A nice catfish smiling and swimming in water

Law criminalising 'catfishing' could prove hard to enforce, experts warn

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Forensic psychologist and Online Dating Association are among those to have cited potential practical barriers to any new legislation banning people from posing as others online.

Creating a new UK law to punish “catfishing” – the practice whereby an individual pretends to be someone they are not on a dating site – could “end up criminalising a lot of vulnerable people”, a forensic psychologist has warned.

Dr Keri Nixon, who works with police forces and has expertise helping victims of sexual abuse, said there was already legislation that could be used to tackle the most serious cases involving individuals adopting another person’s persona for sexually predatory ends.

At a debate in Parliament yesterday Labour MP Ann Coffey called for new specific legislation outlawing the creation of fake online profiles to lure people into relationships.

Model Matt Peacock, who discovered a “catfish” had been pretending to be him to seduce women, has teamed up with a Big Brother contestant and private investigator called Rebecca Jane to create a campaign which uses the somewhat violent slogan “Killing the Catfish”.

The strange term used to describe the offending behaviour originates from a 2010 documentary film about a New Yorker duped into an online relationship by someone who posed as a younger woman.

Calls for the practice to be decriminalised could lead to confusion as there is also a perfectly legitimate group called Catfishing UK which is dedicated to representing anglers interested in catching the large scaly and whiskered aquatic creatures that originate from the swamps of North America.

Nixon told E&T: “I just think it’s going to be really difficult to create a new law on this. It’s going to be amazingly difficult to police.

“Rather than jumping in feet first for a new law, I think there should be a really serious piece of work done to look at the evidence base. This needs to be evidence-based.”

People pretending to be someone else online could sometimes be genuinely confused about their own identity or have mental health issues she said, adding: “I think it could end up criminalising a lot of vulnerable people.”

The problem of people using false information online was highlighted earlier this year by Anne Rowe, a teaching assistant who fell for a man on Tinder who used a picture of a Bollywood star on the dating app and claimed he was single.

After embarking on a sexual relationship with the man, which lasted almost a year, Rowe learned he was in fact a London lawyer and serial womaniser who was married with children.

In a petition entitled ‘Creating fake online profiles for sex is fraud. Make catfishing a crime!’ Rowe stated: “If this man had 'asked' me for money, he would have committed a criminal offence under the Fraud Act. But I gave him presents and bought many things that come with being in a long term relationship. “If this man had used his fake profile to cause distress by 'trolling' me or posting an intimate picture he would have committed a criminal offence under the Communications Act. But he caused me distress by misrepresenting who he was. “If this man had claimed to be a doctor and deceived me through misrepresentation into having a sexual relationship with him he would have committed a criminal offence. He deceived me by creating a fake person.”

Andrew McClelland, the head of the Online Dating Association, told E&T: “Our position is that we do not condone anyone using details in a fraudulent way, and certainly information that doesn’t belong to them – and whether that’s a copyright thing or a challenge to someone’s personal freedom is quite a complex area, and certainly there are examples where the fraudsters have pretended to be someone else and that other person has then ended up in trouble because of perceived actions they have nothing to do with.”

However, he added: “The underlying tenet that’s being put forward is that we should create new legislation that makes it illegal for people to create a fraudulent profile. On the face of it that’s quite a logical thing, but fraud for the purposes of getting money is already illegal. Creating false personas and using that as a mechanism for trolling, that’s already becoming illegal.

“The challenge with stopping the creation of false identities is how does any third party know that that identity truly is the person it is saying it is? How do you police that? Who should police that? Should a third party be responsible for flagging it with the police or should they just block it?

“Should it be illegal to create false profiles? The answer is, it shouldn’t be allowed. But should it be illegal? That’s another debate. What happens is we would then effectively censor everyone who goes online to those services to access them. Is that fair on them?”  

Tony Neate, the chief executive of the organisation Get Safe Online, said: “Romance frauds really can destroy lives so we thoroughly support Ann Coffey's proposed legislation.”

But he added: “However, when does a person become a catfish? When does somebody cross the line from exaggerating and trying to impress, and when does twisting the truth become criminal?

“It’s deceitful to use someone else’s images much like it would be to write a cheque when you know it might bounce back, but it’s important to establish guidelines for when deceit becomes deception. At the moment it’s not black and white within the law and it’s up to us to narrow the disparity.”

Speaking before yesterday’s debate, Coffey, who is the MP for Stockport, had said: “A new law should make it very clear that if someone takes someone else's identity and poses as them online, then they are committing an offence.

“Without a specific offence, catfish who cause so much distress to individuals and their families, will continue to exploit and harm other people.” Culture minister Matt Hancock pledged the government would let victims of catfishing have their voices “properly heard”.

He added that these issues would be considered as part of the government’s Internet Safety Strategy.

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