I'm your Facebook friend and able to see your photo, I'm able to copy the photo and do something with it. (Using strict privacy settings) is a good practice but you shouldn't have any assurance that if you have your privacy settings set up correctly, that the photo is going to stay where you want it to," said McCreary.


  • Do not just accept every friend request.  Make sure you know the person first.


  • Use software to make a visible watermark on the photo. A watermark serves as a deterrent and most likely will no longer appeal to stock photo sites.


  • Disable the GPS metadata feature.  This feature can lead criminals or others to locations you have visited or frequent.


  • Have photos removed from Google's Image Search. (You can find instructions for doing this by simply searching "removing content from Google").


  • Use a copyright notice: © 2014.  Jane Doe.  All Rights Reserved.


  • If you think your photo is valuable, file a federal copyright application and use software to insert ownership information into the metadata of the photo. This will help prove the photo was taken by you.


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