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Can I Sue Someone for Catfishing Me?

love trap and online dating fraud concept

Online dating has become the norm in recent years. But as many people have experienced, filling out a profile is easy. Living up to it is a whole different story. In extreme cases, a person might invent an entirely different persona to talk to others online.

It's normal to feel hurt or betrayed if you find out the person you've been talking to isn't who you thought they were. But can you sue someone for catfishing?

What Is Catfishing?

“Catfishing" is the popular term for someone lying online about their appearance (or sometimes their whole identity), most often on online dating sites. The term gained popularity following the 2010 documentary “Catfish." The film captured the experience of Nev Schulman, a New York City photographer who traveled across the country to meet “Megan," a woman he'd been talking to online.

As it turned out, the 19-year-old woman Schulman thought he was in love with didn't exist. He had actually been talking to a married 39-year-old named Angela. The film's popularity led to an MTV show hosted by Schulman, where participants find and confront the people they suspect have been catfishing them.

Catfish often take photos from a real person's social media accounts to build their fake profile. It's not uncommon for a catfish to present themselves as a person of a different gender, race, or nationality. Some people create these online personas because they really are looking for a connection but feel insecure. Others manage numerous fake personas for their own entertainment or to spy on an ex.

Is Catfishing Illegal?

Representing yourself differently online than in real life isn't illegal. And unfortunately, there's not a lot of recourse when the person you're talking to turns out to be a catfish. However, there are situations where catfishing can lead to legal issues or even criminal charges.

For example, there can be severe consequences when a catfish solicits minors for sexually explicit photos. Possession of those photos can lead to child pornography charges.

When catfishing turns into cyberbullying, the victim may have a civil case for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, plaintiffs in these cases face an uphill battle. They must show that the catfish's behavior was extreme or outrageous, beyond what we'd consider offensive or harmful in everyday life.

If You Send a Catfish Money

Sometimes a catfishing situation turns out to be a romance scam, a fraudulent scheme to steal money from someone by pretending to be in a romantic relationship. Someone running a romance scam uses fake online profiles to strike up relationships and build trust, then asks for money to pay for a fictional emergency.

Romance fraud has been one of the leading types of fraud for years and spiked even more during the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 24,000 people reported they were victims of romance scams to the FBI in 2021. Those catfishing cases account for nearly $1 billion in financial losses.

Using someone else's financial information, like their bank account number or credit card info, is identity theft. Shimon Hayut, better known as Netflix's “Tinder Swindler," was convicted of fraud after he convinced women he met on dating apps to open credit cards for him.

If a Catfish Uses Your Name or Photos

In some cases, a catfish will use a real person's photos, name, and even details from their life to create a fake profile. Impersonating a real person can lead to serious trouble, like a civil lawsuit for defamation. If someone is pretending to be you online and hurting your reputation, find an attorney in your area to learn about your options.

Using someone else's photos can also be considered a misuse of intellectual property.

Of course, holding someone accountable for their catfishing requires finding out who they are. That's why it's essential to report scams and other damaging behavior to law enforcement. The FBI accepts reports of all romance scams, regardless of whether money was lost.

How Do I Know If Someone is Catfishing Me?

It's always important to be careful in online interactions. Scammers are everywhere, including dating sites. But there are a few red flags to watch for that are specific to catfishing:

  • They refuse to meet you in person
  • They promise to meet you in person but then make excuses at the last minute
  • They only text, no phone calls or video calls
  • The only photos they send are from social media profiles
  • They ask for money

Of course, people find love online all the time. But it's best to err on the safe side and avoid sending money or gift cards to someone you haven't met in person. If you've been the victim of catfishing, you may have options - especially if you gave the person money. You can report illegal activity to law enforcement and speak to an attorney about your other options.

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