Deceit can move from the streets to the cyber world, but criminal law has a harder time following it. Catfishing is a type of online scam in which someone creates a fake social media account, often for romantic relationships.
Many states have catfishing laws that categorize catfishing as under identity theft, forcing the catfish to appear from behind the screen. BYU students tricked by the BYU catfish contacted BYU Police but were told that because the catfish lives outside Utah, no real immediate action could be taken.
They were able to file a no-contact order, but the catfish’s persistence was too hard to escape.
Hilary Hayes, a BYU victim who stepped forward to tell her story, said the catfish called her continually March 17, the day the Universe published her story. Hayes also received emails from the catfish, who said, “Thanks for letting me in on the article. Horribly written, but well done Hilary. Take care. Bye.”
Several victims have since appeared on Fox 13 News, KSL and KUTV to share their stories. Victims will be appearing on a talk show on national TV in April. Three more Utah women have since stepped forward to say they were also duped by the same catfish, bringing the total to eleven women.
Nev Schulman, creator of MTV’s Catfish, contacted Hayes after hearing her story. Hayes said she told Schulman she already knew the catfish and the details of the hoax, and because Schulman is more interested in setting up meetings, he was no longer interested in pursuing a story.
The catfish, a female student in Texas, made up identities “Hunter Anderson” and “Hyrum Young” by using her friend’s photos. She sent pictures of Hyrum’s “niece” to many of the women she tricked. She sent pictures of Hyrum’s sister’s new house to Hayes, telling Hayes that she wanted “a little house with you.”
Catfishing seems like identity theft, but some differences exist. A catfish may want to simply engage in fantasy, but identity theft occurs when vital information is taken to commit revenge or defraud a victim.
The BYU catfish said she never intended to harm or defraud the women and that their relationships were merely a result of a random order of events. “Everything started off with conversations of friendship and just getting to know them, and it just progressed,” she said in an interview with the Universe.
Typically, the goal of the catfish is to trick the victim into an online social or romantic relationship. With the ever-growing popularity of social media, people form relationships more frequently through the Internet. Match.com estimated that more than 40 million Americans seek romance through the Internet. Catfishing can be difficult to uncover because of the anonymity of the Internet.
Catfish often use pictures of other people, establish false biographies and social lives and even falsify death. Many victims of catfishing may take years to discover the true identity of the people they were interacting with.
According to Dr. Phil and his experts, signs of catfishing include no pictures or webcam capability, a Facebook profile of 100 friends or fewer or people claiming to be models. In addition, some common excuses made for not being able to meet include being arrested, hospitalized, detained at airports or even having someone else inform the victim of the catfish’s death. Nev Schulman, a man from New York who was victimized by a catfish, spoke to Dr. Phil about common signs and said car accidents, death in the family and cancer are common in catfish scams.
“The best way to avoid meeting up is by having a traumatic experience,” Schulman said.
That was the case for Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o, who now plays for the San Diego Chargers. Te’o was the victim of an online romance hoax. According to an investigation by sports blog Deadspin, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a man described as an acquaintance of Te’o and his family, invented the character Lennay Kekua to interact with Te’o romantically.
When the two met, Tuiasosopo claimed he was Kekua’s cousin and told Te’o of Kekua’s car accident, leukemia and death. Tuiasosopo would post pictures on the Internet of a woman later identified as one of his former classmates.
Investigations by Notre Dame University and outside sports news associations revealed that Tuiasosopo had, indeed, falsified the identity of Kekua in order to act in a romantic relationship with T’eo. The incident was known as one of the greatest online romance scams of all time.
The catfish will use sympathy and pull at a person’s heartstrings to avoid face-to-face interaction. Hilary Hayes experienced this with “Hyrum Young,” who used his sister’s miscarriage to avoid meeting the women. The catfish’s phone interview also revealed more tragic events — she told The Universe that her friend had passed away at the same time she began interacting with women online.
The 2010 film “Catfish” tracked an online relationship between Nev Schulman, a man from New York, and Megan, a fictitious woman from Michigan. Schulman visited Megan to surprise her, but Schulman was the one surprised. Megan was really Angela Wesselman, a married woman from Wisconsin who had used a family friend’s photos and false Facebook accounts to grow close to Schulman.
BYU law graduate Natalie Way wrote about catfishing and explained Schulman’s story in depth. Way wrote that Wesselman “created over 20 other Facebook profiles for supporting characters who would post messages on Megan’s Facebook page in order to give Megan’s life the ring of veracity.”
Schulman told ABC that he wasn’t embarrassed by being a victim of this catfishing scandal. “The woman is exceptional,” Schulman told ABC. “I’m totally fine admitting she outsmarted me.”
Way’s essay, titled “Catfishing: Civil Remedies for Extensive Online Emotional Fraud,” explores Internet lies and the damage created by catfishing. Way argued that “states should enact statutes creating a private cause of action” for victims of catfishing. She also described Teo’s catfish incident in the movie “Catfish.”
The film explains that the term “catfishing” originated with the practice of commercial fishermen who put a catfish in with a catch of other fish to make sure that the other fish continue moving and so remain fresh for market.
Online catfishing involves creating an alias and pretending the alias is a real person. The catfish gives the alias credibility by posting pictures of a real person who may or may not be involved with the hoax. A catfish creates a new person using false photos, videos or other materials.
BYU law professor Cheryl Preston said most Internet laws are federal and that she could not find any Utah lawmaker discussion on catfishing. Way’s essay researched current regulations on catfishing, and she wrote that some states seek definitive proof of emotional distress, including evidence that physical harm occurred.
Way outlined five elements of intentional or reckless infliction of emotional harm: “1) the actor’s conduct is extreme and outrageous; 2) the conduct is either intended to cause emotional harm, or else is undertaken with reckless disregard as to the potential to cause emotional harm; 3) the plaintiff actually suffered emotional harm 4) directly as a result of the actor’s conduct; and 5) such harm is severe.”
Some states continue to create different laws regarding catfishing, online bullying and other cyber interactions. Dr. Phil offers warning signs of a catfish scandal, which includes low number of friends on Facebook, absence of photos or record of tragic events.
The catfish will use sympathy and pull at a person’s heart to avoid face-to-face interaction. Hilary Hayes experienced this with “Hyrum Young,” who used his sister’s miscarriage to avoid meeting the women. The catfish’s phone interview also revealed more tragic events — she told The Universe that a friendshad passed away at the same time she began interacting with women online.
Way wrote about the current laws and said, “These statutes fall short of providing a punishment for ‘catfish’-like behavior where the actor does not impersonate any specific actual person, or where their intent is insufficient to make them subject to punishment.” The BYU catfish did not have malicious intent and did not impersonate a specific person; she created her own character.
The catfish remains safe from many statutes because she had no malicious intent. But BYU Police filed a no-contact order, which is used mostly in divorce cases. But, according to the Utah Courts website, a petitioner may request an order when he or she feels that safety is threatened or harm has been committed.
Harm has been defined by the courts as physical attacks, breaking or throwing things to intimidate, kicking, pushing and using a weapon. Harm also includes “stalking, harassing, kidnapping and sexual assault.” Catfishing could fall under the stalking and harassing categories.
BYU’s police reports reveal that the BYU catfish did use harm in various threats to one woman involved. According to the report, “(the catfish) contacted (the woman) by email, referring to a date she had been on over the weekend.” The date had not been posted on any social media sites, and the woman did not know how the catfish found out about the date.
Hayes said the catfish threatened to kill the man who took this woman on a date. Hayes told the catfish to stop calling her, but the catfish continued to make 15 more phone calls and send two more emails.
According to the Legal Research Center, “Identity theft, as defined in section three of the Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act, involves taking the personal identifying information (usually, including the victim’s Social Security number, credit card or bank account numbers) of a living person, intending to use that information to commit a crime.”
Several states have enacted criminal impersonation laws that make it unlawful to pretend to be someone else. In California, a person is guilty of criminal impersonation if he or she “credibly impersonates another living person.”
The statutes in Connecticut and New York make it a crime to “impersonate another.” Courts in those two states have interpreted these statutes to mean impersonation of another living person.
The Lawyer’s ABA Journal states that “12 states make it a crime to impersonate someone online, but those laws generally don’t apply to creation of a fictitious person, according to NBC.” Hayes’ catfish used a mix of the two; she created a fictitious person while impersonating someone else’s face through photos.
In the Manti Te’o case, the catfish used photos of another woman to create Lennay Kekua. Digital law attorney and blogger Bradley Shear told Time and NBC that “If the woman did not give her permission to use the photo, that could be a crime under California’s online impersonation law.”
The BYU catfish used another man’s photos. The man was unaware of this impersonation but told Hayes to forget about the whole situation. The catfish even sent a 10-second video of a man’s face staring at the camera. The man didn’t speak in the video.
According to FindLaw’s website, “Sometimes, catfish convince their victims to send money or gifts, or to pay for their travel or other expenses.” The BYU catfish did not try to defraud or receive payment from any of the victims involved.
No set law exists, and criminal investigation may be in beginning stages regarding online scandal. But this security has been talked about before. In the November 2011 Republican debate, candidate Herman Cain said cyber security was America’s biggest hidden threat, but catfishing probably wasn’t at the forefront of his mind.
Internet users are growing more stealthy but also more secure as they learn about online scams through increased exposure through MTV and television discussions.
The catfish said though she hurt many people, she was also hurt. “People called my mission president, and he had absolutely nothing to do with the situation at all,” she said. “When your mission president sees you as the most worthy person out there serving the Lord, to have somebody bring my sins into light with other people having nothing to do with it, that hurt.” She said this situation made her have a conversation she wasn’t ready to have with her parents and leaders.
The catfish even offered advice to anyone involved in catfishing: “To those who are catfishing people, stop, figure out why you are doing it in the first place, and fix yourself. Don’t bring innocent people into your mess.”
Next: The psychology behind the catfish’s methods and intentions are explored as we talk with BYU psychologists and experts to uncover what the BYU catfish meant when she said “I catfished people to hide who I was.”