Is catfishing illegal
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Catfishing and the law
Often, catfishing fraudsters use the name and image of an innocent person who is being impersonated without their knowledge. You wake up one morning and find out that someone is pretending to be you. There is a fake Instagram or a dating account, with your face, your personal information and more what is more concerning – there’s an audience and scores of victims who believe this account is you. Other times, you might be the victim of illegal catfishing, which involve one or two elements of fraud.
In today’s society, where the use of the internet and social media is paramount to people’s interactivity to the outside world, it is not surprising that some people will do anything to get attention. Stereotype’s which exist in society, portraying the ‘perfect woman or man’, conceptions about what someone should look like to be ‘desirable’ can often trigger those more lonesome individuals to question their worth. Furthermore, conceptions of ‘celebrity status’ and ‘wealth’ are also common facets people will look up to online.
These stereotypes can therefore sometimes lead these lonesome individuals who are desperate to be loved, or wanted to seek that attention from anyone even if it is fake. Perhaps there are ulterior motives too which can only make someone wonder why a person would be so cunning and evil to go out of their way to pretend to be someone else. An individual who steals images from social media to impersonate someone online, is committing a violation of that individuals right to privacy and more importantly a fake profile can cause serious harm and reputational damage.
Those individuals who believe that they are able to hide behind a screen, or perhaps they don’t think they will get caught because the image belongs to someone in a different country for example, are acting unlawfully. What is most concerning is that fake profiles are only brought to an individual’s attention when someone else points out that they had seen them online. Therefore, a fake profile could have been up for several days, weeks or months, and the individual in the photo had no idea. Its quite scary to even think about, but it is happening.
With the exception of harassment, and in some cases, Malicious Communications Act, there are no criminal laws against impersonation on social media. Social media impersonation is more often likely to be a civil law offence which could result in an injunction and damages paid by the impersonator to the victim. Only if the illegal impersonation continues after the impersonator was presented with an injunction, or if the illegal impersonation amounts to harassment, can the court send the impersonator to prison. Impersonation on social media can result in legal action against the impersonator for breach of privacy, misuse of private information, harassment and defamation.
There are two categories of victims of catfishing. The first category includes catfishing victims whose identity had been stolen by the catfishing offender. Having had their identity used to perpetrate fraud, victims of catfishing tend be unaware of the actions taken on their behalf, or in their names until those are pointed out to them by third parties, often friends and families but sometimes by a credit agency or by their bank when they are refused credit.
The second category of victims of catfishing are those who had been direct victims of the catfishing perpetrator, and who had been lured into false relationships or into divulging private or intimate information.
An example of the second category of victims of catfishing is the case of Kirat Assi v Simran Kaur Bhogal where the catfishing scam lasted for more than a decade.
You can take legal action against sue someone who impersonates you on social media or a dating website. There is a way to bring civil action against an individual who is impersonating you online. If the impact on your life becomes so significant that it is not something you can simply tolerate or ignore, you should consider what to do in the long term, particularly if you suspect that it could lead to further escalation in the conduct of the impersonator.
Fake profiles exist on Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, Instagram and Facebook and many other websites and apps, which are used for dating or for making new friends. It is not always easy to catch these catfish out. In 2020, in the UK it was reported that over one quarter of dating website users have been tricked and scammed by fake profiles. Fake online profiles on social media might not by themselves be illegal. However, there are other activities that engage catfishing or fake online accounts that may turn otherwise lawful activity into activity which is unlawful.
Sometimes the individual behind the fake profile will have an agenda such as to extort money from their online victim who has fallen for the façade. In the past, this has lead to over eight-million pounds being lost in the UK through dating website platforms as reported in 2019. The emotional damage of being the victim of catfishing is one thing, but people need to also consider the financial damage that can be caused through a fake profile on a screen and the stresses and complications which could surely follow in the future.
Romance fraud, often comes in a form of catfishing. This form of catfishing might be illegal if the fraudster had obtained pecuniary advantage due to the fraud. If the catfishing, or the romance fraud had led to sexual contact, any consent given by the victim to the contact could be rendered void and as a result, the fraudster could be charge with a number of non-consensual sex related criminal offences.
It is also likely that an illegal catfishing, or a romance fraud would result in the handing over of private information by the victim to the fraudster. The information might be disclosure about the victim’s private life, private images or audio recording of private conversations. Once the romance fraud is discovered, the victim may pursue a claim for breach of privacy against the fraudster in the civil courts.
The first time in the UK where a catfish was prosecuted, was in the case of Kirat Assi. This was a civil prosecution which was taken out after the police refused to carry out a proper criminal investigation which should have led to a criminal prosecution. The case of Kirat Assi was conducted in the High Court where the court can only order the catfish to pay the victim of the catfishing damages. A civil prosecution needs to be taken privately and at the expense of the victim. In the case of Kirat Assi, Cohen Davis took on a case of harassment on a no win no fee.
In this case, our client's identity was stolen by an impersonator who went on to catfish other victims.
Our client Ela (not her real name), came to us for help as her husband had been told by several of his friends that his wife was appearing on dating apps with her profile set to single. Her photos had been taken from her private Instagram account, and were being distributed to the public and her mobile number had also been inserted into the fake profile. Up until this realisation, that someone had set up a fake online profile of Ela, she and her husband Ted were in a happy and healthy marriage and Ela had just taken up a new job.
The fake profile had caused a rift in their relationship because this individual who had communicated with her husbands friends also seemed to know private information about Ela which initially made Ted suspicious that maybe this profile was legitimate.
One of the sentences on her profile depicted Ela as “emotionally unstable” to which she took particular offense too. Ela had wanted to reach out to the dating app moderators to demand that they take down the fake profile immediately, but at the same time she wanted to know who was behind the fake profile to start with. After speaking with one of our friendly lawyers, Ela was offered reassurance that we were able to offer her an olive branch. Through our experience and advanced knowledge of this specialised area of the law, there were ways to uncover the identity of the user and to offer Ela a piece of mind.
There was the issue of Ela’s privacy which was being breached, and there was also an element of defamation as one of the sentences on her ‘profile’ was depicted her as being “emotionally unstable, in need of a partner”. Furthermore, it appears Ela’s copyright was being breached as Ela’s images being used without her consent. With the co-operation of the website operator, we managed to have the fake profile of Ela permanently removed from the internet.
We then, used the information that was given to us by the website operator to track down the impersonator, identify him and confront him about his conduct. The impersonator immediately agreed to cease and desist his activities against our clients and to pay her damages. It turned out, he was an opportunist who claimed he did not realise that what he was doing was unlawful. It is nearly always possible to track down the identify of online impersonators, their IP addresses, email address, their telephone number and often their postal address.
If you have been impersonated online and the impersonation is causing a nuisance to your life, you should get in touch with us today for help, support and a possible permanent solution to the matter. You can read more about online harassment on our harassment law website or get in touch with us for advice.