Is Catfishing Illegal? A Digital Crime Explained

A Digital Crime - Is Catfishing Illegal?

Do you remember the MTV show Catfish where the program hosts tracked down the too good to be true online lover? This isn’t just a made for TV problem–it happens in real life. Catfishing, also known as romance fraud, is a growing problem in our digital era. So what exactly is it and is romantic fraud an actual crime?

What Is Catfishing?

Catfishing is when one person interacts online with another via chat, email, app, or video software and may use the likeness of a completely different person. Using that other identity, the pretender tries to convince the victim to engage in certain activities under false pretenses.

While pretending to be someone you are not is not inherently a crime, the criminal offense of fraud or coercion is possible and likely depending on the actions committed. Catfishing usually becomes a crime when the individual leverages the fake relationship in order to receive money, personal or financial information or to make purchases with the victim’s finances. It also becomes further complicated if minors are involved. While charges can be filed for using another person’s image online, those cases are less common.

According to the FBI, 18,000 people were victims of catfishing, or romance fraud, in 2018. Pennsylvania was one of the top five states with the highest number of catfishing cases reported.

Who Is Likely to Be a Victim?

While reports have been made from individuals of various ages, education levels, and income brackets, certain people are more likely to fall victim to catfishing.

Those into online dating are also easy targets. Proper precautions need to be taken to avoid becoming a victim, especially if the person seems “too good to be true.” They’re probably faking their personality.

People with anxiety attachments are also more susceptible to catfishing compared to those with more secure relationships.

Typically, those who are pretending to be someone they are not assume the identity of military members located overseas or business owners seeking partnership on major investments.

I Pretend to Be Someone Else Online. Can I Get Sued?

With online dating profiles on the rise, many individuals over exaggerate who they really are. But when you pretend to be someone entirely different than yourself, it can be problematic. You may worry you are doing something illegal, however, if you have a catfish persona for some reason, avoid illegal activity and do not use images of other people, ask for money or goods, engage with minors or impersonate a real-life person.

The most commonly asked questions by victims of catfishing are:

  • Can you go to jail for catfishing?
  • Is it illegal to impersonate someone?
  • When does catfishing become a crime?

Most often, catfishing involves the act of using another person’s picture and talking to people online. By themselves, these activities aren’t illegal despite their harmful consequences. However, catfishing is often a stepping stone towards more serious crimes.

The term “catfishing” is relatively new in the legal world, which is why there are no specific laws against it yet. Existing laws, however, may be able to provide a strong foundation to victims to fight for their recovery.

Broadly speaking, the following acts may lend catfishing a criminal intent:

  • Creating fake online profiles and luring strangers into relationships
  • Using trademarks and copyrights illegally to impersonate someone online
  • Identity theft, i.e., using another person’s personal/financial data
  • Fraud or asking people to send money or gifts
  • Involving minors in a crime
  • Gaining unauthorized access to computer systems and networks, and infecting them with viruses

I’ve Been Accused of Catfishing. What Are My Options?

More often than not, a person who engages in catfishing doesn’t realize that their actions are harmful. However, continuing these activities can land you in a legal mess.

If you’ve been accused of catfishing, only a competent Criminal Defense Lawyer can help you understand your charges, the potential consequences, and the legal options available to you.

You will need to show that money or property had not been exchanged in most cases to prove your innocence.

Avoiding the following activities should help you steer clear of further legal trouble:

  • Impersonating other people
  • Using pictures of others
  • Associating with minors
  • Asking for money or valuables

Our NEPA Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Defend Your Catfishing Case

If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime related to catfishing, our Scranton criminal defense attorneys are here to help. We have the knowledge and the experience required to fight all sorts of criminal charges. We’ll represent you fiercely and mitigate your chances of facing penalties for doing something you didn’t know was illegal.

The time to act is now. Contact the Scranton criminal defense attorneys at Mazzoni Valvano Szewczyk & Karam today for a free consultation.

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