Swindled by the Screen. Can You Take Legal Action Against a Catfish?

What is Catfishing?

Catfishing refers to the act of luring someone into a relationship by creating a fictional persona online. The term was first coined in the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” which followed a man who discovered the woman he fell in love with online actually didn’t exist (Proofpoint).

Catfishing involves creating fake social media profiles, usually using photos stolen from other people online. The catfisher fabricates an alternate identity and life story to deceive their victim. Common tactics used by catfishers include (NordVPN):

  • Pretending to be someone else by using fake names, photos, jobs, locations
  • Developing elaborate backstories and life details
  • Cultivating an online relationship through messaging and social media
  • Gaining trust and intimacy from the victim over weeks/months
  • Finding excuses to avoid meeting in person or video chatting

The motives behind catfishing vary, but often involve exploiting the victim for attention, money, gifts or even as part of a bigger scam. Catfishing is a form of online deception and identity fraud.

Is Catfishing Illegal?

In most cases, catfishing is not illegal. There are generally no laws against misrepresenting yourself or using fake profiles online. However, there are some exceptions where catfishing could potentially cross the line into illegal activity:

Impersonation – Falsely posing as another person in order to deceive someone could potentially qualify as criminal impersonation, identity theft, or fraud depending on the specifics of the case.

Fraud – Using a fake identity to scam someone out of money or gain financial benefits illegally could be considered fraud or wire fraud.

someone creating a fake online profile

Stalking/Harassment – Catfishing someone in order to stalk or harass them, or impersonating someone in order to stalk/harass their family or friends, may break cyberstalking or cyberharassment laws.

Sextortion – Coercing someone into providing nude photos or videos of themselves using a fake identity and then threatening to share the media unless the victim complies with demands could be considered sextortion.

Sexual Exploitation of Minors – Posing as a minor to solicit sexual material from teens, or posing as a teen to seduce a minor, would violate numerous state and federal laws.

In general, catfishing itself does not break the law in most jurisdictions. But specific behaviors sometimes associated with catfishing may be illegal depending on the circumstances.

Can You Sue for Catfishing?

While catfishing itself is generally not illegal, in some cases victims may have grounds to sue the catfisher in civil court. Some potential claims include:

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED): Victims may argue the catfisher’s conduct was extreme or outrageous, causing severe emotional trauma. However, the conduct must go beyond merely being offensive or annoying. See this source.

Defamation: If the catfisher spread false, damaging information about the victim, a defamation lawsuit may be possible. However, victims often must prove actual monetary damages resulted.

Fraud: If the catfisher scammed the victim out of money or gifts, a civil fraud claim could apply. However, catfishing for romance itself does not necessarily constitute fraud.

Invasion of Privacy: Secretly recording or distributing private images or information without consent may violate privacy laws. However, merely using a fake identity is not enough.

Stalking/Harassment: In extreme cases where the catfishing involved threats, constant contact, or inducing fear, anti-stalking laws may allow civil damages. However, the conduct must be repeated and egregious.

Despite these potential claims, successfully winning a lawsuit for catfishing can be very difficult. Challenges include:

  • Proving significant, calculable damages
  • Overcoming free speech protections for false identity/information
  • Meeting the high bar for what constitutes harassment, stalking, or IIED
  • Establishing the catfisher’s identity and ability to pay judgement

Given these hurdles, many catfishing victims find the time, costs, and uncertainty of lawsuits not worthwhile unless truly egregious circumstances were involved.

Notable Catfishing Lawsuits

There have been a few high-profile lawsuits related to catfishing in recent years:

In 2018, a California woman sued MTV and the producers of Catfish for negligence and defamation after being portrayed as a catfish on the show (source). She claimed the show portrayed her falsely and damaged her reputation. The case was eventually dismissed.

a courtroom scene with a catfishing lawsuit

That same year, a Michigan man sued Tinder for negligence after being scammed out of $200,000 by a catfish posing as a female kickboxer on the dating app. The man claimed Tinder failed to vet its users and prevent fraudulent accounts (source). The case was dismissed due to Tinder’s terms of service.

In 2019, a Texas woman sued Apple for negligence after her ex-boyfriend used iMessage to catfish her. She claimed Apple failed to warn about vulnerabilities in their messaging system that enabled harassment. The case was dismissed due to Communications Decency Act protections (source).

While these lawsuits brought public awareness to catfishing issues, none have succeeded so far due to existing laws and terms of service protections for online platforms.

Damages From Catfishing

Catfishing can lead to significant emotional, reputational, and financial damages for victims. Being deceived in an online relationship can cause trauma, anxiety, depression, and trust issues that may require therapy and counseling to overcome (https://www.findlaw.com/litigation/filing-a-lawsuit/can-i-sue-someone-for-catfishing-me-.html). Victims may feel embarrassed and humiliated when the deception is revealed publicly, harming their reputation. This is especially true if intimate photos or details were shared as part of the catfishing scheme.

Financial damages can also occur through wire fraud, identify theft, or scams perpetrated through catfishing. According to the FBI, romance scams cost victims $547 million in 2021, up 80% from the previous year (https://www.cybersmile.org/what-we-do/advice-help/catfishing). Catfishers may convince their victims to send money for various false needs and emergencies. Quantifying these emotional and reputational damages can be challenging, but victims can account for specific therapy and counseling costs, lost wages from distress, and calculate the total funds lost in scams.

Lawsuits related to catfishing often seek damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, defamation, and fraud depending on the details of the case. The harm caused by these deceitful relationships can total tens of thousands of dollars or more when factoring in all costs to the victim. Documenting these damages thoroughly is important for building a strong case to recover losses.

How to Prove Catfishing

Proving catfishing often requires collecting and preserving evidence of the catfisher’s actions. This may involve taking screenshots of messages, profiles, photos or videos shared by the catfisher. It’s important to document as much as possible to establish a timeline and pattern of fraudulent behavior.

Working with tech companies can help obtain records and data from social media sites, dating apps and other platforms where the catfishing occurred. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Match.com have procedures to request records for investigations. Cyber investigators may also be able to retrieve digital evidence from smartphones, computers and accounts.

collecting digital evidence of catfishing

Victims should avoid deleting any correspondence with the catfisher, as this evidence could be critical. Device logs, metadata and geotags may also help confirm the deceit. For severe cases, hiring a private investigator to track down the real identity of the catfisher may be warranted.

By diligently preserving evidence and working with tech companies and investigators, victims can often uncover proof of catfishing. This evidence can then be used in building a legal case or pursuing other remedies.

Alternatives to Suing

While lawsuits can be very costly and time consuming, there are other alternatives which may help victims get justice and heal from catfishing:

Reporting catfishers to authorities and legitimate dating websites like Tinder and Match can potentially get their accounts taken down and prevent them from victimizing more people. On sites like Facebook, you can report fake accounts directly to get them removed. Many states also have cyberbullying and harassment laws which authorities can pursue if the catfishing escalates from civil matters into criminal behavior.

Seeking counseling, support groups, and therapy can also help victims process the betrayal and trauma of being deceived. Organizations like the Catfish Victims Support Group provide a community to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences. Trained mental health professionals can assist in building back self-esteem and learning how to form healthier relationships after catfishing.

While dealing with the aftermath of catfishing may feel overwhelming, know there are resources and options available beyond just lawsuits. Focusing on healing and preventing further deception through reporting can help victims move forward.

How to Avoid Being Catfished

There are several red flags to watch out for that may indicate someone is trying to catfish you:

Look for inconsistencies in their story or details about their life. Catfish often struggle keeping lies straight. If you detect contradictory information or statements that don’t add up, it could be a sign of catfishing according to this source.

Be wary if they refuse to video chat or meet up. Many catfish avoid live interactions where they can be caught more easily. Pressure for intimacy without ever meeting face-to-face is also suspicious according to this article.

Conduct reverse image searches on their profile pictures. Fake accounts often use stock photos or stolen images of attractive people. You can drag a picture into the Google Images search bar to find matches across the web according to this guide.

Look up background details they provide whenever possible. If they claim a certain education or occupation, verify it through research. Inconsistencies could unmask a catfish scheme.

Move conversations to platforms with stronger identity verification when feasible. Catfish have a harder time deceiving on sites requiring confirmed phone numbers or social media connections.

Listen to your instincts. If something feels off, take your time establishing trust. Never send compromising photos or financial information to someone you haven’t fully verified.

Recovery After Catfishing

someone recovering from being catfished

Being catfished can leave a victim feeling betrayed, embarrassed and experiencing a sense of loss. Recovering from these feelings and rebuilding self-esteem and trust takes time and effort. According to relationships expert Dr. Katherine Hertlein, catfishing victims often experience symptoms similar to PTSD, like hypervigilance and trouble forming intimate relationships (Psychology Today).

To cope with the betrayal and embarrassment of being deceived, it helps to share your experience with trusted friends and family who can offer support. Consider seeing a counselor or therapist to process the trauma and develop coping tools. Don’t blame yourself for being manipulated – the catfisher is fully responsible.

The loss of the imaginary relationship may feel very real. Allow yourself to grieve, but stay active with hobbies, work, exercise and socializing. This helps counteract withdrawal and depression. Build up your self-confidence by setting goals, learning new skills and focusing on self-care. Avoid diving into a new relationship right away, take it slow when you’re ready. With time, it’s possible to trust again. According to psychologist Dr. M. Gary Neuman, “The healthiest approach is to build confidence gradually by developing relationships offline, face-to-face” (Bumble).

The Future of Catfishing Laws

As catfishing continues to be an issue in the digital age, there is a push for stronger laws to protect victims. While catfishing itself is not illegal, the actions that accompany it like stalking, harassment, and fraud can be. However, the law has been slow to catch up to the realities of online deception.

Some advocate for new laws that specifically target catfishing and provide legal recourse for victims. They argue that current laws are insufficient as they require victims to prove substantial harm, even though catfishing can cause serious emotional distress. There have been attempts to introduce anti-catfishing bills, but none have become law.

Going forward, the role of tech companies in prevention will also be important. Sites like Facebook, Instagram and dating apps can implement improved identity verification to cut down on fake profiles. They can also provide better victim resources and streamlined reporting tools. However, balancing safety with user privacy remains an ongoing challenge.

In conclusion, stronger legal protections and prevention methods are needed to address the issue of catfishing. As technology continues to advance, the law and tech companies will both play a key role in reducing online deception and its effects on victims.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top