Some time ago, Alaskan fisherman used to transport live Cod across the Pacific Ocean to China. The Cod would be kept in vats and fed a diet of pellets; however, they would remain almost stationary for the entire journey. This meant that the Cod would go into the vat firm and fresh but come out mushy and tasteless. The clever fisherman realised that the Cod simply were not getting enough exercise, so they had to think of a way to keep them agile. 

Their solution was to introduce Catfish to the vats. Catfish are to Cod what Wile E. Coyote is to the Road Runner. They are perennial enemies. In the wild, Catfish will chase and harass Cod, but a healthy Cod will always allude them. This natural competition successfully translated over into the vats and the Catfish, driven by instinct, chased the Cod around in their vats across the Pacific Ocean. When they arrived in China, the Cod were no longer coming out stale but were just as strong as the day they were caught in the wild.

This story is where the infamous online phenomenon of Catfishing received its namesake.

What’s Catfishing

Catfishing describes the particular type of internet predators who fabricate online identities or even social circles to trick people into emotional or romantic relationships. There are many motivations behind what drives an online predator to catfish their unsuspecting victims. Often it is a combination of revenge, loneliness, curiosity, boredom, greed, or frustration. They could be a scorned lover or a rejected suitor. They could be lonely and desperate for connection. They could be bored with an internet connection, too much time on their hands, and an appetite for chaos. 

No matter their motivation, catfishing has become an effective way for scammers to lure those looking for a relationship or earning a quick dollar into unwittingly handing over money or personal information. They use sophisticated strategies to keep their victims fresh and engaged which will alter depending on what their motivation is.

The connection between the online predators and their namesake is that both keep their victims fresh and engaged, rather than letting the relationship go stale. The difference is that where a catfish might just nip at the fin of a fleeing cod, online predators can take everything from you.

The Plot Thickens

Therein lies the secret of its success, an online predator may spend months or years developing a relationship with their victim when in reality they’re no more than a glorified imaginary friend. The Devil is in the details, and they employ carefully curated stories once they have a good idea of who their victim is.

Catfishing is not yet illegal per se. However, it employs broad range of behaviour each of which could have serious legal implications for both victim and predator.

Eventually the predator will use the fake relationship to get private photographs or personal information about your life, social movements, legal dramas, and your plans. They might use this information to gain influence over your legal proceedings, such as those in the Family Courts. Mostly though they will just do it to control and upset you.

In these circumstances, the online predator may be guilty of the offence of stalking. If they were a former lover or family member, this would be a domestic violence offence under s13 of the Crimes Personal and Domestic Violence Act (NSW).

Asks for Money

As the fake relationship progresses, your catfish might begin to ask for money. You might think you would never be tricked like that, but according to the ACCC in February 2020 alone there were 395 reports of catfishing scammers using online dating and romance. Of these 395 reports, about one-third resulted in financial loss to a hefty total of $5,729,207.00. The amount of money lost has tripled since this time last year.

Too Embarrassed

Most victims of catfishing are often too embarrassed to speak out or accept that they’ve been duped. So it is likely the financial cost is much greater than what is reported.

Whether the motivation is revenge, boredom, loneliness, or money in these situations you may find yourself talking online to a predator for a significant amount of time. They are skilled in keeping the façade going and, like the Catfish and Cod analogy, will keep you thinking all the time with complicated stories and scenarios they have gotten themselves into. 

When their goal is to steal your private information or money, they will come up with every excuse to avoid meeting you in person. Peter, a retired tyre-fitter from Dubbo has been one such victim to share his story throughout the community. In 2015 he became acquainted with a woman on an online dating website. After a few weeks, they began talking on the telephone daily. Eventually, Peter believed they were in a relationship and they began making plans to move in together. That is when she started asking him for money. It started with small amounts to cover her moving expenses which quickly tallied up to $9,500.00. When Peter began to question her sincerity, she stopped all contact and disappeared.

Yet, no matter how absurd the story becomes, innocent people still fall victim. Some time ago, a client approached me about a potential investment opportunity in Vanuatu. Apparently, a gentleman purporting to be the Vanuatu Trade Commissioner to Australasia had approached him about purchasing a papaya farm. The investment was about $100,000.00 upfront plus ongoing costs. This would translate to $40,000.00 a year in Papaya sales in Vanuatu markets.

I was handed a lot of very official documents, including what purported to be a contract for sale to buy a farm in Vanuatu, Business Financial Records, colourful pamphlets, testimonials, articles from legitimate tourism websites and even the gentleman’s verified LinkedIn business profile. 

Upfront, I told my client it seemed too good to be true and that no investment on earth could guarantee a 40% per annum return. However, my advice fell on deaf ears. There was too much ‘evidence’ to convince him otherwise. To be fair, there was a lot of evidence.

So, I went further. I researched the market value of Papaya’s in Vanuatu and the average costs of labour and farm leases. I scrutinised the ‘Contract for Sale of Land’ and determined it was only a 10-year lease. I checked my findings against the ‘Financial Statement’ and realised the entire thing was bogus. The $40,000.00 yearly income assumed each Papaya sold in Vanuatu for $3AUD. I am not sure if you have purchased a Papaya from Vanuatu recently, but they are not even close $3AUD. Then, I contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and scheduled a teleconference with the real Trade Commissioner to Vanuatu. He was fully aware of this scam and advised that the gentlemen smiling on all the pamphlets was not real but an internet persona.. After a thorough letter of advice, my client decided to back away from the ‘investment opportunity’.

Catfishing takes on truly extraordinary measures to dupe victims.

If you manage to catch your Catfisher out and you have already given them money, their actions could amount to an offence of obtaining a financial benefit by deception under s192(e) of the Crimes Act (NSW). But this is only if you are lucky enough to discover who they really are.

In more sinister circumstances, they might entice you to meet up with them so they can hurt you. This was the unfortunate reality for 15 year old Carly Ryan. In 2007, Carly was catfished by 50 year old Garry Newman. Mr. Newman assumed the online persona of ‘Brandon Kane’, a handsome young guitarist. Brandon was only one of 200 persona’s Mr. Newman had created to try and set up meetings with underage girls. Carly decided to meet up with ‘Brandon’ but was met by Mr. Newman instead. Mr. Newman made sexual advances on Carly. She rejected them. In response, Mr. Newman took her life. Mr. Newman is currently serving a 29-year imprisonment.

In response to this, ‘Carly’s Law’ was passed in 2017. Section 474.25C of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) contains an offence of “using a carriage service to prepare or plan to cause harm to, engage in sexual activity with, or procure for sexual activity, persons under 16”.

The solution to this problem is unclear. Some feel that the law already captures the dangerous consequences of catfishing.

Others suggest that there should be a standalone offence for catfishing or assuming a fake persona without waiting for an event to occur. Catfishing is premeditation to serious offences like fraud and stalking. However, it would be difficult to draft a law which could be specific enough to allow Police to prosecute but not too broad to capture other harmless behaviours. If a law were drafted too broadly, concerned parents who create a fake social media profile to check in on their children could be a guilty of a catfishing offence. In fact, anyone who manipulates their photographs or alters their name on social media may fall under such a law.

Who’s Responsible

We could hold corporations responsible and require them to vet and verify users before they can participate. So users then must provide identification to companies like Facebook before they can use their online platform. As we have already seen, companies like Facebook already glean our information for advertising purposes and use it to influence everything from what we buy to who we vote for. Their terms of service have clauses buried deep that effectively declare them the owners of any information you upload to their platform. The potential for a privacy breach or misuse by corporations could be catastrophic.

Common Sense

A grassroots solution is to apply a common-sense approach. Everything on the internet lasts forever. Never share personal information online. Never send money to someone you have never met. Always get thorough advice before you make an investment.

If you have any concerns that you may be a victim of catfishing, call Paton Hooke Lawyers on 02 6551 9355. We can help.

Zachariah Sayed

Paton Hooke Lawyers Taree

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