Hook, Line and Sinker. When Catfishing Crosses the Line into Illegality

What is ‘Catfishing’?

Catfishing refers to the practice of creating a false online identity or fake persona in order to deceive someone, often for romantic purposes. The term originated from the 2010 documentary film Catfish, which followed a man who discovered the woman he had fallen in love with online was not who she claimed to be.

The definition of catfishing according to Cambridge Dictionary is “the activity of pretending to be someone else online in order to trick people into forming relationships”. It typically involves using someone else’s photos and biographical information to create an elaborate fake identity on social media or dating sites.

Though catfishing began in online dating, it has spread more broadly across social media. Catfishers often target lonely or vulnerable people and use their fake personas to form emotional relationships. Their motivations vary but usually include seeking attention, financial gain, revenge or as a harmful prank.

Popular media examples that exposed catfishing schemes include the documentary films Catfish and TalHotBlond, as well as the MTV reality show Catfish: The TV Show which helps people investigate their online romantic relationships.

Motivations Behind Catfishing

There are various reasons why a person may engage in catfishing. Some of the most common motivations include:

Loneliness – Catfishing provides a way for socially isolated people to connect with others online behind a fake persona. The catfish may fabricate an exciting life to escape their own feeling of loneliness. https://socialcatfish.com/scamfish/why-do-people-catfish-the-best-20-reasons-why/

Boredom – Impersonating someone else online can provide entertainment and excitement for people who find their real lives mundane. Catfishing gives them an outlet to combat boredom. https://www.quora.com/Why-do-people-catfish

Financial Gain – Some catfish use their fake personas to scam people out of money. They may fabricate sob stories and ask for donations or gifts from their victims. https://socialcatfish.com/scamfish/why-do-people-catfish-others-online/

Romantic Relationships – Catfishing allows people to portray an idealized version of themselves to form romantic connections online. Some use it as a way to start relationships they feel unable to obtain as their true selves.

Legality of Catfishing

While catfishing itself is not illegal, there are certain circumstances in which catfishing can lead to criminal charges. Catfishing becomes illegal when it involves fraud, theft, or other criminal activity.

Some common criminal charges associated with catfishing include:

  • Identity theft – Stealing someone’s identity or personal information is illegal. Catfishers may steal photos, names, or other details from real people.
  • Fraud – Lying about your identity to obtain money, gifts, or other benefits can be considered fraud. Many catfishing scams involve financial fraud.
  • Sexual exploitation – Posing as someone else to manipulate a minor into sexual activity is illegal.
  • Stalking/harassment – Repeatedly contacting someone who has clearly said no can become stalking or harassment.

There are also laws against hacking, extortion, and threatening harm that may come into play with more extreme catfishing cases. According to Findlaw.com, at least 23 states have passed laws specifically targeting online impersonation and catfishing.

For example, California’s law against “falsely impersonating another actual person through or on an Internet Web site or by other electronic means” can be used to prosecute illegal catfishing. Most states treat serious catfishing as a type of fraud or identity theft crime.

Famous Criminal Catfishing Cases

There have been some high profile cases where catfishing led to criminal charges and convictions. Two of the most well known examples are Angela Wesselman (who posed as Abby Lynn) and Carissa Hads (who created the fake persona of Drew Phillips).

Angela Wesselman / Abby Lynn

In 2000, Angela Wesselman began posing as a teenage girl named Abby Lynn on AOL chatrooms. She eventually manipulated a man named Thomas Montgomery into kidnapping a real girl named Alicia Kozakiewicz. Montgomery was arrested and sentenced to life in prison while Wesselman was sentenced to 19 years for her role in the kidnapping. This case brought national attention to the dangers of online deception and catfishing [1].

Carissa Hads / Drew Phillips

In 2007, Carissa Hads created a fake MySpace profile using the name “Drew Phillips” and began a relationship with a teenage girl. After several months, the girl discovered Drew was not real and that Hads had been manipulating her the entire time. Hads was charged with criminal impersonation and sentenced to 6 months in jail. This was one of the first criminal convictions specifically for catfishing [2].

These cases demonstrate how catfishing can lead to very serious criminal offenses when predators use fake online identities to manipulate and harm victims. While catfishing itself is not always illegal, it frequently involves other criminal deceptions and fraudulent activity.

Impact on Catfishing Victims

Being catfished can have severe psychological effects on victims. These effects may include emotional trauma, privacy violations, and financial fraud.

Emotional trauma is common among catfishing victims. Many report feeling depressed, anxious, angry, and betrayed after discovering they were manipulated and lied to. Victims describe experiencing a sense of grief over the loss of the relationship they thought was real. This trauma can linger for years after the catfishing ends (Source: https://www.supermoney.com/encyclopedia/catfishing).

Privacy violations frequently occur in catfishing cases. Catfishers often steal personal photos or details about the victim’s life to create elaborate fake identities. Victims report feeling violated that their personal information was taken without consent. They also fear the catfisher may continue to access or spread their private data even after being caught.

Financial fraud is another issue, as catfishers sometimes scam their victims out of money. This can happen directly, with the catfisher asking for funds as part of the fake relationship. It can also occur through identity theft if the catfisher uses the victim’s information to open accounts or make purchases without authorization (Source: https://www.indiatvnews.com/lifestyle/relationships/9-signs-you-re-being-catfished-by-your-ex-2022-03-15-764446).

In summary, the impact of being catfished can be severe and long-lasting. Victims often require counseling to cope with the emotional trauma and regain a sense of safety after having their privacy violated.

How to Avoid Being Catfished

There are several steps you can take to avoid being catfished and protect yourself when interacting with someone online:

Perform a reverse image search on the person’s profile pictures using Google Images or TinEye. This will reveal if the photos are stolen from somewhere else online. As CNET notes, doing a reverse image search is one of the best ways to uncover fake profiles.

Ask the person specific personal questions and see if their answers remain consistent over time. Catfishers often struggle keeping details straight. Press for specifics like where they went to high school or past jobs.

Request video chatting early on. Many catfishers will resist or avoid actually talking face-to-face. Video chatting through FaceTime, Skype or other apps can help confirm someone’s identity.

Look for inconsistencies in what they tell you about themselves and be wary if they avoid meeting in person, give excuses, or cancel planned meetings. Trust your instincts if something feels off.

What to Do If You’ve Been Catfished

If you discover you have been catfished, it is important to take action to protect yourself. Here are some recommendations on what to do next:

First, cease all contact with the catfisher. Do not try to get revenge or confront them. Simply cut off communication on the platforms where you connected. Block their accounts if possible.

Consider reporting the catfisher to the appropriate authorities. If they scammed you out of money or threatened you, file a complaint with the police and FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov. You may be able to recover financial losses.

Seek emotional support from friends, family, or professionals. Being catfished can be traumatic and make you feel betrayed. Give yourself time to process it, but know you are not alone. Many people have been manipulated this way before.

You may also benefit from contacting victim support organizations like Catfish Victims for guidance on moving forward safely. Their advocates can provide resources and advice tailored to your situation.

While catfishing can be extremely upsetting, focus on self-care and cutting contact with the catfisher. In time, you can regain a sense of trust and learn how to better spot red flags in future relationships.

Catfishing Prevention Laws

Some states have passed laws aimed at curbing catfishing and protecting victims. For example, California passed a law in 2014 making catfishing illegal when it involves “credible impersonations” and targets a minor with the intent to harm or intimidate (1). The law imposes penalties of up to one year in jail and fines up to $1,000. Nevada also passed a law in 2015 prohibiting “electronic impersonation” with similar penalties (2).

At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Online Safety Modernization Act in 2021, which would make catfishing and other forms of online deception a criminal offense (3). However, the bill has not yet passed the Senate. Some advocates have called for a federal anti-catfishing law to establish nationwide standards and close loopholes that allow catfishers to evade prosecution.

While existing laws target some of the most egregious catfishing cases, experts say more legislation is needed. Proposed policies include: requiring dating sites to authenticate users, mandating disclosure of sponsored content, creating a public catfishing offender registry, and developing education campaigns to increase awareness of catfishing risks and prevention strategies.

(1) https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/cat-fishing.asp
(2) https://thebusinessprofessor.com/criminal-civil-law/catfishing-cybercrime-definition
(3) https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3271

Ethics of Catfishing

The ethics of catfishing are complex, as there are arguments both for and against the practice. At its core, catfishing involves deception, as the catfish misrepresents their identity to the victim. This deception removes the victim’s ability to give informed consent to the relationship. Many argue this is fundamentally unethical, regardless of the catfish’s motivation (Social media: Unraveling the Web of Lies: Catfishing on Social Media, 2023).

Potential harms from catfishing include emotional trauma, wasted time and money, and even physical danger if the victim eventually meets the catfish in person. These harms must be weighed against any benefits derived by the catfish. Some defend catfishing as a harmless fantasy or as a way for insecure people to explore relationships they feel unable to pursue honestly. However, most ethicists argue violating consent and risking harm to others cannot be justified except in extreme circumstances (To Catfish or Not to Catfish? The Ethics of Online Deception, 2018).

Ultimately, catfishing involves lies and deception that erode trust in online spaces. Strong ethical standards should consider the victim’s perspective and right to truthfulness in relationships. Though motivations may differ, catfishing violates respect for persons and poses unacceptable risks of harm (Ethics and Identity, Pearson). With the rise of social media, clear ethical guidelines are needed to discourage deception and promote authentic human connection.

The Future of Catfishing

While catfishing has been around for years, increased awareness around the deceptive practice is changing the nature of online interactions. Despite strong media attention and public education efforts, catfishing continues to be prevalent, according to a popular television host focused on exposing catfishing schemes. As people become savvier at spotting false online identities, catfishers adapt their tactics using new technologies to evade detection.

Some experts predict that artificial intelligence could assist in identifying catfish accounts through pattern recognition and language analysis. However, persistent catfishers find new ways to outmaneuver such detection methods. Ultimately, while awareness and technology may curb casual catfishing attempts, determined deceivers will likely find ways to exploit unwitting victims unless protective measures are taken.

With proper vigilance, potential targets can reduce their chances of being duped. But the onus falls on internet users to educate themselves on catfishing techniques, conduct due diligence verifying identities, and approach online interactions with informed caution.

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