The internet is a big place, and not everyone on it is who they pretend to be. False identities created to lure people into online relationships have become so common that a new term was even coined to describe the phenomenon: catfishing. While catfishing can certainly open up the door to a lot of problems once the ruse has been discovered, is it illegal? This is what you should know.
The federal and state laws that apply to internet crimes are new and complicated.
If you assume a false identity online and use it to bully, harass, stalk, threaten someone, or incite others into violent acts, the odds are good that the police will try to make existing cyberbullying laws fit your crime. Many of the cyberbullying laws came into being following the 2006 suicide of a 13-year-old girl who was devasted after being dumped by her online boyfriend. An investigation determined that the "boyfriend" was actually the mother of another teenage girl who had had a falling out with the victim. The mother had created the online identity and catfished the emotionally unstable pre-teen for months just for the sole purpose of eventually devastating her. Existing laws at the time didn't make the activity illegal. Even the convictions that were obtained under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act were overturned on appeal.
Since then, 49 states have developed cyberbullying laws that can be applied to social media crimes like catfishing if your actions meet certain criteria. These acts may be illegal under the new laws:
- harassing the victim with insults or threats
- using fake websites or social media accounts to impersonate the victim
- using fake social media accounts to spread false information about the victim
- posting nude photos of the victim online
- using the victim's online information to sign them up for spam email
- using your personal knowledge of the victim to "hack" into his or her email, social media accounts, or other online accounts
- stalking the victim through the internet by tracking down all their accounts and continuously contacting them
It's important to consider that what you may think of us a joke or even just a small act of revenge can end up costing you a tremendous amount of trouble. Even if the laws in your state end up not applying, you could be subjected to an intense investigation and possibly charged and put through a trial. Whatever you did might also become public knowledge, which could negatively affect your life in your community.
There are some actions that clearly cross legal boundaries.
When catfishing moves offline and into the regular world, the results can be devastating. For example, a disturbed young woman catfished her own parents with several accounts, playing the part of her own mysterious boyfriend and her own enemies, until she convinced her parents that she was in physical danger from some neighbors in their town. Her father eventually committed a double murder to protect his daughter against threats that she alone had created.
There have been a number of other cases where the catfishers have used their online identities to defraud and extort others. For example, a teenage Connecticut boy invented a female alter-ego online and used it to lure young boys and men into sending "her" nude photos of themselves. He then extorted the victim for iTunes cards. Fortunately for him, the victims weren't eager to testify in court—otherwise, the young man might have spent years in jail instead of getting a suspended sentence and probation.
The best thing that you can do is to not take risks with false identities online—otherwise, you open yourself up to a variety of potential problems. If you do succumb to temptation, get legal help from a lawyer immediately if you become the subject of an investigation or even if you realize that you may have gone too far (before an investigation starts).