BYU women victimized by ‘catfish’ relationship deception

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First in a series. Part two focuses on more women speaking out about their own experiences. Part three shows the national media attention catfishing attracted.

It happened to Manti Te’o at Notre Dame. It happened to Nev Schulman at “Megan’s” home in Michigan. And six women at BYU say it happened to them.

A 24-year-old from Texas, using the photos of friends and a stockpile of excuses, connected with eight Utah women and pretended to be a man with two different aliases, one named Hyrum Young and the other named Hunter Anderson.

This type of hoax is known as catfishing, where someone creates a false online persona to deceive another person. Reasons for catfishing range from harassment to mere entertainment, and the offender is known as a catfish.

The catfish in this story led individual women on a two-, sometimes three-year romantic journey behind the phone.

For BYU student Hilary Hayes, it began when she received a text from an unknown number in November 2013.

“Hey, is this Hilary? This is Hunter.” Hayes didn’t recognize the name but said it sounded “reasonable” when Hunter explained he got her phone number from a friend at a party they both attended. Hayes and Hunter continued texting and began talking on the phone during Thanksgiving and Christmas break.

Hunter said he was a University of Utah student who lived in Sandy with his grandparents. He said he had three sisters, a passion for the Saints football team and a strong testimony of the Church. He had a Dalmatian named Candy. He served a mission to South Africa.

A text message exchange between Hyrum Young and Hilary Hayes. Hilary was one of eight women deceived in a catfish scheme that lasted two years. (Hilary Hayes)
A text message exchange between “Hyrum Young” and Hilary Hayes. Hayes was one of the eight women deceived in a catfish scheme that lasted two years. (Hilary Hayes)

The two grew closer through texts and phone calls, their conversations often lasting hours into the night. Hayes said they had great conversations and even sparked a romantic relationship.

“This person knew everything about me and my family and friends,” she said, “and I started to really care for this person. I was hesitant, however, because Hunter always made an excuse as to why he couldn’t meet me.”

Hunter planned on attending Hayes’ birthday party Jan. 9, 2014, but cancelled last minute because of work scheduling. Hayes became suspicious.

“I’m not an idiot,” Hayes said. “I knew he was hiding something. After he didn’t come to my party, I shut off. I still acted like I was into it (the relationship) just because I had told this person a ton about my life, and I needed to know who he was.”

In April 2014, Hayes found a friend of Hunter’s who worked at the same place her sister worked. This other woman had also been speaking to a man who wouldn’t meet her. Hayes’ sister and Hunter’s friend compared the phone numbers and found more answers than they expected.

To this other woman, Hunter Anderson was a man named Hyrum Young who said he was originally from Texas and lived at The Village in Provo while attending BYU law school. Hyrum served a mission to Boise, Idaho.

When Hayes confronted Hunter, he said his name was actually Hyrum. They stopped talking in April, but he contacted her again in June. “It was out of the blue, and he said he’d do whatever it took to get me back,” Hayes said. She decided to play along just to discover the truth.

While looking for clues as to who Hyrum or Hunter really was, Hayes found other women looking for the same truth. One woman (who has asked to remain anonymous) had been talking to Hyrum for three years — even while he was on his mission in Idaho. She found Hayes in July, and the two teamed up to catch this catfish.

Hyrum told this woman to send missionary letters to his female district leader. Hyrum also used his district leader’s email because his “wasn’t set up right.” Most women received the same story from Hyrum and experienced romantic texts and lengthy phone calls. Hayes and her new friend compared stories and realized they both received an Edible Arrangement on Valentine’s Day from Hyrum/Hunter in 2014.

They called the Edible Arrangements company and asked who sent the gifts. The sender was Hyrum’s female district leader.

Evidence came together. Questions had answers. Hunter said he was sending gifts to all his “girls,” referring to his sisters. But he was really referring to the other women in his catfish hoax.

Hunter Anderson and Hyrum Young were not who they said they were. They were actually a 24-year-old woman from Texas.

Hayes and her friend called the Idaho Boise mission president and asked about Hyrum Young. The president said no one named Hyrum served during 2011, so Hayes asked about Hyrum’s female district leader. The mission president

A text conversation between Hyrum Young and Hilary Hayes. In this conversation, Hyrum expresses his care for Hilary and his commitment to their relationship. Hayes was involved with Hyrum through phone calls and texts, but she discovered he was actually a woman living in Texas. (Hilary Hayes)
A text conversation between Hyrum Young and Hilary Hayes. In this conversation, Hyrum expresses his care for Hilary and his commitment to their relationship. Hayes was involved with Hyrum through phone calls and texts, but she discovered he was actually a woman living in Texas. (Hilary Hayes)

confirmed her service and spoke praises of the woman.

“We would always talk about spiritual stuff and church,” Hayes said, “and she had a strong testimony, and she wanted that in her life. I think that’s why she went for BYU people; church was something she really valued.”

One victim’s friend served in Boise at the same time as the catfish, so Hayes reached out to him. He said he didn’t know Hyrum Young but knew of the woman. He said she went home early with a leg injury, which is why Hyrum returned home early, as explained in his letters.

Hayes found the catfish’s Facebook page through a friend. When the women looked at her “likes” on Facebook, they knew immediately this was the person pretending to be Hunter and Hyrum.

“He was obsessed with the Saints football team, certain TV shows and specific things like alligator hunting,” Hayes said. “It was too weird and too specific. Hyrum said he had a Dalmatian named Candy … and her Facebook showed her with a Dalmatian named Candy.”

Hayes and her friend called Hyrum’s number and asked point blank if he was a woman. The voice responded “yes.” They discovered the pictures of Hyrum were her male friend’s photos. Hayes found the man on Facebook and told him about his photos in this hoax.

“He was pretty freaked out and upset,” Hayes said. During the investigation, Hayes uncovered six other women who had been duped. Hayes said the catfish connected with these women through LDS-related Twitter accounts and even the BYU directory.

“She’s told me before she’s looked people up in the BYU directory,” Hayes said. Hyrum would ask Hayes to look up women because they were his friends and he lost their numbers.

Hayes and another victim went to BYU police about the issue in August 2014 and filed a “no contact” order but couldn’t pursue any criminal charges because the catfish lived outside Utah.

The Universe tracked down the catfish to see if she was willing to share her side of the story. In a phone interview Feb. 19, she agreed to talk if she remained unnamed. She said that first she wanted to make it clear she never “hunted” or searched for the women specifically.

“It’s not something like, ‘Oh I don’t like this person so I’m gonna play a trick,'” she said.

She then explained that she isn’t part of the “Mormon standard law of a family,” meaning marriage between a man and a woman. “When you aren’t a part of that alignment, you start to search for comfort outside of the zone,” she said, “and that’s basically what I did.”

She said it’s extremely hard to talk about what happened because she made an “honest mistake” by pretending to be someone she wasn’t. “The best way to put it is that I hurt people when I was trying to find myself. I went about it in the wrong way,” she said.

She said that she “doesn’t recall” the missionary letters or emails, though, and said she didn’t have much time as a missionary to respond to letters. She continually said what she did was “horrible” and that she was trying to move on in her life.

“Remember what you do in darkness will essentially come into the light,” she said. “What I did was wrong and unacceptable for those who I have hurt in the process of being comfortable with who I am as a person. Being gay and Mormon feels like it’s unacceptable. I catfished people to hide who I am inside, never with the intent to hurt anyone.”

The catfish said she is “fully aware” her actions have caused pain and heartache. “For that, I am sorry,” she said. “I can only pray and hope that they can find it in their hearts to forgive me one day.”

She said she lives in Texas and is studying law at the University of El Paso. She said she is still a member of the LDS Church but does not actively attend church.

Most of the victims have moved on, but they do not plan to completely forget. Hayes said most of the women were terribly hurt and even “destroyed” from the catfish’s actions.

The most recent relationship Hyrum had was with BYU student Whitley Smith. Smith began talking to Hyrum on Craigslist in February 2013 and ended July 2014, but Smith didn’t find out Hyrum was actually a woman until January 2015. Hayes said finding Smith reinforced her purpose to help others.

“I’m not supposed to let it go,” Hayes said. “I’m supposed to put my story out there, and I feel like I have something. Some of the girls have taken it really hard, and I’ve watched that happen. I don’t want that to happen to other people.”

Smith said coming to terms with the situation was difficult. “When I finally found out in July 2014 that Hyrum wasn’t actually Hyrum at all, I had to come to terms with the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about this person who knew literally everything about me,” she said.

Smith said she wanted to share her experience to help other people who may be in a similar situation. Some may question how believable the catfish’s story was and how vulnerable the women were. Hayes said Hyrum’s voice made the hoax believable. Hayes also said the “BYU bubble” kept any worries out.

“I think we wouldn’t expect this kind of thing to happen,” Hayes said. “Your initial reaction when you’re talking to someone isn’t, ‘Oh, they’re probably sending me pictures of someone else and lying to me about who they are.'”

Smith said she trusted Hyrum. “When you trust someone like that, it’s hard to listen to the doubts other people have,” Smith said.

Another woman named Kelsey had a three-year friendship with Hyrum that began before Kelsey’s mission and continued when she returned January 2014. Another Utah woman named Andy would discuss politics with the catfish throughout their years of friendship. Hyrum even shared dreams of marriage with some of the women.

Hayes, a native of Elko, Nevada, will graduate from BYU in April. She said she is “way way way” more cautious with people.

“I don’t do Tinder. I don’t talk to anybody I haven’t met in person,” Hayes said. “I do feel like it’s something that happens, and I’ve learned from that. I’m not going to let her ruin my life.”

Hayes has become friends with other victims and said there is a “really weird connection” they share.

“It’s not a negative connection,” Hayes said. “It’s nice to find someone who understands the manipulation. People say, ‘It must’ve been really hard’ and that’s great, but nobody really understands how we got in that situation.”

Hayes studies information systems and is using her experiences for her capstone project. Her project is called CyberIQ, a program teaching teenagers how to be safe online.
“I was super interested in it because of this whole ordeal,” Hayes said, “and it’s awesome to be able to go into classrooms and teach kids how to be safe and how not to do what I did. I thought that was something positive that I could share that came out of this whole experience.”
Next: Though Internet law is mostly federal, online deceit becomes more difficult to convict because many states have separate catfishing laws and regulations.