Catfishers: When love is a lie

Article by David Swan /
The Australian /
February 21, 2020 /
Click here to view original /

Susannah Birch was 18 when she became engaged to the man she thought was the love of her life, a man she’d never met in person but would talk to online every day.

She would later discover the entire relationship was a lie; that “Richard” was old enough to be her grandfather, that he was married with children, and that he had been using photos of his own son to lure her in.

Birch met “Richard Martin” in a chatroom online when she was 15. Their friendship quickly became­ sexual, with Richard asking­ for naked photos of the underage­ girl and pursuing her with explicit questions. After three years they became engaged, and had even picked out names for their future children.

They broke up, and Birch married someone else, but the pair continued talking for a decade. She knew something was off — that “Richard” was carrying some sort of secret. After watching the television series Catfish she decided to find out the truth.

She used a website to track down his true identity. “Richard” was older than 50, a grandparent, and had groomed and lied to Birch.

“I went into shock,” she tells Inquire­r. “But then I confronted him and felt relief. For 12 years I thought: ‘Is it me? Am I not good enough?’ And then I realised how much he’d been manipulating me all along.”

Scams growing

Birch’s story is one of a growing number of “catfish” romance scams, named after the 2010 documentary film in which a young man uses Facebook to build a roman­tic relationship with a woman whose identity is revealed to be a lie. The film has since spawned a reality TV show, investigating dozens of people pretending to be someone else.

The scams often leave their victims emotionally and financially damaged. Australia’s consumer watchdog said last week that it received­ about 4000 complaints of dating and romance scams last year, worth almost $30m.

Nowhere and no one is safe from the scams, which have hit tradition­al online dating websites, social media websites such as Facebook and Instagram, and dating platforms such as Tinder and Match.com.

Scammers also increasingly are turning to chat apps such as Google Hangouts or even online games such as Words with Friends and Scrabble to con their victims.

“We’ve seen an increase in repor­ts from people who did not originally seek an online relationship but have been caught up in a dating and romance scam,” says Australian Competition & Consumer Commission deputy chairwoman Delia Rickard.

“No longer are dating websites the only contact method for dating and romance scams, with an increasi­ng number of reports comin­g from these emerging websites and apps.”

According to Rickard, romance scams are particularly devastating because of the combination of financi­al losses and the emotional toll for victims, which can have scarring psychological impacts.

Scammers try to make their target fall in love with the persona they have created and quickly profe­ss their love for the victim. They often will weave complex stories about why they can’t meet in person, Rickard says.

They’ll also ask the victim for money. If the person sends money, the scammer will ask for more, and may become aggressive or use guilt to manipulate their victim, she adds.

The ACCC’s statistics found people aged 45 to 64 were most affecte­d, with almost 1500 reports of romance scams in the past year, while women reported 55 per cent of all dating and romance scam report­s. Most of the losses were through bank transfer, representing $9.7m lost, while “other payments” — including iTunes and Google Play gift cards — totalled $8.8m.

Tougher laws urged

Lauren Rosewarne, a social scientist at the University of Melbourne and a catfishing expert, tells Inquire­r that catfishing is probably a far wider problem than the statis­tics suggest — victims are often too embarrassed to come forward.

“Given the growing volume of online activity and online dating, catfishing is more prevalent now than it once was,” she says. “There is a skew to certain demographics being more vulnerable; older users who may be not as tech-savvy, for example. But everyone is potentially vulnerable to catfishing, and being tech-savvy is an ongoing responsibil­ity for everybody.”

Rosewarne calls for tighter legislation when it comes to catfishin­g, and more paths for recours­e for victims who have lost money.

“Catfishers are often very clever­, just like Nigerian scam­mers, for example, and they make it incredibly difficult for you to get your money back if they’ve taken it,” she says.

“Hitting control-alt-­delete and undoing your actions can be almos­t impossible, given how cleve­r catfishers often are.”

Birch also calls for new laws to cover catfishing, saying existing legislation is lacking.

“The law is almost always behin­d when it comes to issues of the internet. My problem was that nothing he did ever fell under any legislation. If he’d taken money I could have pressed charges, but he never did.”

There is one piece of legislation, dubbed Carly’s Law for 15-year-old South Australian Carly Ryan, who was murdered in 2010 by Garry Newman, 50, who catfished her online, pretend­ing to be a young guitarist.

Newman had more than 200 online fake personas to meet undera­ge girls and proposition them for sex.

Following Carly’s murder, her mother, Sonya, established a campai­gn for a law to prevent onlin­e predators from stalking children. Federal parliament passed Carly’s Law in June 2017, making it an offence to “use a carriage service to prepare or plan to cause harm to, engage in sexual activity with, or procure for sexual activity, persons under 16”.

Some say that law is too narrow­. Several high-profile cases of catfishing are building pressure for laws to be widened.

In her 2014 memoir, former Australian Idol winner Casey Donovan described a six-year relations­hip that turned out to be fake. Her catfish even lied about her sex.

She thought she was madly in love with a man named Campbell, who gave repeated excuses as to why he couldn’t meet Donovan in real life.

“He had to go to Queensland to look after his sick aunt, his car wasn’t working, his cousin died, his sister was pregnant, someone broke into his house, he had to go up the coast to see his godson, he was out of town on business,” the singer wrote.

“I spent six years of my life loving someone who never really existed. I know everyone gets their heart ripped out every now and again but that … That just took the cake for me.

“I won’t let love lead me astray again … I will find out if they’re real or not first.”

In another high-profile case, 20-year-old Sydney woman Renae Marsden took her own life after allegedly being catfished for two years. Her best friend, Camila Zeidan, is accused of making up a character who became Marsden’s boyfriend.

Marsden ended her life on Augus­t 5, 2013, the same day that Zeidan allegedly messaged her — as “Brayden” — to break off their relationship.

Marsden’s father, Mark, told media following an inquest into his daughter’s death that he wanted catfishing to be criminalised in NSW. “If there’s anything we want out of this, we want the laws to be reviewed,” he said.

“How can anybody put somebody else through mental torture on a grand scale and come out of it on the other end and not be accountab­le to the law?”

National security threat

Catfishing is now so widespread it has even made its way to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israel Defence Forces said last week it had foiled a Hamas-led catfishing attempt to gain access to soldiers’ phones by posing as Israeli women looking for love.

The fake women contacted young male soldiers via Facebook, Instagram and even encrypted messaging app Telegram. The “women”, using fake names such as “Yael Azoulay” and “Noa Danon”, would send messages to the soldiers asking them to download an app via a link that would then infect their phones with malware.

According to the IDF, the app used the soldiers’ phone camera and locatio­n. Hamas had almost complet­e access to affected devices. It was the third Hamas attem­pt to “catfish” Israeli soldiers in three years, the IDF said.

There is no evidence that any information was stolen, but the terror group’s efforts are another example that anyone is susceptible to catfishing.

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, describes catfishing as a reprehen­sible form of online enticement and manipulation that can cause lasting harm to its victims.

“Always be on your guard if someone randomly makes contact online, out of the blue, just as you would be in real life if someone stopped you on the street,” she says.

“If someone engaging with you claims to be a celebrity or public figure, look for the ‘blue tick’ to validate whether their identity has been verified by the platform.

“Trust your instincts. If their story isn’t matching up or is inconsisten­t, you’re right to be suspiciou­s of them. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“If they seem to know a lot about you and appear to share many of the same interests as you, this is a warning sign.

“It could be an amazing coincid­ence, but it could also be the result of extensive online researc­h about you.”

Birch says she wants people to be more vigilant online, given that most people should have a significant digital footprint these days.

“It might be a photo in a school newsletter. It might be a Facebook profile that has lots of comments on it,’’ she says.

“These days if someone does not have a digital footprint, it’s highly likely they’re using a fake account. You should try and video chat, talk to their friends, and help identify them before­ you can trust them.”