What is catfishing? And is it legal?
There have been growing calls to make catfishing illegal and penalise those who do it. After all, it involves lies, exploitation, manipulation, deception, can cause immense grief and harm to the victim, and even lead to suicide.
Luring strangers into relationships using fake online profiles
Catfishing is the act committed on social media of luring strangers into relationships by creating fake online personas.
It involves inventing a whole new person who exists only online, a fictional individual who is far more attractive than the real person doing the catfishing.
Is catfishing legal?
It may surprise people, but while the act of catfishing is often cruel, it is not illegal in itself, despite the harmful consequences it may cause. As yet, there is no specific law against catfishing among adults.
Just like pretending to be someone else by using a false name when you meet someone on a blind date, using a fake identity online to meet another adult is not a crime.
Difference between catfishing and fraud
However, some actions that stem from catfishing are illegal, such as fraudulently obtaining property or financial advantage through deception.
Under section 192E of the NSW Crimes Act, fraud can get you ten years’ jail in the District Court, but it has to be proven that the victim lost money or property through the deception, and that the fraud was intentional or reckless.
It is illegal to catfish a child
While catfishing is not illegal when those involved are adults, the situation is quite different when children are involved. Criminal laws have been enacted against anyone intentionally trying to procure or groom children under the age of 16 for sexual activity, which is illegal.
Section 66EB of the NSW Crimes Act doesn’t use the term “catfishing”, but says adults using the internet, telephone, computer image or video to groom, procure or meet a child for unlawful sexual activity can get 12 years in jail, or 15 years if the child is under the age of fourteen.
Section 66EB(4) says it is a crime for an adult to pretend to be a child on the internet to try to meet children, even if they are communicating with an adult. This enables police to charge a person even if they weren’t actually communicating with a child, but thought they were.
Carly’s Law introduced by federal government in 2017
The federal government brought in the so-called “Carly’s Law” in 2017, after a notorious 2007 case of a 50-year-old paedophile who used 200 fake online profiles of young men to prey on underage girls, resulting in the assault and murder of 15-year-old Carly Ryan. (See R v Newman  SASCFC 36.)
Carly’s Law can be found in section 474.25C of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act. This law makes it a crime for an adult even to plan or prepare to use a “carriage service” – internet or telephone – to misrepresent age or gender with the intention of grooming children for sex. The penalty is ten years’ jail.
Shortly after it became law, Federal Police used Carly’s Law to charge an Adelaide man for using fake online identities to procure children, as well as 14 other child sexual exploitation offences.