What States Have Anti Catfishing Laws?

Catfishing refers to the practice of creating a fake online identity or persona and using it to lure or deceive someone, typically for romantic purposes. The term originated from the 2010 documentary “Catfish” which chronicled a man’s online relationship with a woman who was not who she claimed to be.

Catfishing can lead to a variety of dangers and harms. The catfisher may use the fake identity to establish an emotional connection and gain the victim’s trust, then exploit that trust for financial gain, to distribute malware, or even for human trafficking. Even if not for criminal purposes, catfishing violates informed consent and harms the victim emotionally. Finding out the person you thought you knew does not actually exist can lead to feelings of violation, shame, sadness, anger, and mistrust that affect future relationships and emotional well-being.

With the ubiquity of online relationships today through dating apps and social media, catfishing poses a serious threat. Understanding catfishing and being able to spot fake online identities is important for protecting oneself and others from manipulation and fraud.

History of Anti-Catfishing Laws

Anti-catfishing laws are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. The first state to enact such a law was California in 2014. The California law made it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone online in order to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person (1). This law was passed in the wake of several high profile catfishing cases in the state.

california state lawmaking building where first anti-catfishing law passed

Other states gradually followed California’s lead in passing anti-catfishing legislation. In 2016, Oklahoma passed a similar law making it illegal to knowingly impersonate or falsely present oneself online as another person with the intent to harm, threaten, intimidate, harass, defraud or coerce (2). Also in 2016, Texas enacted the “Catfishing Liability Act”, allowing victims of catfishing to get injunctions against perpetrators (3).

The push for anti-catfishing laws gained momentum in the mid to late 2010s as more high profile cases emerged and catfishing entered the mainstream lexicon. These laws aimed to provide recourse to victims and deter potential catfishers by imposing legal consequences for fraudulent impersonation online.

(1) https://law.siu.edu/_common/documents/law-journal/articles-2019/fall-2019/5-santi-jr-a.pdf

(2) https://www.oklahoman.com/story/news/columns/2016/05/14/gov-mary-fallins-signature-makes-catfishing-illegal-in-oklahoma/60673953007/

(3) https://www.jedsilverman.com/blog/2017/september/is-catfishing-a-crime-in-texas-/

States with Anti-Catfishing Laws

Several states have passed laws making catfishing illegal. These include:

  • California – Passed the first anti-catfishing law in 2015. The law makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone online in order to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person.
  • Texas – Passed a law in 2017 banning the use of another person’s name or persona with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person. The penalties include jail time and fines.
  • New York – Passed a law in 2019 that makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate or create a false online identity with the intent to obtain private information or engage in financial transactions.
  • Nevada – Passed a law in 2021 prohibiting the use of another person’s identity to harm, threaten, intimidate, harass, frighten, or defraud the other person. Violators face fines and possible jail time.
  • Washington – Passed a law in 2022 outlawing the creation of fictitious online identities to defraud, harm, or obtain confidential information from someone else. Offenders face gross misdemeanor charges.

While most other states do not have specific anti-catfishing laws, prosecutors may still be able to charge catfishers under more general identity theft or fraud laws in many jurisdictions.

Key Provisions of Anti-Catfishing Laws

text of legal provisions prohibiting catfishing

Anti-catfishing laws aim to prohibit and penalize the creation and use of fake online identities to manipulate or deceive others. Some key provisions of these laws include:

Creating fake profiles or personas – Laws make it illegal to impersonate someone else or fabricate an identity online with the intent to defraud or harm others. This includes using someone else’s photos or identity details without permission.

Using deception to obtain property/services – It is prohibited to engage in deception online in order to obtain money, gifts, or other property from a victim. Many laws specify this as a criminal offense or provide for civil penalties.

Harming others’ reputation – Anti-catfishing laws often have provisions prohibiting the use of fake accounts to damage someone’s reputation or relationships by spreading false information about them.

Penalties – Depending on the jurisdiction, violations can lead to criminal charges like fraud or identity theft. Laws enable victims to sue catfishers to recover monetary damages. Some laws classify catfishing as a misdemeanor or felony based on severity.

Law enforcement cooperation – Provisions authorize investigators to work with online platforms to unmask anonymous catfish accounts and collect digital evidence. This aims to improve prosecution.

Arguments For Anti-Catfishing Laws

One of the main arguments in favor of anti-catfishing laws is to protect victims and prevent emotional harm. As noted in an article from Southern Illinois University Law Journal, catfishing often involves “manipulating a victim’s emotions in order to extract intimate photos, money, or other private information” (https://law.siu.edu/_common/documents/law-journal/articles-2019/fall-2019/5-santi-jr-a.pdf). The trauma suffered by catfishing victims can be severe, leading to anxiety, depression, trust issues, and thoughts of suicide. Enacting laws that criminalize catfishing provides victims with legal recourse to hold perpetrators accountable. It also serves as a deterrent to curb this unethical behavior that preys on vulnerable people.

In addition to emotional harm, catfishing victims may suffer reputational damage or financial loss. Catfishers often share private information or intimate photos without consent. Laws prohibiting this nonconsensual distribution of private material help victims regain control over their privacy and digital footprint. There are also many cases where catfishers trick their victims into sending money for fake emergencies, travel to meet in person, or other fraudulent purposes. Anti-catfishing laws allow victims to recover these monetary damages. With clear legal consequences, these laws aim to prevent catfishing from continuing to harm more victims.

Arguments Against Anti-Catfishing Laws

Some groups argue that anti-catfishing laws can be difficult to enforce and may infringe on freedom of speech. According to one analysis, “Anti-catfishing laws are well-intentioned but can be very difficult to enforce in practice. These laws rely on victims to report instances of catfishing, but many victims are too embarrassed or afraid to come forward” (Source).

In addition, laws that criminalize using fake identities online have faced opposition on the grounds that they violate free speech protections. As reported by one legal journal, “Critics contend that criminalizing certain kinds of false speech, even with the intent to defraud, is an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights” (Source). However, proponents argue that catfishing causes real harm, and laws should balance free speech concerns with the need to protect people.

Those opposed to anti-catfishing legislation believe we must be careful not to criminalize harmless online activities in the effort to prevent truly fraudulent catfishing. But supporters argue the laws can be narrowly tailored to target only clear deception designed to manipulate victims.

Notable Catfishing Cases

Some of the most high-profile examples of catfishing include:

manti te'o catfishing headline

Manti Te’o – In 2013, it was revealed that the Notre Dame football star had been tricked into an online relationship with a fake persona named Lennay Kekua. Te’o spoke publicly about Kekua’s “death” from cancer, before finding out she never actually existed. The story became national news and highlighted the phenomenon of catfishing.

Suzie Gonzalez – The Instagram model was catfished by someone pretending to be the R&B singer Ray J for over 6 months in 2020. The catfish used Ray J’s identity and photos to start a relationship with Gonzalez. She eventually became suspicious and the deception was revealed.

Spencer Morrill – In 2017, the Utah man believed he was in a long-distance relationship for 10 months with Alicia Fox, a model he met online. After sending over $200,000, Morrill realized Fox was a catfish persona completely fabricated using stolen photos. His story helped enact Utah’s anti-catfishing law.

Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer – The children’s book author was catfished from 2008-2010 by someone she believed was her boyfriend Kerem Ozkan. Over 2 years they spoke by phone daily but never met in person. She later found out Ozkan’s identity was fake in an elaborate hoax.

How to Avoid Being Catfished

Here are some tips and strategies to detect fake profiles and avoid being catfished:

Conduct a reverse image search on profile pictures using tools like TinEye or Google Images. This can reveal if the photos are being used elsewhere online.

Look for inconsistencies in details about their life, background, age, career etc. Ask specific questions and see if their story adds up.

Insist on video chatting before meeting in person. Many catfishers will resist this or make excuses.

See if you can find the person on social media and verify they match the profile. Look for multiple connected social accounts in their name.

Do not send money to someone you haven’t met in person, no matter the reason. This is a red flag for a scam.

Go with your gut feeling. If something seems suspicious or too good to be true, proceed with caution.

Search online for the person’s name, email, phone number or details they’ve shared to uncover any past deception.

Consider running a background check if you have concerns. This can reveal undisclosed past criminal records.

Tell a friend or family member before your first in-person meeting for safety.

Meet first in a public place and do not go home with them right away. Take time to verify their identity.

What to Do If You’ve Been Catfished

If you discover that you have been catfished, there are steps you can take. First, you should stop all communication with the catfisher. There is no need to try to confront them or find out why they did it. Cease all contact immediately.

someone reporting a fake online profile

You should then report the catfishing activity. Most dating apps and social media platforms have ways to report fake accounts or abusive behavior. Provide them with any evidence you have, such as screenshots of conversations or profile information. You can also consider reporting it to your local authorities if laws were broken or you feel threatened. Many states have laws against harassment and stalking that may apply to catfishing situations.

It’s also important to get support. Confide in a friend or family member about the experience. Seek counseling if you need help processing emotions like anger, sadness, or betrayal. Don’t blame yourself – remember that the catfisher is at fault. With time and self-care, most victims of catfishing are able to move forward. Support groups can also provide a space to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences.

Some resources for reporting catfishing or seeking support include: https://beanstalkmums.com.au/dating/online-dating/catfishing-can-protect/, harassment hotlines, counseling services, and victim advocacy organizations.

The Future of Anti-Catfishing Laws

Several states are considering enacting specific anti-catfishing laws in the near future, but it remains to be seen how many will do so. Some experts predict more states will create laws criminalizing certain severe forms of catfishing. There’s debate around how broad these laws should be and if they should distinguish between catfishing for romance/deception versus catfishing for financial fraud.

Some argue anti-catfishing laws are necessary as catfishing becomes more common, to discourage harmful catfishing and provide recourse for victims. According to a State University Law Journal article, current laws are often insufficient to address catfishing behaviors1. Others argue broadly criminalizing catfishing could infringe on free speech and personal freedoms. There are also concerns these laws may be difficult to enforce.

In the future, anti-catfishing laws may:

  • Distinguish between minor personal catfishing versus severe impersonation for fraud.
  • Require proof of criminal intent to cause harm or obtain unlawful benefits.
  • Focus specifically on cases involving financial losses over a certain threshold.

Since technology enables more sophisticated deception, laws will likely evolve to address harmful catfishing without overreach. But with concerns around enforcement and free speech, the landscape for anti-catfishing laws remains uncertain.

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