How Long Can You Go to Jail for Online Impersonation? The Consequences of Catfishing

What is Catfishing?

Catfishing refers to the act of creating a fake online identity, typically using someone else’s photos and biographical information, in order to trick people into romantic relationships. The term was popularized by the 2010 documentary film Catfish and the subsequent MTV reality show of the same name.

someone using a fake online dating profile

Common catfishing tactics include using stolen or edited photos, fabricating entire fictional identities and life stories, starting online romances under false pretenses, and grooming victims by gaining their trust over weeks or months of intimate conversation. Catfish will often use excuses to avoid video chatting or meeting in person to prevent the other person from discovering their true identity.

Motivations for Catfishing

Catfishing typically occurs due to:

Loneliness or boredom – Some catfish create fake profiles because they crave social interaction and want to connect with people online. They may feel lonely or isolated in real life and use catfishing to fulfill unmet social needs. 1

Romantic attention – Catfish often pretend to be someone else in order to start romantic relationships online. They may feel unsuccessful in finding real-life partners and use catfishing to gain romantic attention and validation. 2

Financial gain – Some catfish are motivated by financial fraud, using fake identities to scam people out of money online. They may ask for loans, donations, or gifts from their victims.

Malicious intent – In some cases, catfishing is driven by more malicious motives such as stalking, bullying, stealing identities, or preying on victims. Catfish with ill intent may use elaborate fake profiles to manipulate or take advantage of others.

Potential Legal Consequences

police officer making an arrest

Catfishing can potentially lead to legal consequences depending on the specific circumstances and actions involved. Some of the main legal issues that may arise include:

Fraud – If the catfisher obtains money, gifts, or other benefits through their deception, they may face fraud charges. This is especially true if they misrepresented their identity to establish an online romantic relationship and then requested money or gifts. The charges faced could include wire fraud, mail fraud, or obtaining money under false pretenses.[1]

Identity theft – The use of someone else’s personally identifying information, such as name, photos, or details, without their consent may constitute identity theft. The catfisher essentially “steals” someone’s identity to create their fake persona. Charges depend on the specific state laws.[2]

Harassment – Repeated, unwanted contact that causes emotional distress may be considered harassment. If the victim has clearly stated they do not want further communication, continuing to contact them under false pretenses could lead to harassment charges.[3]

Stalking – In extreme cases where the catfisher repeatedly intrudes on the victim’s privacy or causes them to legitimately fear for their safety, stalking charges may apply. This depends on state laws regarding stalking and cyberstalking.[2]

Factors That Determine Sentencing

Several key factors influence the potential sentencing for catfishing crimes. According to cybercrime experts, the most important considerations include:

  • Duration and extent of deception – Catfishing schemes that persist over months or years and involve elaborate fictitious details tend to bring harsher sentences. The longer someone perpetuates a catfishing hoax, the more severely they may be punished.1
  • Financial losses incurred – If the catfishing results in considerable monetary losses through fraud or theft, the catfisher may receive a lengthier jail term. The amount of money obtained through deception impacts sentencing.2
  • Emotional distress caused – Catfishing often inflicts tremendous emotional damage on victims. Evidence showing the catfisher deliberately tried to harm their target psychologically can increase the potential jail time.3

In general, the more egregious and damaging the catfishing behavior, the harsher the punishment may be. Sentencing takes into account the totality of the circumstances and harm caused.

Notable Catfishing Cases

One of the most famous catfishing cases involved former Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o. In 2010, Te’o began an online relationship with a woman named Lennay Kekua. Though they never met in person, Te’o considered Kekua his girlfriend. However, in 2012, Te’o learned Kekua did not actually exist and was the fictional creation of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who admitted to catfishing Te’o. The elaborate hoax gained international media attention (

manti te'o catfishing news headlines

Another high-profile catfishing scheme involved a Canadian woman named Shelly Chartier who assumed various false identities online, including impersonating American model Paris Dunn. Chartier used deception tactics like these over the course of several years to manipulate various victims, including NBA basketball players. In 2018, Chartier was sentenced to 18 months in prison for her catfishing activities (

Max Possible Jail Time

The maximum possible jail time for catfishing varies greatly depending on the specific circumstances and charges. Some key factors that determine potential sentencing include:

  • Whether the catfishing involved identity theft or impersonation. This can lead to felony identity theft charges which carry longer sentences. For example, in Florida identity theft is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 fine (Defend Your Volusia Case).
  • If the catfishing facilitated other crimes. For instance, catfishing a minor to solicit indecent images would lead to child exploitation charges. Or catfishing to steal money could be charged as wire fraud.
  • The extent of damages and harm caused to victims. Large scale scams causing major financial losses or trauma could warrant longer sentences.
  • Past criminal history of the defendant.

For straightforward catfishing cases involving no other crimes, potential sentences are typically under 1 year. However the maximum possible is often several years if charged with felony identity theft or as part of another crime. The circumstances of the case are crucial in determining how a catfishing scheme will be charged and sentenced.

Likelihood of Prosecution

Despite the prevalence of catfishing scams, prosecution of catfishers by law enforcement is relatively rare. There are several key challenges that make catfishing a low priority for prosecution:

Most catfishing cases involve relatively small amounts of money lost. While the collective financial losses are in the hundreds of millions, individual cases often involve a few thousand dollars or less in losses. With limited resources, law enforcement tends to prioritize crimes involving much larger sums.

Catfishing cases are difficult and time consuming to investigate and prosecute. Catfishers often use sophisticated techniques to conceal their real identities and locations. Gathering evidence and tracking down perpetrators requires substantial investigative manpower.

Many victims are reluctant to come forward and press charges, due to embarrassment or continuing feelings for the catfisher. Without a cooperative victim, building a viable court case is extremely challenging.

Catfishing scams frequently cross multiple jurisdictions, even internationally. This can create issues around which law enforcement agency takes lead and how to effectively collaborate.

Overall, catfishing is often viewed more as an unethical behavior rather than a criminal act. So authorities tend to devote more attention and resources to crimes perceived as more serious or threatening to public safety.

Protecting Yourself

someone inspecting a suspicious dating profile

There are some tips and best practices you can follow to avoid being catfished when interacting with people online:

Look out for red flags in profiles like inconsistent details, overly filtered or generic photos, or profiles with very little personal information (source). Examine photos closely for signs of editing and ask to video chat before meeting someone in person (source).

When meeting people through dating sites or apps, take the process slowly and don’t rush into intense emotional relationships right away. Vet people thoroughly by looking them up on social media and doing reverse image searches on their photos (source).

Only share personal information gradually after establishing trust. Be very cautious sharing financial information or sending money to online romantic interests you haven’t met in person.

Listen to your instincts – if something feels wrong or too good to be true, take a step back. Confide in trusted friends and family who may have a more objective perspective on the situation.

Seeking Legal Recourse

Many victims of catfishing want to hold the catfish legally accountable. While catfishing itself is not illegal in most states, there are some legal avenues victims can pursue depending on the circumstances:

Reporting catfishing: If the catfish has committed more serious crimes like fraud or sexual exploitation, their actions may be illegal and can be reported to authorities. According to the law firm Kirk & Anderson, catfishing can potentially lead to criminal charges like fraud, identity theft, stalking, or extortion if the catfish sought financial gain, assumed someone’s identity, or threatened the victim. The victim should collect evidence and file a police report.

Civil lawsuits: Victims may be able to file a civil lawsuit against the catfish for damages like emotional distress or lost wages, though these cases can be hard to win. According to legal site, victims could potentially claim “intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, stalking, or fraud” depending on the details of the case. However, catfishing itself does not directly cause physical harm, so damages may be limited.[1]

Overall, seeking legal action for catfishing can be difficult since impersonation alone is not a crime in most states. Victims should focus on reporting any illegal activity the catfish may have done and consult a lawyer about potential civil suits.


Support for Victims

Being catfished can be an emotionally traumatic experience. Victims may feel embarrassed, ashamed, betrayed, and suffer issues like anxiety or depression. It’s important for victims to know there are resources available to help them recover.

a support group circle

Many counseling and therapy options exist to help victims process their experience. According to The Cyber Helpline, counseling can help victims “overcome trust issues and PTSD symptoms.” Support groups are another option, where victims can connect with others who have gone through similar situations. For example, Cybersmile offers an online support community for catfishing victims.

The important thing is for victims to seek help and not go through the healing process alone. With time and support, victims can regain their sense of trust and move forward.

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