Catfishing Isn’t Illegal, But It Can Be a Way to Facilitate Serious Criminal Offences

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By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Melbourne northern suburbs woman Lydia Abdelmalek was found guilty in Heidelberg Magistrates’ Court in mid-April on multiple crime’s relating to her online harassment of six people. Arrested after her home was raided in April 2016, the 29-year-old is to be sentenced in June.

Abdelmalek weaved a complicated online deceit, conning an airline stewardess in her mid-20s, referred to as Emma, into believing she was her old primary school friend and then Home and Away star Lincoln Lewis. The total stranger was able to make Emma believe the pair were in a relationship.

After Emma confirmed with the real Lewis that the person online wasn’t him, Abdelmalek then convinced her that she was really Michael Smith, before later revealing Smith’s actual identity to be Danny MacGreene: a struggling British actor, who was hiding from a stalking ex-girlfriend.

Luring someone into a relationship using a fake online persona – as Abdelmalek did to Emma – is known as catfishing. Via this process, Abdelmalek was able to persuade Emma that Michael had been kidnapped at one stage and threatened to reveal her intimate photos to her employer.

As a result of this harassment, Emma eventually took her own life last year, but not before she became acquainted with Jess – an older single mother-of-one – who had also been convinced by Abdelmalek that she was in an online intimate relationship with Lincoln Lewis.

Catfishing can constitute stalking

Catfishing, in itself, is not illegal under Australian laws. Assuming another name on a social media platform or using a photo of someone else online, are not behaviours that are outlawed. And people don’t always assume these alter egos to commit crimes – although, some people do.

In the case of Ms Abdelmalek, her online catfishing conduct led to her being convicted of stalking six different individuals. Stalking is the crime of persistently behaving in a way towards another individual in order to harass them, cause them fear or exercise control over them.

Abdelmalek was caught by police when security cameras captured her depositing money into a bank account. This followed Victorian detectives suggesting to Jess that she ask the online persona for financial help in fixing the screen of her mobile phone.

If the offender had been operating out of NSW, she would have been charged with stalking or intimidation with intent to cause fear of physical or mental harm, contrary to section 13 of the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW).

For an individual to be found guilty of this crime they had to be aware their conduct was likely to cause fear, but the prosecution doesn’t have to prove the victim felt scared. A convicted offender can be sentenced to up to 5 years imprisonment and/or fined $5,500.

Assuming a role for financial gain

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) warns there are increasing numbers of catfishers assuming fake profiles on dating apps and social media sites in order to lure those looking for romantic partners into unwittingly handing over money or sensitive personal details.

Indeed, according to ACCC figures, just last month, there were 320 reports of online catfishing scams, with $1,036,714 being reported lost. Fifty five percent of those fleeced were women, while 35 percent of the scams were conducted over social networking websites and apps.

Peter is a retired tyre-fitter and pensioner from Dubbo. A few years back, when he was 66 years old, he became acquainted with a woman on an online dating site, and pretty soon, the two were speaking over the phone on a daily basis.

A few weeks after being acquainted, Peter believed they were in a relationship, and the woman would be moving in with him. And that’s when she started asking him for money. It started off with $500, but, soon afterwards, Peter had handed over $9,500. And the offender got away with it.

However, if the catfisher had been caught in this state deceiving online Peter to gain financial advantage, they could have been charged with fraud, under section 192E of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). And if convicted, they would have been liable to up to 10 years behind bars.

Carly’s Law

On 31 March 2010, 50-year-old Garry Newman was sentenced to 29 years imprisonment by the South Australian Supreme Court over the 2007 murder of 15-year-old Carly Ryan. Newman had been catfishing the underage girl online, pretending to be a young guitarist named Brandon Kane.

The paedophile had over 200 online fake personas that he was using to try and set up meetings with underage girls, whom he wanted to engage in sex with. After Ms Ryan knocked back his sexual advances on an initial visit, Newman returned, took her to a beach, suffocated and drowned her.

Sonya Ryan, the girl’s mother, went onto campaign for the establishment of a law to prevent online predators from hunting down children. And in June 2017, federal parliament passed legislation that established what became known as Carly’s Law.

Section 474.25C of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) contains the offence of “using a carriage service to prepare or plan to cause harm to, engage in sexual activity with, or procure for sexual activity, persons under 16.” And this offence carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in gaol.

Catfishing charge dropped

An Adelaide man was the first person to be charged with Carly’s Law in August 2017. The charge was one amongst a total of 14 that the 35-year-old was facing in relation to contacting children online and lying about his age and gender with the alleged aim of engaging in sexual activity.

However, the Carly’s Law charge was dropped in March last year, as the Commonwealth prosecutors upgraded the case against the man, focusing on some of the more serious crimes which carried tougher penalties.

Ms Ryan said it was important the law she established was better defined. “The intent of Carly’s Law was to give police the power to intervene before harm occurs,” she told The Advertiser. “We know police across Australia are using it, but I want to make sure it can also be successfully prosecuted.”

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